Their otherwise off-putting handle aside, Leftover Salmon has risen to the top rankings of the current crop of the progressive bluegrass elite, having helped establish the form when they initially formed in Boulder, Colorado in 1989. Over the course of a more than 30 year career, they’ve managed to pay heed to the archival origins while infusing a new element of originality and ingenuity into the mix, qualifying them as among the foremost proponents of a populist style that includes bluegrass basics as informed by a so-called jamgrass discipline.
For their fans, their origins are the stuff of legends. They were spawned from a band called the Salmon Heads, built with members of another local Boulder band, the Left Hand String Band, to share the stage for a New Years Eve gig after various Salmon Heads failed to show. The name Leftover Salmon was chosen spontaneously en route to the gig and it remained in place once the union became permanent.
Despite a hiatus in the mid 2000s and the various ebb and flows of musicians over the years, the band is still going strong today, and it’s still helmed by two of its three original founders, Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt. A third founding member, Mark Vann, passed away in 2002. Other current members of the group include andy Thorn on banjo, Greg Garrison on bass, and Jay Starling on reso-guitar, and Alwyn Robinson on drums.
It was recently announced that Herman will release his first solo album this November, one he’s aptly dubbed Enjoy the Ride. It wasn’t that he had ever considered striking out on his own, but given the perils of the pandemic and with plenty of time on his hands, he figured it was time to give it a try.
Here’s a listen to the album’s first single, Lost Lover’s Eyes.
Nevertheless, with that venture still a couple of months away, there was plenty of reason for Leftover Salmon to take to the road, and when Bluegrass Today caught up with the band at the inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival over Labor Day weekend, they proved to be one of the highlights of a festival that had no shortage of exceptional offerings.
Sitting backstage in the band’s trailer, Herman was asked what led them to be involved with the Earl Scruggs activities. “I think it’s probably Jerry Douglas’s fault,” he replied, exhibiting a certain tongue-in -cheek attitude well in keeping with the band’s desired demeanor. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop him from giving a shoutout to the Earls of Leicester, who taken the festival stage only hours earlier.
“They’re very believable,” he concurred. “And they’re very true to tradition, even with their white cowboy hats and the bolo ties. Shawn Camp studied Lester Flatt’s technique. It’s really uncanny. It’s like time travel watching that band.”
Nevertheless, one has to give credit where credit is due as far as Leftover Salmon carrying their tradition forward into newer realms. “It’s a long chain, you know,” Herman suggested. “The Dirt Band is playing here, and I know that they’re just as responsible as we are. They’ve been at it 55 years or something like that. New Grass Revival played a big role, and so did David Bromberg. I grew up listening to David Bromberg a ton, and he played Irish music and bluegrass and Tex-Mex and that kind of stuff. And then of course, there was The Dillards who were in LA in the early ’60s. Getting on the Andy Griffith Show really brought bluegrass to a lot of people. And John Hartford is another one we should mention, because you’re talking about somebody who could fuse traditional music and rock and roll together.”
Nevertheless, it was worth reminding him that Leftover Salmon made a dramatic difference of their own as far as the fusion was concerned.
“We were decidedly postmodern,” Herman mused. “We were in Colorado, and a lot of times bluegrass bands will just kind of play out there in the summer. So we reckoned that if we wanted to play in the bars, we would have to have a little more of an edge. We had drums and that kind of stuff, and we played these scarier towns that maybe weren’t used to seeing bluegrass bands, especially in the bars. So it pretty much came down to the fact that the space in the music world was so much more open than when the Dirt Band or New Grass Revival came along. New Grass Revival got shit for having an electric bass player. So by the time we came along, none of that stuff was a factor anymore. Now, I’m not saying that some people out there didn’t think that us having drums and playing funk music might not have been appropriate. We got some of that. But look at what Earl did with the Scruggs Family. He did so much for the country. He was doing those Dylan songs too. He was an incredible man who did so much for the music and, and for the country. Man, that was Earl Scruggs, his family and friends. Earl’s wife and a manger, Louise Scruggs, once told me this story about how Vanderbilt University called her up and wanted to connect with her to book a band. And she said, ‘Maybe you should think about having my husband play sometime.’ And the woman on the other end of the phone said, ‘You don’t understand this is Vanderbilt University. We will not be having bluegrass.’ A year, later Flatt & Scruggs recorded their Live at Vanderbilt University album, which is one of the best selling bluegrass records of all time.”
Herman went on to say that Leftover Salmon had mostly managed to elude that same sort of negativity. “We weren’t really playing the traditional bluegrass venues, festivals, and that sort of stuff,” he noted. “It was a wide open festival kind of scene, and that’s really kind of why I moved to Colorado in the first place. It was to seek out a more progressive kind of bluegrass scene. I was living in West Virginia and we drove out to Boulder, parked the car in front of a bar that said ‘live bluegrass tonight.’ It was literally the first place I stopped in Colorado.”
Given Leftover Salmon’s reputation as a band that excels in concert, it’s hardly surprising that live albums are such a prominent part of their catalog. However, we also wanted to know how they manage to transfer that live spontaneity to their studio efforts as well.
“I think we’re getting better at it as we’ve gotten more and more used to making records and all that stuff,” Herman suggested. “It’s intimidating to go into the studio, and always rush embarrassing yourself. But it’s also really fun. It’s kind of like your personal Olympics. You got to get trained for it.”
In addition to Herman’s upcoming album, Leftover Salmon will also be releasing a new album this winter, courtesy of a newly inked contract with Compass Records.
“It’s all bluegrass songs, well, roots music songs, I guess,” Herman noted. “We’re doing all kinds of covers. We just kind of decided to look back at the things that really influenced us. Stuff we really love.”
That said, Herman has his own ideas as to why bluegrass is loved by so many people, themselves included.
“Well, you don’t need a synthesizer to play it,” he mused. “And you can play it on your porch, with your friends. You go to these festivals and you wander into the campgrounds and you can see the community that goes along with it. Maybe hairbands might have a community, but I’m guessing that ended in the ’80s. I don’t know if they’re gonna have a campfire singalong.”