Drew Emmitt talks Leftover Salmon and Brand New Good Old Days

It would be hard to deny Leftover Salmon’s overriding influence, not only on bluegrass, but on other thriving musical forms as well. Credited as one of the originators of that particular niche known as “jamgrass,” they’ve found themselves in a unique position, one that gives due reverence to bluegrass traditions while also advancing the populist precepts initiated early on by the Grateful Dead in particular and later, outfits like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and other those that came to be known for both their technical prowess and an ability to sustain a loyal fan following. 

While Leftover Salmon has continued to expand their template over the past three decades, they’ve still managed to stay true to their rural roots. Indeed, even as various members have come and gone — and still others have opted to simultaneously undertake solo sojourns — the band remains a cornerstone of the Colorado music scene, one that’s inspired any number of others in their wake, including Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, Trampled By Turtles, Yonder Mountain String Band, and the Steep Canyon Rangers. That said, their upcoming album, aptly dubbed Brand New Good Old Days, marks a return to their initial origins in more ways than one. For starters, it finds them firmly entrenched in the grassicana style they established early on. For another, it reunites them with Compass Records, the label that once released their past product. Yet true to Leftover Salmon’s sensibilities, there are an ample number of twists and turns tossed into the musical mix as well, including an unexpected take on the Soundgarden standard, Black Hole Sun, a version that transforms the doom and gloom of the original into a joyous upbeat bluegrass bonanza. 

Bluegrass Today recently had an opportunity to discuss the new album, as well as the group’s trajectory, with guitarist, mandolin player, singer, and songwriter Drew Emmitt, who co-founded the group with fellow Salmon stalwart Vince Hermann, nearly 30 years ago. We found the ever-so amiable Mr. Emmitt at his home in Crested Butte, Colorado, the place where he’s resided for the past 21  years. “I’m almost a local,” he declares. “Almost. That’s the joke.”

You guys have always been known as one of Colorado’s finest exports regardless, although Vince now lives in Nashville. So you’re spread out a bit more now.

That’s right. Yeah, he’s a Nashville guy now. I’m from there originally. I grew up there and then moved to Colorado in the ’70s.

You’re also something of a multitasker, given your various solo albums, and the fact that you helm your own band. You’ve always been a busy guy.

Yeah, well, up until this last year with the pandemic. That’s true for most of us.

So tell us about this new album. It marks a return to your former label, Compass Records, and brings you back to bluegrass, which is at the heart of your essential sound. And yet you opt for that Soundgarden cover that opens the album.

Yeah, I thought that would confuse everyone. Actually, we’ve been doing that for years. So it’s definitely nothing new for us.

Obviously, you’re a very eclectic outfit, and you bring in a lot of diverse elements to the sound. It goes without saying that your musical mix is as fascinating as you are. So tell us, what was the thought behind the new album?

Well, as usual, not much of one. (Laughs) We fly by the seat of our pants, pretty much in every way, which is what makes it fun. We were just feeling like we needed to get back in the studio. And though everybody kind of had some songs going, nothing was really that solid going into this recording, which is just like with the last record we made. In fact, we were finishing up songs as we were in the studio. And while we were on tour, we were able to spend some some time at the studio in Asheville, North Carolina, Echo Mountain, which is fabulous. It’s just a great vibe and a great sounding place. The studio itself really kind of had a lot of influence on how the album turned out. It’s very rootsy and down home, and I think that it kind of cast that sort of light on the entire project, because I feel like it’s it’s a pretty rootsy record for us, especially as far as the other covers that we do, like the John Hartford cover (Category Stomp) and the Conway Twitty cover (Boogie Grass Band), and it’s a little bit leaning towards Americana, more of a country sort of thing which is kind of where we’re at as a band. 

Still, you’re a hard band to precisely define.

Being the kind of band that’s very hard to pigeonhole, I feel like this album is a bit of a return to our roots. And it kind of has that flavor. Everybody brought some really cool material to the project, which is nice. This is the second recent record where everybody really contributed. Back in the day, it used to be that Vince and I would bring in the tunes, but now it’s become much more of a collective within the band, because everybody’s really developing as a songwriter. And that’s really fun. There’s been some really nice offerings from everyone.

Given that eclectic sensibility you possess, how do you manage to narrow down the song selection?

It’s not that hard, because it’s not like everybody throws tons of material at a project. Plus, I think we’re really open to people’s ideas. So it’s not a huge process. On the whole, as a group, we’re really supportive of each other’s writing and influence. So it goes pretty smoothly. There’s not a lot we don’t want to play. It’s never “I can’t believe you wrote that.” We’re all pretty open to each other’s influence. We’re just so excited when somebody writes a song — it’s like, “Oh, great, cool. Yeah, let’s play that.” So it was pretty easy. And as far as the covers, we had already recorded the Hartford tune for a Hartford compilation and we were lucky enough to be able to also put it on this record. As far as the Conway Twitty song, I credit Ronnie McCoury with that one because he brought that song to us years ago and said “You guys should play this, this is really kind of right up your alley.” And so we’ve kind of kept that in our back pocket. 

That all seems to fit, but Black Hole Sun, like you said, is certainly a surprise, and wholly unexpected.

It was just like an idea I had after listening to it one day. I thought it was the coolest chord progression… so interesting and haunting, and the words are just really, really interesting and bizarre. I was just kept captivated by it. I thought, what if we did had is a bluegrass version. So that’s kind of how that one came about. And it works pretty well as a bluegrass song I think. It’s pretty cool. I’m not sure what the guys in Soundgarden would think of it, but it does work well.

That’s part of your talent, to be able to make these musical transitions the way you do and actually fascinate people in the process, too. 

Thank you. Yeah, we like to keep it interesting, and I’ve been noticing that in our in our genre, whatever you might want to call it —  jam band, grassicana — there’s really been a movement towards doing covers. So we thought, well maybe we should do some interesting covers and as a result, that’s kind of where that idea was born. We were thinking, what would be a really off the wall, interesting cover to do?  We couldn’t get too much more off the wall than that song. 

You’ve been at this for awhile now, have you not?

The band’s been in existence for 31 years, but Vince and I first started playing together in 1989. We had been playing together off and on since the mid ‘80s in various conglomerations. So we’ve known each other for over half our lives. It’s pretty crazy. So yeah, it’s been quite the long haul. That’s for sure. 

So how have you managed to keep it together for so long — not only the relationships, but also the impetus and inspiration for making new music without repeating yourself, while also keeping everything so fluid after such a long a period of time? A lot of bands can’t claim that distinction.

That’s a very good question. I’m not sure I have a good answer for you. I just think that probably my best answer for that is that it’s fun, and it’s still fun. And we love to play. The other part of that answer is that it’s probably due to our crowd. Our audience has really stuck it out with us. Plus, we’re always getting new people along the way checking us out. So we’ve been blessed with a very wonderful following, and a really great mix of people. This band doesn’t just appeal to one segment of the population. We run the gamut from young to old, from hippies to business people, to whoever. I’m always amazed at all the different people that support this band, and I think that our crowd has really kept us going in so many ways. That’s made it exciting and enabled us to keep doing this. And then just the excitement of being on stage together. There’s a lot of spontaneity and a lot of experimentation that goes on. We’re very uncalculated. We work stuff out, of course, but we also experiment a lot. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. We’ve certainly have had our share of train wrecks. That’s kinda in the tradition of the Grateful Dead. Sometimes they were incredibly brilliant, and other times, not so much. I think we have some of that as well. But it keeps you on your toes and I think it keeps the audience on their toes as well.

How do you manage to translate that live energy to the studio? Is it a challenge to capture that on record?

Well, I don’t think you can. I think way back, when we first started making records, we were really kind of frustrated with that whole thing. It was like, “Wow, we have so much energy on stage. It’s so much fun, with the crowd and people dancing. But I think that at some point you just kind of have to make peace with the fact that they’re two different worlds. When you get into the studio, it’s more of a focus, and you try to bring as much of that energy as you can. It’s not always possible, and I think that a lot of bands and musicians would agree with me on that. So you do the best you can. When you’re playing live, you can’t do what you do in the studio and also, you don’t get chances to do things over. And so they are just two entirely different animals. The sooner you can make peace with that, the better off you’re going to be. There are studio albums, and there’s live performance. The Grateful Dead was as an example of that. Their studio recordings are completely different from what they were live. People really wanted to hear the live stuff and I imagine they sometimes struggled with it in the studio. I think that as we’ve gone along, we’ve gotten better at making records. And we’ve gotten better at making peace with that difference. But yeah, it’s crazy. It’s like the worlds almost have nothing to do with each other.

You’ve obviously been given credit for being one of the forerunners of the whole progressive bluegrass, jamgrass genre, and so many other bands have followed your lead. Do you recognize your role in this evolution that you’ve been a part of?

Absolutely. When we started out, we really didn’t have a plan. As I said before, we always fly by the seat of our pants, and when we got out there in our old a school bus, we were touring before we even knew what we were doing. We didn’t know we were actually blazing the trail for other bands to follow. We had no idea. We were mainly bluegrass musicians just trying to make a living, playing music in bars and theaters and stuff. And the way we figured out how to do that was to get a drummer and some electric instruments, and to mix bluegrass with other styles of music that were fun for us to play. We were playing the kind of music that we liked and mixing in the different styles and stuff. So, yeah, we definitely recognize that we have kind of paved the way for other bands. It’s been interesting to see the different interpretations of it and how other bands have followed our lead, but yet taking it their own direction, like Yonder and like String Cheese and Greensky and on and on and on. It’s a big honor to know we were part of that evolution, and I think that it’s interesting, because we’re not the new guys anymore. We’re not the young kids that are getting out there now. You have to kind of accept that, but it’s okay. I feel like we’ve gotten to a good place with it all, and we’ve kind of found our footing as far as where we belong in this whole scene. It’s an honor and it’s really great to still be here and still be doing it quite honestly.

With the rise of this whole sort of movement that you guys have been so instrumental in developing, bluegrass music itself has been able to expand its reach as well. Where once folks thought of bluegrass music as strictly belonging to Appalachia, it’s now a really a populist of form of music with a younger reach. Why you think that is? Is it due to bands like, you guys and these other bands you mentioned? Or is it just a newfound appreciation for the roots of of Americana? What do you attribute it to?

A lot of different things. One thing I can say about bluegrass is that it’s a community. It’s a thing I noticed when I first got into bluegrass. It brought people together. It’s like a common language. It’s something that people can share really easily. You can stand around a campfire with people you’ve never met and play songs everybody knows. It’s just like this common denominator, and people want to be part of that. I noticed, because I came from more of a rock and roll background into bluegrass, although because I was raised in Tennessee, I was well-rounded. But when I discovered bluegrass, I realized that here was a different world of music, a way for people really to come together and to share this thing. Otherwise, it was just a band playing to an audience, but here was a kind of music where everybody could join in. 

What you’re describing is kind of the essence of an Everyman’s music.

It can be complex, like maybe the Punch Brothers, who are an example of the complexity that it can get to. But it can also be just really down to earth, not necessarily complicated music that people can learn. They can learn how to play guitar, mandolin, banjo, or fiddle at home, and then come to a festival and stand around a campfire with people they don’t know and play tunes they all know in common. The whole festival world seems driven by this music now, but it also has brought in other kinds of music to complement it — rock and roll, and jazz, and everything else. But the common denominator is this music that brings everybody together. I remember going to some of my first festivals in the ’80s and going, “I’ve never seen anything like this before, how cool is this?” People just hang out together to play music and party, and then there’s the main stage and you go watch the music, and then you come back to the campground and you’re inspired by the people on stage and you play. 

It really is an anecdote for these troubled times, isn’t it?

It’s just something that people need, especially more and more as the world gets crazier. It’s something that really brings people together. I think that’s probably the main thing driving that whole community. It’s also the traditions that go back so far. It’s also the fact that bluegrass encompasses so many different kinds of music and and lends itself to expanding into different areas. I’m really glad to see that it’s gotten more and more that way. There certainly was a time when it was more traditional and more in its own little box, but it’s expanded so much, and it’s really great. Bluegrass was never meant to be put in a box. It was meant to expand and to include different influences and different kinds of music. I think that that’s really what’s driven the whole thing. It’s exciting. It’s like jazz in the way that it’s improvisation based on a form. And it’s wide open, and everybody has their own take on it. And the more it expands, the more interesting it gets. And I’m really glad that it’s not in an isolated corner of the music world. You can go back and listen to the masters and the original bands that that made this genre and appreciate it, but also realize that it can go further.

Did you ever get any pushback from diehard traditionalists who resented the fact that you wanted to take it further?

We haven’t played a lot of traditional festivals, so we haven’t necessarily been put in that position very often, but yeah, for sure, we’ve experienced some of that. Plus, some of the real hardcore instrumentalists are also hellbent on doing things exactly right. So we definitely feel some of that vibe coming from that part of the world, and that’s fine. Sam Bush is a dear friend, and we’ve had a lot of conversations like this, and he says he’s gotten tons of pushback. There are always people that are going to be that way. I respect their opinion. I respect the traditions and I respect how bluegrass should be played, and in a lot of ways we can also do that. I’ve studied a lot of Bill Monroe and I incorporate a lot of that into my playing. I also pay attention to the modern players, like Sam and Mike Marshall and Tim O’Brien. 

Still, isn’t it better when folks have open minds.

I just feel like it would be nice for those people to also realize that we’re also from the bluegrass tradition, even though much as we’re a jam band or jam grass group or wherever you want to call it. We’re also bluegrass musicians. We didn’t start playing in a jam band and then incorporate bluegrass into it. We started playing bluegrass. We respect it and love it, whether it’s Jim & Jesse, or Bill Monroe, or the Stanley Brothers. I grew up going to the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, which is now called RockyGrass. I saw some great bands, like the Bluegrass Cardinals, Don Reno, the Johnson Mountain Boys. They were the real deal. So there’s certainly something to be said for that music when it’s really played in the in the traditional style with the harmonies and the solos and everything. There’s nothing like it. It’s incredible. And I mean, there was a time when I was really steeped in that world when I was in my former band, the Left Hand String Band. We were playing these bluegrass festivals and really trying to be a bluegrass band. But even back then, we got pushback because we had an electric bass. People really didn’t like it, especially when electric bass became part of the norm and Tim O’Brien bent strings on the mandolin and things like that. They got a lot of pushback, so yeah, it’s been going on for a long time.

Being that you once spent so much time on the road, sitting on your hands this past year must have been torture for you.

It has been something else. And while it’s been great to be home for a year, I also live to play live shows. That’s what makes me thrive and brings all of us together as well. So it’s been really hard not to have that. We’ve done a couple things here and there, but by and large, not having that outlet has definitely been challenging. It’s been hard not being around people. I don’t want to get too confident that things are coming back. A lot of people are going out already, but we don’t know how things are gonna go.

Regardless, watching your progress and all the beautiful places you’ve toured and the obvious joy you get from making music, one can’t help but get the feeling that you guys lead a wonderful life.

It really is. I feel quite blessed to be able to play music for a living. Yeah… I can’t really complain about anything. Even if I do, I guarantee. nobody’s gonna listen.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.