Gearing up for the most wonderful time of the year, we can’t wait to get back to the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway near Floyd, Virginia, for none other than FloydFest! To get everyone ready for this one-of-a-kind event, we’re interviewing some of our favorite FloydFest artists on the road to FloydFest 17 ~ Freedom (July 26-30).
For Part 3 of FloydFest ~ Freedom Bound, we caught up with Drew Emmitt, the mandolin and guitar player as well as the lead singer for Leftover Salmon, who are pioneers in the Colorado New Grass scene, though they actually classify themselves as Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass.
Leftover Salmon will be returning to Floydfest for the fourth time this year. What have you guys enjoyed about playing here in the past?
Oh yeah, there’s a whole lot I enjoy about it. It’s in a beautiful place, for one thing. The setting is just unbelievable. The lineup is just always really great, and really great people that run it, and great people that come to the festival. It’s a great crowd to play for. And it’s a nice size, too, you know? It’s not overwhelmingly big, yet it’s enough people to really have fun. And I like the different stages, the late night Beer Garden Stage is really cool, Main Stage is a really nice facility, really nicely built stage, great production. And then the other stage [Hill Holler] that we played last year, the one in the meadow, is a really great stage as well. And I’ve also done some workshops on the Workshop Porch, which is really fun as well. So all the different stages are really great, and the whole vibe of the festival is just wonderful, we just love it.
And last year you guys hosted an impromptu set on the main stage, with Keller Williams and a few other guests. What was it like getting that together last minute?
Well it was really exciting for us, because…well for one thing, that set was going to be in the beer garden, which would have been fine, but for it to be moved to the main stage was really exciting. I was really bummed that Gregg Allman wasn’t going to be able to make it, and of course Gregg has since passed. But it was a big honor to be asked to take the place of Gregg, and to host that set with Keller and to really be the center of the impromptu jam. Which is something that, traditionally and historically, Leftover Salmon has always been a really good band for that opportunity, because we always welcome people to come and sit in. It’s always been our tradition to play with other musicians, and to open our music up to that. It just felt like a really great opportunity, and it was really fun. And we were very honored that we were asked to do that.
It was so cool seeing how well backup singers worked with your band. You guys do have a knack for inviting people all across the musical board.
It’s what we love to do. You know, growing up in the festival circuit, the festival culture, it’s what we’ve always done, and has always been fun for us. And we’ve gotten to play with some amazing people. It’s always an adventure.
And you, personally, have always been influenced as much by rock ‘n’ roll as bluegrass. I imagine Gregg, and The Allman Brothers, have had a big influence on your music?
Huge, huge, huge influence. As a guitar player, and as a singer. I love the Allman Brothers, I always thought they were the perfect combination of rock and roll and the southern flavor in rock…and just great songs, great guitar playing, great singing, yeah, the Allman Brothers really did it for me. And of course, a lot of the other classic rock bands, like Zeppelin, and The Beatles and Stones…but the Allman Brothers really were the epitome, for me, of what rock and roll guitar playing was. Duane and Dickie were always such an inspiration to my guitar playing, and made me really want to play the guitar, and specifically play a Gibson guitar, and get that sound. And Gregg Allman’s singing was a huge inspiration for my singing. You know I had my Allman Brothers songbook when I was a teenager, and learned and played their songs in garage bands. Yeah, they were a huge, huge influence on me, and that was a big loss, well in my life, but of course the music world. It was kind of a shock, even though I knew Gregg was not doing well. But it definitely had a big impact upon me, for sure.
When you started out with Salmon, you were all about going off of the New Grass Revival example and creating a new hybrid kind of bluegrass. But listening to your solo stuff, and your stuff later on with Bill Nershi, you more or less get back to more traditional take on bluegrass. These days, as you tour with Salmon, where do you find yourself on the spectrum? Do you get to play a lot of traditional grass, either in other gigs or just on your own time?
I do! I did a festival back in February called Big Sky Big Grass, which is a wonderful festival with a great lineup every year, and this is the tenth year I’ve done that. And I did it with a bluegrass band, Tyler Grant on guitar, and then Andy Thorn and Greg Garrison from Salmon, and then myself. I love doing that whenever I can. I did a gig about a month or so ago in Denver at the Big Wonderful festival, same lineup. And whenever I can, whenever it makes sense, I like putting together a bluegrass band. It’s just so much fun, and it’s so simple. You know, acoustic instruments and preamps, and you plug in and away you go. It’s just kind of much more torn down, and back to the roots.
I love doing that, and I also love cranking up the electric guitar, and electric mandolin, and going full on rock ‘n’ roll. I feel that both are equal parts of what my music is, and Salmon is a combination of those two things. For me, both aspects of what I love in one band. So that’s always been ideal for me. But I love to get away and do different projects. Andy Thorn and I sometimes will do duo shows, and that’s really fun, just banjo and mandolin and guitar. I love both aspects.
As you said about New Grass Revival, when I saw them years and years ago, that really inspired me that bluegrass could be taken in different directions, and taken in a rock ‘n’ roll direction. Utilizing that traditional format, with bluegrass instruments, but pushing the envelope. And of course, nowadays, there’s more and more of that, a lot of these young bands coming up are continuing that. It’s great to see it. You know, I think, back in the day, when Salmon was first starting out, in the early 90s, it was kind of a crazy concept for people to grasp. Bluegrass with drums, and electric instruments, and going back and forth between bluegrass and rock. And now, it’s kind of a normal thing, so I think we might have been part of a link on the chain, taking what New Grass did and brought it into the future. It’s really great to be a part of that. There’s many many ways to play bluegrass, and I think that right now a lot of bands are proving that.
So, in terms of the names doing new stuff with progressive grass today: who are you listening to and really liking?
Wow, well…there’s a young man by the name of Billy Strings, who’s just really tearing up the guitar, and his band is really kicking it. And you know, Greensky Bluegrass is pretty much at the forefront of the jamgrass bands right now, as far as really bringing out the crowds, and as far as raising the bar for popularity. I’m definitely noticing a lot of new bands coming up, like Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Cabinet I saw recently, and Railroad Earth of course aren’t new but they’ve been in that genre of pushing the limits of bluegrass. There’s a duo called Mandolin Orange that’s really been up and coming, and doing really well. But just to name a few.
But I love what the mainstays of the scene have been doing, too. Jerry Douglas always seems to be reinventing himself, Alison Krauss always taking her music somewhere else. And Sam Bush, I have to say, still doing it, still pretty much kicking it harder than anybody, with his band. Even though he’s been around for years and years and years and he’s not new, as far as I’m concerned, nobody can touch Sam as far as what he can do, with his band and his mandolin. Also, the Punch Brothers, it’s incredible what they are doing. They might be in a little bit of a different world, not so much a jamgrass thing, you could put their music in more of a classical bluegrass genre. And then the Travelin’ McCourys and Del McCoury, of course, but the Travelin McCourys now, Ronnie and Robbie taking their dad’s music and stepping it up. They’re doing this Grateful Ball thing where they’re playing Grateful Dead songs. They’re about as traditional as you can get, in a lot of ways, yet they’re very progressive, and they’re just excellent. I mean everything about The McCourys is just absolute excellence. We played DelFest last weekend, and it was just wonderful seeing what’s going on with that family. They really are the first family of bluegrass, and are very inspiring.
It’s really great to see what’s happening in the bluegrass and jamgrass worlds, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.
Salmon themselves just released their album ‘25’ last year. Can you speak to staying such a dynamic and energetic act nearly three decades into being a band?
Well right now, we owe a lot of that to our band members. Vince and I have been in it…this New Years will be twenty-eight years, and we’re still kind of a forefront of the band, but we owe a lot of it to the band that we have behind us right now. Andy Thorn is just killing the banjo, and we have a drummer, Alwyn Robinson, who’s 28 years old, just smoking on the drums. We have a new keyboardist, Erik Deutsch, who’s been with us for a little over a year. And of course we have Greg Garrison who’s been with us for quite awhile, 13 years. But there’s a lot of young energy in the band right now, and it’s just really given us new life, new energy.
I just feel like, personally, being in this band as long as I have, that this is really the best Salmon band that we’ve had. I feel like this is a great time for us. We just finished recording a record, down in Tucson, Arizona, and we’re very excited about it. Produced by Steve Berlin, and we will be putting that out next spring, we’re thinking. We’re gonna wait until next year, and really do it up, build a tour around it. And we’ve got all these great new original songs that are really different from what we’ve done in the past. We just feel like there’s just so much potential, so much new life, in the band, that it doesn’t feel like a band that’s been around for twenty-eight years, almost. It feels like a new thing, sometimes. I should also say that we have one of the best crowds, and followings, in this genre of music. We just have a wonderful crowd of people that keep coming back again and again to see us, and just lift us up every time we play. We couldn’t do it without the people that love Leftover Salmon.
I think it’s awesome to see bands like yourself, and String Cheese Incident, and as you mentioned Railroad Earth–you’ve all been around for such a time, but are still currently making new stuff, and experimenting with different avenues in Americana music. Can you speak to where your songwriting is at on this new record?
Well it’s great because everyone in the band brought songs to this record, even our drummer has a song that he sings on the record. And it is very much an Americana album, and a jamgrass record. But very much a song-centered record. Very life-inspired songs, and a little more serious in a way. Not in a bad way serious, but more in a heartfelt, deep way, I think this album is. I think everybody’s in a place in their life where they’re really digging deep. And I felt that, for my tunes that I came up with for the record were out of my life experience, and things I’ve been going through this past year. I just feel like there’s a lot of depth to what’s going on right now. And a lot of just thinking hard about what inspires us, coming up with tunes that are moving, instead of just throwing things out there. But I’m so proud of everybody in this band right now for coming up with material that really speaks to people’s experiences in life, and things that matter. I feel like it’s a coming of age kind of record for us, it’s very exciting.
Are you planning to try some of this stuff out live, or if you have at all yet, how’s that going?
Yeah, we’ve only played two of the songs out live, that our Andy wrote. We’ve actually been playing them over the last several months. One of the tunes he wrote, we’ve been playing for about a year off and on. The rest of them, we’re gonna wait, for one thing we’re gonna need to learn them (laughs). Before we play them live. But we’re gonna wait until the record comes out, I think, and unfold them on our crowd and see how they fly. But I’m really excited about these songs live, it should be really cool.
Article by Miles Hurley