Fresh Funky Cajun Leftover Goodness

Interview with Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon

Ryan Neeley exclusively for Appalachian Jamwich

After patiently waiting eight years, fans of the genre-defying supergroup Leftover Salmon have a lot to rejoice about, with a plethora of fresh material to delight your eardrums and a tour across North America culminating with a three-day New Years throw-down in the mid-west.   Reenergized by their new album Aquatic Hitchhiker, with banjo picking phenom Andy Thorn (Emmitt-Nershi Band) joining the fray, Salmon is back with fury, and is a force to be reckoned with.

Formed in Boulder, CO in 1989 with Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt and Mark Vann,  Leftover Salmon has gone from somewhat of a novelty to a powerhouse of bluegrass with their signature “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass”, forging the way for such artists as Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass and the up-and-coming Rumpke Mountain Boys while turning legions of fans on to traditional bluegrass like Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers .   “Every mandolin player needs to learn how to play him (Monroe).  David Grisman, Sam Bush, all those guys influenced my playing in some way.  I try to be progressive while still staying true to form of traditional bluegrass,” mandolin master Emmitt stated in a recent phone interview with Appalachian Jamwich and Buckeye Music Magazine in advance of their 2012 fall North American tour, which kicks off Tuesday, October 2nd at Mr. Smalls in Pittsburgh, PA .

Drew Emmitt was born in Nashville, TN and started playing guitar at the age of five and found the banjo when he was eight.  Influenced by Hot Rize, Tim O’Brien and David Grisman,  he got his first mandolin, bought by his mother for $80, at the age of 18, “I wish I still had that thing for nostalgic purposes, at least,” Emmitt stated.   “I had been playing banjo and it’s difficult to sing while playing the banjo, but with the mandolin it was a little easier.  Actually, the first mandolin playing I heard was Jimmy Page – Battle of Evermore – And then of course I listened to a lot of Tim O’Brien, David Grisman and Sam Bush – traditional players with a twist – the more progressive styles.”

He moved to Boulder, CO to attend Colorado University and in 1984 formed the bluegrass group The Left Hand String Band, which was named after an area in the state.  In 1989, he and Vince Herman of the Salmon Heads joined up, almost by chance when Herman asked some members of the Left Hand String Band (Emmitt, Vann and Glenn Keefe) to fill in for some shows.   The partnership blossomed into Leftover Salmon, and they have shared the stage with some of the most accomplished musicians and legends in the game today, from Del McCoury to Sam Bush.   But at first people just didn’t get it, which seems amazing now with the rising popularity of new-grass and roots music.  “It was unheard of,” recalled Emmitt, speaking with Charleston City Paper during an April snowstorm from his home in Crested Butte, Colo. “People were like, ‘What do you guys do? You play bluegrass on electric instruments?

After touring relentlessly throughout the 90’s, garnering fans along the way with their ultra high-energy performances, and roaring into the new century like a runaway train, the band lost one of their original members, banjo virtuoso Mark Vann, to cancer in 2002.   “After Mark died, we tried to go on and we had accomplished musicians playing with us, but for whatever reason, things didn’t work out.  Walking onstage that first time without Mark was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done,” Emmitt stated.  In 2004 they decided to go on hiatus, much to the dismay of their fans and at a time when the genre was hitting its peak.   The members pursued solo and side projects and got together periodically throughout the next eight years, tantalizing fans hungry for a helping of Leftover goodness.   But now their back, focusing their energies on satisfying those cravings in a way reminiscent old Salmon, staying true to the form that brought them success while expanding their catalogue with selections you normally wouldn’t associate with” traditional” Cajun-infused funkadelic new-grass.

Leftover Salmon’s first new album since the hiatus, Aquatic Hitchhiker, is pure Leftover Salmon goodness.  The recipe they used included bringing in banjo shredder Andy Thorn, who Emmitt found pickin under a tree at Telluride Bluegrass Festival.  “That’s kind of my job – to find the banjo player – I’m not sure why,” quipped the curly-haired mando master.   When Andy joined the band, it just FIT.   He fits the vibe of Salmon, plus he’s cool to hang out and travel with, which is a must..”  Also brought in to produce the album was Los Lobos producer Steve Berlin, and the recipe is sure to please Salmon purists, traditional country and newgrass fans alike.   The Emmitt written song Gulf of Mexico is a Cajun-inspired backwater nugget of joy, with a contagious backbeat and pertinent lyrics, “things a little different round here these days.. since the storm and the spill drove all the people away”.  “I wrote that song one day when we were down there with The Emmitt-Nershi band, and I was sitting on the beach thinking to myself, ‘Man, these people down here really went through a tough time and they’ve cleaned everything up.’   It’s beautiful down there, and I wanted people to realize that and to maybe help get people to come back there,” Emmitt said.

When asked what Salmon fans can expect on the fall tour, Emmitt stated proudly, “We’ve been playing shows throughout the summer and we’re playing some songs off our new album (Aquatic Hitchhiker) along with a lot of old (Salmon) favorites.  It’s a lot of fun and people seem to like it.”  As for side projects, he said, ”We’re really focusing on Salmon.   We played in our side bands for a while – The Emmitt-Nershi Band (with Bill Nershi of String Cheese Incident) and the Drew Emmitt Band will play periodically –but really we’re going to focus on our “big” bands Leftover Salmon and String Cheese.  We decided that we’ve had our time with those projects and now it’s time to focus on our main projects again.”  And Leftover Salmon fans, many of whom would swim upstream for a chance to see them again, couldn’t be happier.