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Rowland Salley’s All About the Bass

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He may be a musical success who’s toured with Chris Isaak, Rowland Salley has never forgotten about his hometown of Belvidere.

Rowland Salley (Patti Stirk photo)

Rowland Salley (Patti Stirk photo)

Rowland “Roly” Salley looks back on one year in his life, in the mid-1960s, where he can pinpoint three events that led him to what he is today – a successful musician who’s played with some of the all-time greats, and for the past 30 years, the bass player for Chris Isaak’s band, Silvertone. It all started in his hometown of Belvidere.

In high school, Salley was a member of the Belvidere track team. He’s was pretty good, setting a few records along the way. But when he opted to grow his hair long, like many of his classmates, Salley’s coach gave him two choices.

“He gave me an ultimatum: Show up with a crew cut or get off the team,” Salley says, before pausing. “That’s how I got my start in music.”

During his senior year in 1967, tragedy struck Belvidere, when a devastating tornado ripped through town on April 21, as school was being dismissed. The tornado killed 24 people, including 13 children, and injured hundreds more. Salley was unharmed, but the disaster shook him to the core.

“The tornado rearranged my priorities,” he says. “I walked away with the mindset that if I was going to do something in life, I better do it soon. You just never know.”

The final straw was high school graduation. That’s when his mother told Salley he needed to find a full-time job. For many Belvidere residents, that meant seeking work at Chrysler. “I went to the hiring line at Chrysler and stood behind 400 people for what seemed like hours,” Salley says. “The closer I got to the front, the more nervous and uptight I became. I was terrified. When I got to the window I turned around and bolted. ‘I’m not going to do this,’ I told myself. ‘I’m going to play music.’”

And that’s exactly what Salley, who now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., has done ever since.

Belvidere Roots

Salley was born in Belvidere to Robert and Dorothy Salley. He’s one of three children; his twin sister, Rita, and older brother, Brad, still call Belvidere home. His mother remains in the family home; Robert died in 2004.

Salley’s love of music started when he was 7. “I remember listening to Davey Allan and the Arrows,” he says. “They used an Apache fiddle, which is a bowed string instrument. I remember listening to that and thinking, ‘that’s the coolest sounding thing I’ve ever heard.’”

His dad introduced Salley to country music and the likes of Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. “My friends thought they were hokey; I thought they were geniuses,” he says.

But the best was yet to come. Salley discovered the Kinks, Four Tops and Booker T & the M.G.’s. “I listened to the radio a lot,” he says. “I remember walking past Woolworth’s and seeing a Beatles album in the window. I was thinking ‘Who are these guys?’”

In the summer of 1966, before his senior year in high school, Salley and a friend scored tickets to see the Rolling Stones and Beatles in concert.

In high school, Salley, along with a cousin, Richard Marshallsay, started a band. They had a drummer, guitar player and keyboardist, but needed a bass player. “That’s where I came in,” he says. The band, called the Group, played venues like Dodge Lanes, the Rumpus Room and the American Legion.

Still, Salley knew his future wasn’t in Belvidere. “It’s a great, small Midwest town,” he says. “But I had so much ambition and didn’t know how I would use it here.”

On the Road

After walking away from a possible future at Chrysler, Salley’s first move was to Madison, Wis,. where he formed a band called Oz. Over the years, he moved around to Boston, Denver, Woodstock, N.Y., and Toronto, looking for his musical break. While he wasn’t getting rich, Salley was making ends meet. “A couple of $20 bills in my pocket felt good,” he says. “But it was never about making money. It was about playing music.”

Salley paid the rent as a session bass player, working with such performers as folk-blues singer Maria Muldaur, John Sebastian and Paul Butterfield. In Toronto he played with David Wilcox and Ian and Sylvia. Later, he moved to Los Angeles, where he backed up such singers as Joan Baez and Bobbie Gentry, who was advertising for a bass player in a local newspaper. “I ran down there and got the gig,” says Salley. “She was really cool.”

Salley moved to San Francisco in 1983. Two years later, he met Chris Isaak and has performed with Silvertone ever since.

The early days were rough, as Isaak and the rockabilly-influenced band played every Bay Area bar and club, trying to make their name. Isaak’s third album, “Heart Shaped World,” proved to be a success, when famed director David Lynch used an instrumental version of Isaak’s song “Wicked Game” for the 1991 movie “Wild at Heart.” A disc jockey in Atlanta noticed the track and started playing Isaak’s album version – complete with vocals – on his station. The song soon caught on with listeners, and the album climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard pop charts.

“We were ready to hang it up,” says Salley. “We went on tour and no one was coming to see us. And then that song changed everything. You just never know what’s going to happen in this business.”

These days, Isaak and the band tour about five months a year. During long breaks, Salley works on his own material. Various artists have recorded his songs. John Prine and Shawn Colvin recorded his song “Killing the Blues.” In 2007, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s version of Salley’s song won a Grammy.

“I’ve been lucky,” says Salley. ‘I’m not the world’s best bass player and I’m not a virtuoso. I know some things. I’ve been persistent. I swore I’d never take another job and I haven’t.”

Salley, who says he’s been married to his musical quest all these years, devotes time to his other love – painting. Growing up, he was often found lying on the floor, drawing. Now he travels the world looking for the best backdrops. His watercolor paintings have been displayed in the Presidio of San Francisco. “It’s an adventure,” he says. “What I like about painting is I don’t have to ask permission. I’m free to paint the sky yellow if I want. But I never really know how it’s going to turn out.”

Despite a schedule that’s sometimes hectic, Salley gets back to Belvidere occasionally to visit family. It’s not uncommon to see him dressed in a tattered shirt and painter’s hat, doing handy work around his mother’s home.

Salley says it feels good to come home. It’s where he got his start. It’s where he honed his craft by taking an acoustic guitar into Boone County fields and playing for dozens of attentive cows. “I was always nervous playing in front of people,” he says. Now, he has no fear performing for crowds of 50,000 or more.

Fifty years into his career, Salley is still having fun.

“I’m getting better at what I do,” he says, smiling. “But I have plenty of room to grow.”

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