Emmitt and Nershi: Taking A Step Back

By: Herschel Concepcion

"Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music." –Sergei Rachmaninov

Bill Nershi & Drew Emmitt by Bubba Jackson
Whenever you round up a group of top-notch pickers you're bound to hear some interesting tunes. But when that group includes two of the most well-known, experienced musicians in progressive bluegrass you know you're in for something special. For Drew Emmitt and Bill Nershi of the Emmitt-Nershi Band, the decision to come together and play music seemed natural – inevitable even. The two have a long history of playing together.

"Well Billy and I have known each other for a long time, since back when Billy lived in Telluride when we first started going down there with Salmon to play," says Emmitt as we sat in the back room of Martyrs' in Chicago, along with Nershi and the rest of the band - bassist Tyler Grant and banjo player Andy Thorn. It was over cold beers that we sat and talked, and I learned of how the Emmitt-Nershi collaboration came to be.

It's been nearly 20 years since the two first met but Nershi remembered it clearly. "It was, uh, the winter of '93-'94 that String Cheese formed in Crested Butte," he says, "but in '91 when Salmon started playing I was living in Telluride and I was just playing in town, playing the bars with duets and different people that I knew in town. And I would always go out and go dancing and party when Salmon came to town. That was always a fun night."

He was of course talking about Emmitt's other band, Leftover Salmon, and his own, The String Cheese Incident. With humble beginnings in the mountains of Colorado, both bands would go on to achieve considerable success in the jam scene. By stretching the boundaries of bluegrass music, which is traditionally considered to be a highly structured and rigid musical form, Emmitt and Nershi's bands were able to create new sounds that were quickly embraced in the Colorado music scene. The young, ambitious outfits would prove to be two of the most innovative acts to emerge in progressive bluegrass since the New Grass Revival.

Leftover Salmon, who are considered by some to be the founding fathers of "jamgrass," formed in 1989 in Boulder, Colorado, the result of a merger between local bands the Left Hand String Band and the Salmon Heads. Alongside charismatic bluegrass guitarist Vince Herman and legendary banjo virtuoso Mark Vann, Emmitt found in Salmon a much needed outlet for musical expression. Fusing bluegrass with rock, country, blues, jazz and Zydeco in what the band calls "Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass," Leftover Salmon had found their voice. And with it came an ever-growing legion of fans who found themselves irresistibly attracted to the foot-stomping music of the highly talented outfit. It was the perfect forum for Emmitt, who possesses a seemingly effortless mastery of the mandolin, as well as a voice that appears made of the pure howling mountain air itself.

Emmitt-Nershi Band by Polly Gray
Five years later the stars would align once more over the ski-resort town of Crested Butte, 250 miles to the southwest. A series of successful jam sessions involving Nershi, mandolin player Michael Kang, bassist Keith Moseley and drummer Michael Travis was all the encouragement the musicians needed to form a band. A year later the keyboard talents of Kyle Hollingsworth were added to the lineup and jam band juggernaut The String Cheese Incident was born. Initially playing for free ski lift tickets, the undeniable chemistry between the band members led to the group's decision to play music full-time and see how far they could take it. Like Salmon, String Cheese soon developed their own unique style by incorporating elements of bluegrass, country, rock, Latin, calypso and jazz into their sound. As their popularity grew beyond the borders of the local music scene the band soon found itself playing not in small bars for lift tickets but in packed stadiums and arenas around the country. And Nershi – armed with his beloved Martin D-28 – quickly became a focal point in the band, known for his slick phrasing and smooth, rapid-fire licks.

As two of the biggest acts in the '90s jam scene, Leftover Salmon and String Cheese enjoyed years of success on the tour circuit. It was also during those years that Emmitt and Nershi first started playing together.

"Well our bands started doing shows together," Emmitt says. "We did a bunch of shows with String Cheese; we actually did a tour at one point, went out West and did a co-bill tour. We started playing together then and we've seen each other at Telluride and different festivals. So yeah, that would've been like probably mid '90s we started to do some shows together. And then later on I ended up going out with String Cheese and doing like three shows on the road with them, and that's when we first really started playing together."

It was a pivotal era, which saw both bands touring heavily and playing music festivals all over the country. And as the '90s finally came to an end, bringing with them the dawn of a new millennium, the two groups found themselves riding the crest of a great wave, fueled by ever-increasing momentum and endless possibility. But it was not to last.

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