To put it succinctly, John Salaway is a versatile musician. Aside from the fact that he can singlehandedly play guitar, drums, keyboard and bass, he also taps into a wide variety of musical templates as well. In addition to his own pair of albums and a reputation as a superb session player, he frequently performs at the helm of a Beatles tribute band called Forever Abbey Road when he’s not singing solo or playing in the company of such luminaries as Peter Frampton, Denny Laine, Ben Folds and Anderson East, among the many.
It’s little wonder then that he once was cited as “Nashville Indie Pop Artist of the Year” by Indie Ville TV.
Yet despite that verve and versatility, Salaway still maintains a strict reverence for his roots. The son of a professional drummer, he gleaned his early influences from his dad’s record collection and watching his father’s bands as a child while growing up.
Salaway said he was introduced to the blues through the bands he listened to early on — he cites Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Cream as his early influences — but he eventually took an interest in the sources themselves.
“I realized they were doing their version of early American music,” Salaway said, speaking by phone on his way home from a gig the night before. “Once I found out where the music came from, I dug into Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and all the other great blues artists. I’ve always had a great interest in that kind of music, and I feel very connected to it now.”
By the time Salaway was 15, he was playing professionally with a jazz combo he formed while in high school. Later he performed both as a solo artist and in a band with his dad and brothers at various local clubs and venues in Southwest Florida, the place he and his family called home. After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University with a music business degree, he moved to Nashville some 15 years ago and never looked back. In addition to a role as a musician on call, he also began working as a booking agent, a job that introduced him to several members of the city’s musical elite.
“After I began acquiring credits, I slowly made my way into those various musical circles,” he said. “I feel like I gave a lot of opportunities to other people, and so I’m glad that it’s come back around.”
Indeed, the contacts he made served him well and enabled him to diversify his talents and his opportunities. (He cites his friend, producer and songwriter Gordon Kennedy in particular as the individual who helped introduce him to Peter Frampton and some of the others he’s played with.)
“I’ve always been fascinated by all aspects of the music business,” Salaway said. “I wanted to learn drums, I wanted to learn guitar, I wanted to learn bass, to play keys. I’ve always had a desire to learn it all and I’m so grateful for the work.”
Over the years, Salaway’s reputation has continued to grow. His 2013 album “The Song in the Air” won an impressive number of kudos, including being named by several sources as the best independent pop/rock release of the year.
These days, he divides his time between booking bands at a Murfreesboro venue called Hop Springs, producing other artists and playing his own shows, both solo and with his band, John Salaway and the Stones River Saints. When he’s not on the road, he performs weekly at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Nashville where he opens for King’s former backing band. He’s also composed several songs for film and television and racked up various endorsement deals from leading musical instrument manufacturers.
His upcoming album, “Americana Dreams,” is due for release at the end of October and was slated to be produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. Sadly, Emerick passed away two months before the sessions were slated to start, so Salaway ended up producing it himself at home. He describes the album as his love letter of sorts to those artists that typified the early Americana trajectory — Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and Tom Petty, chief among them. The album will be preceded by its first single, a song titled “A Little Bit Broken.”
“It’s been an essential part of my sound for years,” he said of the Americana influence. “My other albums deviated from that a little bit, but this brings me back to my roots. There are a lot of bluesy things on there, but it also shows off my versatility and a style which spans blues, pop and Americana.”
His upcoming gig at The Open Chord in West Knoxville for the Smoky Mountain Blues Society will, naturally enough, emphasize his bluesier basics.
“It’s music that comes from the soul,” he said of the genre. “It’s relevant to everyone, no matter whether they’re feeling up or feeling down or feeling somewhere in between. It’s literally the roots of all forms of American music. It’s all connected.”
Still, Salaway said he’s not afraid to stretch the parameters. His one-man show finds him recording himself live during the performance and then integrating them into his delivery by building up layers as he goes along. His set will consist of covers as well as originals including at least a couple of songs from his upcoming album.
“I love all kinds of music,” he said. “It all speaks to me in different ways.”