On The String: Leftover Salmon’s Founders On 30 Years Of (Mostly) Steady Swimming

Mar 2, 2020

The Grateful Dead spawned not one but two jam band movements. Its electric, psychedelic rock and roll road was followed by Phish, Widespread Panic and others. But the band regularly unplugged in tribute to its jug band and bluegrass origins, creating a template for freewheeling acoustic bands like New Grass Revival and Greensky Bluegrass. Leftover Salmon, among the most eclectic and beloved veterans of jamgrass, turned 30 years old on New Year’s Day.

The two surviving founders of the Colorado icons, guitar-playing frontman Vince Herman and dextrous mandolinist Drew Emmitt, have been on tour as an acoustic duo in celebration of the band anniversary. On a stop at Nashville’s City Winery, they sat down for a wide-ranging conversation for Episode 120 of The String. 

“We’re calling it a victory Lap. But then the president used that term today, so I don’t know,” says Herman at the outset of our conversation. “I think we’re still on a victory lap. Drew and I have been doing this thing for 30 years. We’ve probably been playing music for 35 years. We’re celebrating the good times by having more.

That 35 year mark harkens back to one of the more fated and novelistic band origin stories. Herman was in his fifth year of college in Morgantown, WV with winter coming on and living in the attic of a house with no electricity. He’d been hearing stories from friends about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and he’d been loving the music of the innovative Hot Rize from Boulder. 

“I figured hey it’s time to make a move,” he says. “So I hooked up with a buddy and jumped in his 1957 Volvo station wagon and headed for Colorado and the mythical bluegrass lands.” They pulled into town at night and parked in front of a bar with a sign that said “Bluegrass Music Tonight.” And inside was Drew Emmitt and his Left Hand String Band. “Sure enough it was the bluegrass mecca we’d been searching for.”

When Vince’s band of a few years later, The Salmon Heads, joined Emmitt’s band for a New Year’s Eve show, the combination proved so potent that the one-off became a band. The third key element was banjo player Mark Vann, an eccentric, fearless player who practiced obsessively and whose blend of Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck styles gave Salmon its distinct bluegrass core. From there they reached, embracing Louisiana music, reggae and polka and fusing a sound they called Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass. 

What they became though was a particularly intelligent jam band, who honed a repertoire of party-ready songs and a way of managing on-stage energy, flow and climax, that came straight from the innovations of the Grateful Dead. “The first time I felt that was at Red Rocks. It was ’77 or ’78 with The Dead,” Emmitt tells WMOT. “I felt this wave go through the crowd like I’d never felt before. I grew up seeing a lot of great music, but I’d never felt that before. It went through my body.”

Vince says the Salmon approach to collective improvising reminds him of something he learned in acting classes years ago. “It’s called ‘following the follower’ when you can feel the band interacting with each other you’re part of it. That allows the fourth wall to fall and the audience comes in and all of a sudden the music plays the band, as they say.”

 

“We’ve gotten to do some shows with (Dead bassist) Phil Lesh,” Emmitt says. “And he would tell us, ‘everybody just play at once.’ He wasn’t about individual soloists. He said to create a palette of music where everybody is adding something at the same time, where it’s not sequed off into each solo. It was a great experience for us to play with Phil and understand that approach. It’s everybody playing at once, but not playing over each other, playing off each other.”

Marking the 30th anniversary of Salmon is a massive vinyl box set called Thirty Years Under The Big Top, featuring the band’s full studio output from 1993’s Bridges To Bert to the acclaimed 2018 opus Something Higher, plus Live, the one album the band released on Nashville’s Compass Records. Also out, a new band biography by Tim Newby called Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival! The festival continues as Salmon, with the most accomplished instrumental lineup it's ever had, tours all spring and summer.