By Peter Cronin
Fats Kaplin’s Multi-Instrumental Mystery
What do Manhattan Transfer, Jack White, and the Judds have in common? On the surface, one would have to say, not a whole lot. But each of these very different musical stylists has counted at one time or another on the one-man “string” section known as Fats Kaplin. Long established among Nashville’s country and Americana crowd as a first-call multi-instrumentalist, Kaplin is a master of fiddle, guitar, pedal steel, oud, and just about anything with strings. Oh, and he knows his way around an accordion as well.
“It’s not like I’m intentionally trying to be diverse,” he says. “I play a lot of intruments, but I have never, ever played an instrument just because I thought it would be good for business. Everything I play, it’s because it fascinated me.”
Growing up with artist parents in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Kaplin’s world overflowed with all kinds of music – wafting up from the street, from the apartment next door, or from the family’s TV set. While most musicians of his generation experienced their big life-changing moment the night the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, Kaplin’s musical ephiphany came via PBS.
“There was a show that Pete Seeger had on public TV called Rainbow Quest, Kaplin says. “He would play banjo and I had started playing banjo. I was watching the show when the New Lost City Ramblers were on, and I was profoundly impressed. It was an authentic string band, and they were young men. I became fascinated with this.”
His newfound obsession led him to the nearby Lincoln Center Library, where he tracked down those New Lost City Ramblers LPs, unearthing the entire Folkways catalog in the process. Combing through the album credits, Kaplin was soon digging deeper, discovering the artists and songwriters that influenced his folk contemporaries.
“The music that grabbed me was Dave Van Ronk, Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and the 78s of early blues and jazz, and weird world recordings,” he says. “This was before you could look on your computer. You had to figure it out. I would listen to a record and say, ‘How is he tuning? What is he saying?’ I love that element of mystery. That’s the reason I started playing.”
Whether he’s performing jazz and swing music at Carnegie Hall, standing way up on a riser playing blistering rock songs on White’s Blunderbuss tour, or picking bluegrass at Nashville’s cozy Station Inn, Kaplin brings a high level of virtuosity, a deep sense of history, and just a touch of that mystery to everything he plays.
After fruitful early recording and touring stints with artists including Roy Bookbinder and The Tom Russell Band, Kaplin relocated to Nashville in 1992, where he recorded several acclaimed indie releases with Americana pioneers Kevin Welch and Kieran Kane under the Dead Reckoning banner, and became an in-demand session player. Kaplin also met his future wife, singer/songwriter Kristi Rose, with whom he writes and records what the couple describes as “Pulp Country.”
Along the way, Kaplin found the time to release two solo LPs. Recorded with Nashville iconoclast George Bradfute at his Tone Chapparal studio, The Fatman Cometh (2006) and World Of Wonder (2009), have now been dusted off and re-issued as a 2-CD “deluxe” edition. Taken together, the records provide a deeply satisfying glimpse into the quirky musical universe of a unique and gifted artist. Listening back to these earlier efforts, Kaplin is reminded of the eclectic influences that originally inspired him and still keep him coming back for more.
“It’s funny, but sometimes I’ll think that inspiration is lost,” Kaplin says. “Then I’ll hear a recording or an old 78 or something, and I’ll say, ‘That is so stunningly beautiful.’ And I have faith again in the entire process.”