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Vince Herman Adds The High Hawks To His Busy Jamgrass Life

Michael Weintrob

I have a pretty clear memory of the first time I saw Leftover Salmon, because I was relatively new to the church of bluegrass, and I was ready to meet the heretics. The band set up on the old Hillside Stage at Merlefest in western North Carolina, and I’m pretty sure it was the Colorado band’s first show there - in 1995. The drums and the electric banjo and the fusion and fury of what they were calling Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass was thrilling and danceable and wonderfully weird. And Sam Bush was their friend, so it just had to be okay.

Nowadays, we count Leftover Salmon among the veterans and legends of progressive bluegrass and jamgrass, and even as the band has been through a number of personnel changes, at its heart are founding members Drew Emmit and Vince Herman. I had Drew and Vince on The String in 2020 when they swung through Nashville on a duo tour celebrating 30 years as a band. Now, four years later, the chance came to catch up with Vince, because he’s moved to the Nashville area and because he’s got a lot going on - not one, not two, but three bands.

Leftover Salmon played about 85 shows in 2023, Herman estimates. He chalked up about another 80 dates fronting his own band, touring in support of his first solo album, 2022’s Enjoy The Ride. And the proximal cause of our get-together for Episode 277 of The String was his most recent side hustle - The High Hawks. They did about 20 shows last year and expect more as they tour behind their sophomore album Mother Nature’s Show. Released on February 16, it’s taken up a comfortable residency in the top ten Americana album charts.

Besides Vince Herman, the High Hawks features keyboard player Chad Staehly, bassist Brian Adams and drummer Will Trask, all from the boogie rock band Great American Taxi, plus Adam Greuel of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades on guitar, and Tim Carbone, the fiddler from Railroad Earth. The album has an easy vibe with mostly concise songs that come from nearly every member of the band. They were friends who put together a tour of Colorado around 2021 and when they pooled original songs that had been looking for homes, they had enough to record and release a self-titled album in June of that year.

Mother Nature’s Show is a validation of the concept with even better songwriting. It starts with the gentle waltz of “Diamond Sky” and Herman’s romping “Somewhere South,” both songs about escaping to somewhere lovelier. “Fox River Blues” has some of the best jamming on the album. And as the collection moves along, Herman says the guys realized there was a journey implied in its 12 songs, from the frigid north down the Mississippi River and Highway 61 to joyous times in New Orleans, as expressed in the second line groove of “Shine Your Blues.”

“One of the great things about the High Hawks is we kind of play different roles than we do in our other bands,” Herman says. “Myself and Adam never play electric guitar in our or other setup. So here it was a chance to be rock and rollers of a different kind. And for folks who've been doing this for a while, to find a new outlet is a lot of fun. And that's really what the High Hawks are based on - that idea of doing something a little different than the other projects and digging into our country rock backgrounds.”

We revisit Herman’s roots music growth spurt when he was growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. “(When) I was in probably eighth grade, I went to the Smoky City Folk Festival in Pittsburgh and saw like 40 people under this shade tree, playing old time music. And I'd never seen that happen,” Herman told me. It “just blew me away and kind of put together the social aspect of music that I didn't quite know existed. There’s 40 people playing this tune under a tree and some of them just met each other! And you know, WOW. So if you learn these tunes, you can travel and go to places and meet people and have this kind of fun. I'm in!”

Next came college in Morgantown, WV, where deep roots were even more exposed. Herman found friends and mentors in the old-time scene and became a denizen of the Augusta Heritage Festival nearby. So by the time he set out for Colorado, chasing stories of its groovy bluegrass scene, he was steeped in the music. His first night in Boulder he followed a Live Bluegrass sign into a bar where he met Drew Emmitt and the rest is history.

Herman lived in Colorado for thirty years but finally made a move when the pandemic interrupted his everlasting tour and gave him a case of cabin fever. “So I bought an RV and went roving around to see friends in my own little bubble and ended up here,” he says of Music City. It wasn’t just the setting he liked. It was the Nashville way of co-writing, something he’d scarcely tried. “We wrote like eight songs in a day, and it just blew my mind that that sort of creativity was going on here, and I had to get more. So I eventually ended up driving my RV back to Colorado packing up my stuff and coming back. And it's been a great venture.”

Also in the hour, a catch-up phone call with in-demand, way-out banjo player Kyle Tuttle. He came to Nashville more than a decade ago after study at Berklee College of Music and even more important, the bars and jams of the Boston string band scene. He’s worked with a bunch of progressive bluegrass figures, in particular the late Jeff Austin, as well as Larry Keel, the Travelin McCourys and Billy Strings. He’s had a big two years touring with Molly Tuttle as part of her Golden Highway band, up to and including sharing in the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy Award this winter. Now he’s followed his one solo album (2015’s Bobcat) with Labor Of Lust, a mix of songs and instrumentals that bear his unique stamp and a hot cast of fellow musicians.

Michael Weintrob2022

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>