“I was at the Smoky City Folk Festival in Pittsburgh in 7th or 8th grade, and I saw a group of maybe forty people with instruments playing this tune. It looked like none of them knew each other, but here they were, having a ball.”
Leftover Salmon’s frontman and co-founder Vince Herman is remembering. He’s remembering a simpler time, his own curious child mind and the very moment that would chart his entire course and would define his purpose—a musical purpose. “I’d been playing music already at that point, but I hadn’t really experienced the community context of it. When I saw that—a common repertoire creating this vast amount of joy—I thought, ‘I want to do that.’” And that he sure has.
All these years later, Leftover Salmon, the Creole-bluegrass band from Boulder, CO that fused Herman’s Salmon Heads and Drew Emmitt’s Left Hand String Band in the late ‘80s, is celebrating their 25th anniversary and currently in the middle of a cross-country tour celebrating those years. The band most recently released its album, High Country, in December ‘14, a production that included the band’s newest member, Bill Payne, co-founder of Little Feat and longtime collaborator with The Doobie Brothers. High Country also includes a Payne/Robert Hunter track called “Bluegrass Pines,” as well as a track made famous by Little Feat’s 1979 album Down on the Farm, “Six Feet of Snow.”
Here in Texas, where the band played two shows last week, Payne took leave to go on the road with The Doobies (who he’s officially joined), though he still has a few more gigs left to play with Leftover Salmon. LoS shared stages with the storied and familiar Chris Robinson Brotherhood, including a sold out Friday night show at Austin’s Historic Scoot Inn where I had the honor of kicking it with the band on their bus just before the show for an exclusive interview.
We spent a good bit of that time talking, just riffing on the sense of community that’s fostered in music, particularly in the bluegrass and jam band scenes, and touching on the exchange of human energy that is spawned from live music, creating both cross-genre collaborations and longevity. In 25 years, Leftover Salmon has collaborated and shared stages with many notable artists. They’ve outlasted countless others—through creativity, through collaboration, through passion and through hunger—achieving that which is undoubtedly what most musicians hope for from their careers.
“Bluegrass tradition is really inclusive, more so than the rock and roll realm,” Herman says. “Bringing people in is part of the bluegrass aesthetic.”
Emmitt adds, “Part of it is that we’re kind of, sorta associated with this jam band world, and the jam band world is all about people going to see live shows and expecting things to be different every time. So, we definitely do that. We play different shows every night.”
But playing different shows every night while on tour for twenty-some-odd years, as well as creating new music and producing new albums with new bandmates, requires regular inspiration. And these guys have no shortage of that.
Alwyn Robinson, LoS’s drummer since October ‘13, says his biggest inspiration is in teaching and learning. “I had a studio when I lived in Colorado, teaching kids—being able to not only teach, but learn from these people I’m working with who are hungry to learn about music and how to create and how to keep that creative part of their brain operating — that’s inspiring to me because it reminds me of why I do it. I remember when I was that kid, and being really hungry to want to learn more about the music—and how to relay that to other people’s backgrounds and cultures and different approaches to how they listen to and perform music.”
He goes on, “Whenever I go back home to visit my folks, I always try to get together and play with the local musicians—to keep connecting with students and other musicians, continuing to learn…”
“…because you aren’t done learning till you’re done breathing.”
Emmitt also finds his inspiration (and meditation) in instruments, particularly the mandolin and his electric guitar. “I get up in the morning, I pick up the mandolin, and have a cup of coffee. On stage it’s another meditation—a way of working things out. When you’re going through something in your life, it comes out in your music. It’s a really great thing to have that outlet.”
Herman circles back to that sense of community that comes from creating, sharing, and performing music. His inspiration comes from that. “It’s not so much about the executing of the music, but rather the feel, the invitation to bonding that comes from it. That’s what I really dig about it.”
When the recorder stopped just minutes before the band took stage, prepping for their performance with fresh crab and Austin Beerworks Fire Eagles, Herman, Robinson, and I moved to the back of the bus where our conversation became more organic. Robinson and I chatted about everything from Master P’s label, No Limit Records, to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, while Herman and I carried on a conversation about Fred Tackett’s (Little Feat) amazing place in the Ozarks, the late-’90s rumor mill of LoS having been the artist behind the bluegrass cover of “Gin and Juice” (it was actually Austin’s The Gourds), the now-renamed Star Lake Amphitheater (outside of Pittsburgh) when it was actually a lake and not an amphitheater, and our distaste for the digitization of, well, everything. He recommended reading some of Wendell Berry’s work, saying that he writes “about how that whole shift is not something empowering to the human being.”
In an increasingly digital world, Herman remains old school, and that is something that can only be described as great. “I’ve got a ton of 78s. I’ve got a Victrola. You know, it’s really great when the power goes off and I’m like, ‘Yeah! Crank up the Victrola!’ I’ve got a ton of vinyl. And Chris Robinson—their bus—that seat there is full of vinyl and there’s a turntable right there. They’re rolling with vinyl.”
Meanwhile, some of Robinson’s other inspirations became more pronounced: Kinfolk Magazine, coffee shops and the Redwoods. He loves the real storytelling element in Kinfolk (particularly in the current family issue, which he says inspired the realization that ‘home’ can be anywhere you can find folks—family—you can connect with), the opportunity to buy a stranger a coffee in a coffee shop and strike up a conversation, and an upcoming road trip from San Francisco northward, where he says, he cannot wait to show a friend the Redwoods for his first time.
Moments later, they took stage, and gave a knee-slappin’ good time to a hungry, sold-out crowd, just like the seasoned artists they are. Their setlist included their own signature classics like “Mama Boulet” and “Pasta On The Mountain,” and a few classic covers like their version of John Hartford’s “Up on the Hill Where They do the Boogie” and Bob Dylan’s “Tangled up in Blue.” And I was front and center for it all, slappin’ my own knee a time or two.
After just one hour—one brief window in time—with Leftover Salmon, I left with many inspirations. And this, then, is the wisdom of their years, as I gathered: Without community there is no music. There may be an artist, but with no audience, there’s no synergy between the two. And that relationship is where the real magic lies.
Leftover Salmon, both the original and new-coming members, have mastered the fine art of creation, of preservation and of creating a relationship—and music—that lasts. Emmitt recognizes the beauty in that relationship, “If it weren’t for the people supporting us we couldn’t do it for 25 years. We’ve been blessed with a really great live crowd who’s really appreciative of the music—music that keeps evolving.”
I can’t wait to see how the next 25 years evolve, what the next album holds (and where it’ll be recorded—New Orleans is a good possibility), where the next tour leads and who Leftover Salmon next includes (or is included by). Time, after all, is just another highway.
By Ashley Halligan