Drew Emmitt looks back on thirty years of Leftover Salmon
IF YOU GO …
What: An Evening with Leftover Salmon: Stories from the Living Room
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Thursday, Feb. 14, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $60/balcony; $45/general admission
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
408 pages, hardcover; $32
Rowman & Littlefield, 2019
As Leftover Salmon celebrates its 30th anniversary, music luminaries have been toasting the legendary Colorado band and a historian has devoted a new book to the titanic influence it’s had on bluegrass and jam music.
But in the beginning, all this scrappy Boulder-based outfit aimed to do was barnstorm Colorado’s ski towns with their freewheeling take on string music.
“We just wanted a way that we could go play ski towns in the wintertime,” founding member Drew Emmitt recalled in a recent phone interview from home in Crested Butte. “Our original fan base was the ski towns — Aspen, Vail, Steamboat, Crested Butte, Durango, Telluride. … That was our original circuit. We enjoyed playing Boulder and Denver, but what this band was really about was the ski towns.”
Ironically, focusing early efforts on the small but lively venues of hard-partying ski towns helped raise Leftover Salmon’s national profile before they began hitting the festival scene in the 1990s.
“So many people come through ski towns from all over the country,” Emmitt said. “It was a great way to get our name out.”
The band was birthed in 1989 with the merger of the Salmon Heads and the Left Hand String Band at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Leftover Salmon has been a staple in Aspen since the beginning, playing regular shows at the Double Diamond and later the Belly Up and the Wheeler Opera House, where the band returns for an anniversary show Thursday.
“The Wheeler might be my favorite venue in Colorado in terms of acoustics and ambiance,” Emmitt said. “I love playing there.”
Billed as “Stories from the Living Room,” the performance is a more austere, sit-down show that’s focused on storytelling.
“This band has a story to tell,” Emmitt said. “Coming up on 30 years as a band, people can finally see what we’ve done and that we were trailblazers. We were on the road in a school bus — a bunch of kids not knowing what we were doing and playing music and this is what’s happened. So it’s a good feeling. It’s definitely a milestone for us.”
In the “Living Room” shows they’re mostly leaving behind the rollicking and unhinged sets that have epitomized Leftover Salmon, with Emmitt mostly playing mandolin, keys player Erik Deutsch on grand piano and Greg Garrison on an upright bass. The band is bringing along some homey furnishings and personal knick-knacks to decorate the stage and set an intimate mood.
“It’s created some different directions for us,” Emmitt said of the tour. “The stories just spontaneously emerge while we’re doing the show. It’s really, really fun, it’s intimate and it’s a way to connect with an audience. We’re having a blast. It’s something completely different for us, so we’re really enjoying it.”
The “Living Room” tour also will make stops at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek and Washington’s in Fort Collins before it goes on a national run through spring.
The tour coincides with the release of music historian Tim Newby’s extensively researched new book “Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival,” published last week by Rowman & Littlefield.
“With the book coming out, it’s a great way to talk about that and tell some stories and sit there in the living room,” Emmitt said.
The book is a meticulous piece of reporting — undergirded by interviews with current and former band members — and a well-argued piece of long-form music criticism that delineates the band’s widespread influence on a generation of bluegrass, acoustic and jam bands.
It is narrated in chapters separated out by band member, with Newby tracking how each contributed to Leftover Salmon’s groundbreaking sound and musical language.
“It’s pretty trippy that somebody would want to write a book about us,” Emmitt said, admitting he hadn’t read it yet.
The first chapter is devoted to Emmitt and tracks the origins of what would become Leftover Salmon to a series of mandolin lessons Emmitt took in 1980 from Hot Rize’s Tim O’Brien, who recalls Emmitt’s revolutionary approach to bluegrass and nimble, high-speed picking style as already being fully formed.
“Drew could make a pretty good sound,” O’Brien says in the book, “but in a lot of ways he was already onto a style of his own, a style he still plays.”
Newby places Leftover Salmon in a lineage that began with Bill Monroe, evolved with the Grateful Dead, Hot Rize and New Grass Revival. His book details how the band’s progressive bluegrass style added (gasp!) drums to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and tossed in elements of Cajun, rock and whatever sounded right to them. The genre-bending result made them a staple of the jam band scene and pioneers of what became known as “jamgrass.”
“Leftover Salmon has been a crucial link in keeping alive the traditional music of the past while at the same time pushing the music forward with their own weirdly unique style,” Newby writes.
He also tracks the band through the untimely death of founding banjoist Mark Vann — killed by cancer at 39 in 2002 — and Leftover Salmon’s struggles in the years that followed.
The final chapter is written in the style of an oral history, with testimonials by musicians — from Sam Bush to Dave Watts and Railroad Earth to Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, moe., Widespread Panic and others — about Leftover Salmon’s legacy in bluegrass, jam music, songwriting and in establishing the national profile of Colorado’s adventurous music scene.
Emmitt said he hopes the legacy of Leftover Salmon is in emboldening musicians to challenge orthodoxy and taboos and keep making it new.
“I hope we can inspire other bands to do the same,” Emmitt said. “The music business is very competitive, it’s very uncertain. But if you follow your dream and keep at it, you can make it happen. And this band has proven that.”
He points to the work of Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters, Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers as proof that there’s still new ground to be broken in string music.
“All these bands that are coming up today are really busting things wide open in their own ways,” he said.
But, of course, Leftover Salmon is no nostalgia act. Emmitt and company are not done making new music and experimenting with new sounds, as evidenced on last year’s album “Something Higher.”
The genre-hopping record, Emmitt said, has translated well into the laid-back “Living Room” shows. It also includes one of the band’s most overtly political songs, inspired by President Donald Trump and written in the early days of his administration by Vince Herman. Its chorus goes: “This is now who we are / Love is gonna win again.”
“We’re all pretty politically aware — especially Vince and I are political junkies — and if you are paying attention, probably you’re pretty outraged about what’s going on in our country,” Emmitt said. “And we were able to put it in a song. … We’re all hoping to get out of this with our democracy intact. It’s pretty scary.”
And, yes, with this week’s hotly anticipated show falling on Valentine’s Day, expect some make-out songs like “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes” on Thursday.
“We’ll have to play some good couples-focused songs,” Emmitt said. “We’ve got a few up our sleeves.”