By Alan Crandall
Twenty four years ago Drew Emmitt of The Left Hand String Band sat in with Vince Herman’s Salmon Heads at the Mill site for a gig. That was the beginnings for a now favorite Colorado Band, Leftover Salmon. Next the group played a new year’s show in Crested Butte in 1989, maybe the first official LS show. And then the magic happened at the Telluride Bluegrass festival when an impromptu campground jam session introduced Vince and Drew to banjo player Mark Vann. The rest as they say is history.
Today Leftover Salmon is at the top of the jam grass circuit selling out shows and performing at festivals from coast to coast. Spreading their Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass and redefining the kind of music a string band can perform.
Like all bands with the staying power of 24 years Leftover Salmon has seen many changes. After the passing of Mark Vann in 2002 to cancer, the band went through some tough times and even went on hiatus for a couple of years. Members worked on on their own projects like Vince Herman’s Great American Taxi and Drew’s Emmit/Nershi band teaming up with Billy Nershi of the String Cheese Incident. It was in the Emmit/Nershi band that they discovered Andy Thorn. Thorn, still in his twenties was already an accomplished banjo player that had won the Rockygrass banjo and band contest in 2003 and 2005.
Once Thorn sat in with Leftover Salmon the band found new life. They began hitting the festival circuit and put out their first album in 8 years “Aquatic Hitchhiker.”
Now the Leftover Salmon is back in full swing, again selling out shows and creating new music. The band just got back from Suwanee Springfest and have been in the studio all week recording new songs to release this summer. It is here that Rocky Mountain Jams caught up with Drew Emmitt, Salmon’s mandolin, guitar and fiddle player who was kind enough to offer up an interview.
RMJ: Hi Drew, thank you for talking with us today, is this a good time.
DREW: Yeah, we’re actually in the studio.
RMJ: That’s great news. You’re cutting new tracks that you’re going to release in conjunction with a brewery?
DREW: Yes we’re right now working on six tracks to go with Breckenridge Brewery. And if we have time we’re trying to get a full record out of it. It’s going great. We didn’t think we had anything. All of a sudden we show up at the studios and everyone’s got some great ideas, and we’ve got some really cool songs coming together, it’s exciting.
RMJ: So this is all new songs, previously unrecorded?
DREW: It’s all brand new, YEP! And we’re basically collaborating in the studio, and coming up with all this new material. It’s really fun and exciting.
RMJ: I know in the past you’ve collaborated with other artists on your albums, is there anybody else in the mix?
DREW: Um, not really. I mean not so far. A couple of the tunes I sort of brain stormed with Bill Nershi, so he’s a bit of a part of it but at this point I’d say that it’s all within the band.
RMJ: I heard you got a little soggy this weekend down in Florida at Suwanee Springfest?
DREW: Oh yeah it was great. Yes it was a really fun time. Yes we did get a little soggy. And in fact we did spend most of Saturday in the hotel room; but it was a great festival, it was a lot of fun.
RMJ: Are you thinking about doing a live album anytime soon in Salmon’s future?
DREW: Not really, there’s really no plans to do that. No. We originally planned to do this record and do another one in the fall. As far as things are going this might be our main focus now and just work on getting this out. We’re just going to go with the flow and see what happens at this point. It’s great because we got the creative juices flowing, you know? There’s no telling where it’s going to lead.
NOTE: Get your free live Leftover Salmon HERE.
RMJ: Is the New Year’s gig in Crested Butte in ’89 considered the first Leftover Salmon show?
DREW: Pretty much, although we did a gig at the mill site with was the Salmon Heads and I went and sat in along with our bass player from Left Hand String Band. So that might have been one of the earlier incarnations. But really where it all started was Telluride. When we were all in the campground and we decided to enter the band contest, and also play a gig at the Roma. So that was probably really the incarnation of LS, what was going on in the Telluride campground.
RMJ: You guys met Mark Vann there in Telluride, right?
DREW: That’s exactly right and that was that year.
RMJ: What would you say is the biggest difference between the Salmon of 20 years ago and the Salmon of today?
DREW: Well there are a lot of differences. There are some new people in the band. We’re definitely a lot more refined. And we’ve learned a lot. We’ve been doing this for almost 24 years. And the original band was kind of a conglomerate between the Salmon Heads and the Left Hand String Band, and we were trying to find our “sea-legs” and figure out what it was this band was going to be. And there was an accordion player so it was a little more Cajun-ey, and a little less bluegrass and rock-n-roll. And I think now we’re more defined by our originals, as well. Basically back then we were throwing songs together and doing covers; we had a few originals. Now we have a whole lot more originals and I think we’ve defined ourselves a lot more since then.
RMJ: I heard Vince say once that you guys have a repertoire of something like 400 songs you can draw from at any one time.
DREW: mm-hmm. Yeah we’ve got quite a few. And we’ve got some we don’t do real often, only every once in a while. But yeah there’s quite a catalogue to work from.
RMJ: Are you guys gonna be ready to perform one of these new songs this weekend at your gigs at the Bluebird?
DREW: I think so. I think we’re going to be able to bust out with a couple of them. We’ll just see how brave we get. But also we’ve got a special guest coming in today. Sugar Blue from Chicago. Great, great harmonica player. He’s been tracking with us. He’s on the Rolling Stone’s “Some Girls” album. You know that harmonica line to “Miss You,” that’s Sugar Blue. Yeah so we’ll get to feature him the next couple of nights. Yeah we’re really looking forward to this run of shows it should be a blast.
RMJ: Salmon’s got a lot of gigs coming up. What about Emmitt/Nershi? Anything on the calendar?
DREW: Well we’re kind of stepping back from that. There’s really no plans, there’s nothing on the books for Emmitt Nershi Band. I think that Billy and I both felt like it was time to focus on Salmon and String Cheese. And I think Billy also felt like he wanted to be home more. And so we just decided to step back from that. And at this point there’s really no plans to do anything. We’ll see. If some things come up then we’ll entertain the thought. But at this point that band is officially on hiatus, (laughs) until further notice.
RMJ: We were lucky enough to catch you and Andy at the Boulder Theater the other night. That was a very cool performance. Do you think there might be any more of that in the future?
DREW: We’re doing a thing at the Mishawaka, opening for Head For The Hills on May 18. We’re going to do a trio with Andy Hall from String Dusters on DoBro. Yeah, we’re going to kind of fill in here and there. I’m going to get my band going again. Probably more a bluegrass context. But it’s really nice right now to just focus on Salmon. You know the last few years were so busy. Once Salmon got going again you know the Emmitt Nershi Band was tracking too. And I was never home. So it’s nice to focus on Salmon right now. Andy and I, we’ve got a pretty busy year ahead of us.
RMJ: Who picks the songs when you go out to do a show? Is that a collaborative thing?
DREW: As far as set lists? It’s kind of my job, although everybody pitches in a little bit. Usually I’ll go to a quiet place and come up with a set list. And then present them. It’s just kind of something I’ve always done. And I just kind of feel like it’s my forte. I kind of envision the sets and break it up into main events and mix up the styles if possible. Of course once we hit the stage anything can happen. We’re not the kind of band that will stick hard and fast to a set list. In fact it’s kind of a rarity when we actually play the list exactly as it’s written. (laughs)
RMJ: So we did a little research about your history. You started to play guitar when you were 5. Banjo a little bit later and then took Mandolin lessons with Tim O’Brian. Did you come from a musical family?
DREW: Yes, and my parents were writers as well. My dad was a novelist. And my mom was a playwright and a poet. And they were both singers. And my mom played the piano. And my dad played the autoharp a little bit. But he was a really great singer and came from a long line of singers. And my brother played guitar and harmonica. And my older sister writes plays as well. So there’s a lot of writing going on in the family, that’s for sure. There was always a lot of music around.
RMJ: Thank you for talking with us today, we are really looking forward to the shows at the Bluebird.
Drew: Thank you.