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Countless NPR fans in Santa Barbara start their weekday morning with the sound of Jonathan Bastian’s voice as the host of Morning Edition on KCRW. Little did we know that Bastian’s true talent is in his fingers, picking a banjo as part of the bluegrass quintet Salty Strings. Originally formed by UCSB grad students before Bastian hopped on, the band is headlining their first big gig at SOhO on Saturday, February 29. Bastian and mandolinist Danny Elkin, a founding member, answered a few of my questions recently.
You are a KCRW host by day. Have you always been a musician?
Jonathan Bastian: Definitely. I started piano and guitar at age 6 and minored in music in college. I was an early member in a band called The Low Anthem, which eventually got signed by Warner Brothers Records.
But my love for bluegrass developed when I worked for the NPR station in Louisville, Kentucky. That city is full of amazing musicians. I would also drive around the state listening to old-timers keeping the tradition alive.
When I moved to Santa Barbara, I met our mandolinist, Danny Elkin. He was playing in this trio called Salty Strings, and I realized they needed a banjo player. So, inspired by my time in Kentucky, I learned the instrument, and the rest is history.
How did the Salty Strings get started?
Danny Elkin: We all sort of found each other with a home base at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB. I first met Ilan Macadam-Somer (cello) in September of 2017, when I started school at UCSB, and shortly after found Zach Witter (guitar) through a mutual love of bluegrass. Jonathan Bastian (banjo) knew the crew and joined the band the following summer after teaching himself the banjo, and Kai Kopecky (bass) saw us playing at a show and noticed we didn’t yet have a bass player and offered up his services for the cause. We’re a bunch of nature lovers, avid surfers, with a similar passion for bluegrass and live music, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.
Where else have you been playing? Any records on the way?
DE: We’re all full-time workers/students with other jobs around town, so we play out as much as our schedules allow. We hit most of the breweries and wineries in town and play the occasional festival such as Earth Day.
Cold Spring Tavern is a staple of ours and really suits our music, but our favorite place to play is at the Douglas Nature Preserve on the Mesa on Sunday afternoons. We use this space to practice and run through new songs, and it’s actually proven pretty great in increasing our following, as people will be walking their dogs or strolling around for sunset and come across a bluegrass band under a setting sun, and it’s quite a magical experience.
After our big headlining debut at SOhO, we are actually going up to Santa Cruz to record our first-ever album with our originals and a few special covers. This is important to us just so we can begin to share our music with friends around the globe.
What is the state of bluegrass in Santa Barbara today?
JB: It’s on the rise. When you think of bluegrass, you often think of mountains or the roots in the southeast portion of this country. Well, we’ve discovered that bluegrass sounds just as good on the beach.
A big reason we love this style of music is because of the inspiration we’ve gathered through seeing concerts and the wonderful people and amazing scene that comes with bluegrass music. Live music brings people together, and we’ve truly seen that at our shows. They have become a sort of reunion for our friends to join together and celebrate our life and love together. Our goal is to inspire those around us to listen to more bluegrass, maybe even pick up an instrument of their own and begin to pick.
As small as Santa Barbara is, there are other bluegrass bands in town that we hope to collaborate with some day, and we are so excited to be joined by the Rose Valley Thorns and The Brambles to help us make the upcoming SOhO show all it can be.
What can folks expect at the show on February 29?
DE: A huge part of what makes this music so special is the energy, and we have some very high-level, energetic members in the band. We are debuting several new originals and some well-known covers that we think people will really enjoy. There will be a lot of smiling faces, and we hope for some serious audience engagement during this performance. It’s going to be a Leap Day Party, y’all!
4•1•1 | Salty Strings plays with the Rose Valley Thorns and The Brambles on Saturday, February 29, at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St). Call (805) 962-7776 or see sohosb.com.