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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This is way more of a bluegrass band. No drums and that makes everything different. You know, how we play and how we approach the music is really different because there is no drummer and, uh, you know, you have to... I think there's a lot more, you have to have your head in the game at all times because if anyone lets up, if any of the four of us lets up or loses focus, then the whole ship could go down at any moment.

-Bill Nershi

 
Photo of Emmitt-Nershi Band by Bubba Jackson

In March of 2002 tragedy struck when Leftover Salmon banjoist Mark Vann succumbed to the cancer he'd been struggling with for months. With the loss of one of their founding members (and one of the greatest banjo players the world has ever known) the band decided to move forward, recruiting banjo prodigy Noam Pikelny to take Vann's spot. But when Pikelny left to play with the John Cowan Band, the remaining members of Leftover Salmon decided it was time to call it quits. That was in 2004, and they haven't toured since, but have done a few shows and made several festival appearances.

Bill Nershi
The same year that Salmon broke up, String Cheese was still going strong, and in the fall was joined by auxiliary percussionist Jason Hann, who would soon become a full-time member. But as the band continued to evolve and move towards an increasingly electronic sound Nershi found himself struggling to find his role in the group. In the fall of 2006 he announced he was leaving The String Cheese Incident, and after a final summer tour in 2007 the band officially dissolved.

But with death comes life. The breakups of String Cheese and Salmon, however unfortunate for the fans, were a necessary step for the artists. Each member was now free to pursue his own musical interests. From the ashes of these two great bands a number of side projects and collaborations emerged: Vince Herman's Great American Taxi, Jason Hann and Michael Travis' EOTO, Michael Kang and Panjea, Keith Moseley and Jeff Sipe with Keller Williams and The WMD's, and most recently Kyle Hollingsworth's DNA Land.

Then there's Emmitt and Nershi, who got together shortly after the members of String Cheese had parted ways. After some discussion it soon became clear that both men shared a mutual interest in playing bluegrass again. The decision was made to put together a group and, after enlisting the aid of Grant and Thorn, the Emmitt-Nershi Band was born.

For Nershi, the new outfit marked a departure from the highly experimental nature of String Cheese. "Well this is way more of a bluegrass band. No drums and that makes everything different. You know, how we play and how we approach the music is really different because there is no drummer and, uh, you know, you have to... I think there's a lot more, you have to have your head in the game at all times because if anyone lets up, if any of the four of us lets up or loses focus, then the whole ship could go down at any moment," he says with a laugh. "So you really have to stay focused and we've just been really digging into the next layer of figuring out how to do that, how to make all these different kind of tempos and songs work without a drummer."

Drew Emmitt
Emmitt was also glad to get back to the music that caused him to pick up the mandolin all those years ago.

"It's really fun for me 'cause I've played in bluegrass bands since the early '80s, and I did the Left Hand String Band for like nine years before Salmon ever started, and played a lot of bluegrass. It's really nice for me to get back to playing bluegrass, especially in this arena because we bring a lot of different things to the table, and I think it's really exciting for people to see the two of us playing together from these two different camps and making this new band."

And like Nershi, Emmitt also views the absence of a drummer as a welcome challenge.

"What I love about it is that we are a four-piece," Emmitt says, "without drums, without amps, without electric guitars. And we get it kickin' just with these little acoustic instruments, and we get a whole dance floor boogie-in'. And to me that's really fun because it's a given that when you get up there with a full band with drums and electric guitars you're gonna rock it out [and] people are gonna dance. But with a bluegrass band it's not so much a given, and it's really very satisfying to see people gettin' down to a bluegrass band."

The group also allows the musicians to play more of the music they've written. Nershi, an avid songwriter, was glad for the opportunity. Many of the songs he wrote while in String Cheese, such as "Black Clouds" and "Restless Wind," were originally conceived in a bluegrass format. There is also a greater freedom when it comes to producing and performing new material. "We can play more of our music with this band than we could with our other bands because there's not as many people with a lot of material," says Emmitt. "The main focus is our material and some other stuff brought in by Andy and Tyler, but the main bulk of the material is our stuff. And that's real enjoyable to be able to not just have two or three songs a night but to really get a lot of our original stuff out there."

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It's really fun for me 'cause I've played in bluegrass bands since the early '80s, and I did the Left Hand String Band for like nine years before Salmon ever started, and played a lot of bluegrass. It's really nice for me to get back to playing bluegrass, especially in this arena because we bring a lot of different things to the table, and I think it's really exciting for people to see the two of us playing together from these two different camps and making this new band.

-Drew Emmitt

 
Photo of Emmitt-Nershi Band by Polly Gray

It was almost time for the band to take the stage, so I finished my Corona and prepared to take my leave. After a round of handshakes and well-wishing we parted ways and I walked back through the bar as the various sound techs, gear boys and bar staff rushed to make their final preparations for the show. Pushing through the front doors I made my way out of Martyrs' and into the cool Chicago dusk. It was mid-April, and the sun hung low over the horizon, signaling the last vestiges of the waning day before the rising night, and the approach of a horde of bluegrass-loving denizens from all over the city – booze-hungry hounds with a taste for twangy banjo rolls and cheap whiskey. I lit a cigarette and watched the scene unfold. They were already lining up, and what a happy bunch they were, many of them half-drunk, talking music, parties and other good times past, pausing only to greet a familiar face with a warm embrace.

Emmitt-Nershi Band by Justin Symons
The air was buzzing outside of Martyrs' that night. Anyone who was there can attest to the feeling of companionship and camaraderie between friend and stranger alike, all brought together by the musicianship of four men from the Colorado mountains, four men who have spent the better portion of their lives as ambassadors of the tradition that is American bluegrass. Between the two of them, Emmitt and Nershi have a combined total of over 70 years of experience. Tyler Grant, though he plays bass in the band, is also a world-class flatpicker and the winner of the 2008 National Flatpicking Championship in Winfield, Kansas, where he also placed in the top five for mandolin. Andy Thorn, the youngest band member, is a banjo prodigy who's been playing since he was 13.

Their style is uniquely their own, and although they've only been together a year, the Emmitt-Nershi Band already commands a considerable repertoire that includes a well-balanced mix of traditional bluegrass, old Salmon and String Cheese tunes, as well as new material, some of which is so freshly written that the songs have yet to be named.

The band, with their vocal harmonies and tight musicianship, is without a doubt much closer to a straightforward bluegrass act, but it's not entirely pure. They are a bluegrass band with a touch of folk and Americana and a rock & roll edge. It's what I like to call "mountaingrass" – a very distinct style of bluegrass, the heart and soul of which seems to lie in the great mountains of Colorado, born on the front porches of the pickers who call those peaks and valleys home. This is a special breed of musician. They have made their homes in the small towns and ski communities that dot the Colorado landscape and enjoy a life of pseudo-isolation from the rest of the country. It is an idyllic existence unknown to many of us. And yet, even here, in the great city of Chicago, they have made their mark.

Emmitt & Nershi by Polly Gray
Such has been the journey for Drew Emmitt and Bill Nershi, whose dedication to music continues to guide them down a path they've carved for themselves. It's a path that has taken them from the small town bar gigs of their younger days to the great music festivals of today. With all its ups and downs, the journey has been a good one. But the road is long, and the obstacles many for any new band trying to make a name for itself. Emmitt and Nershi, however, have hit the ground running. The two have been touring incessantly, with final mixes being finished on their new album. Slated for release on September 29, New Country Blues features all new material.

"It's all original music," says Nershi, "and most of the material that's on it is stuff that Drew and I went out to a friend's house in Rocky Mountain National Park and hung out there for a long weekend and wrote. And there's a song by Andy there also, a banjo tune, and a tune that Tyler wrote that's on there. So, it's all original stuff."

The future is looking bright for Drew Emmitt and Bill Nershi, both of whom, it seems, find themselves right where they want to be. And as a side note, both Leftover Salmon and String Cheese have since gotten back together. Although both bands have yet to tour, Salmon still plays the occasional show and festival, and String Cheese just played for 50,000 music fans at the Rothbury Music Festival – their only show this year. Nershi seems cautiously optimistic when it comes to his old band. "We're just gonna do that show and then hopefully if everything goes okay we'll probably be playing a few shows next year."

Watching the boys onstage that night, my thoughts drifted back to an earlier point in the evening when I found myself increasingly fascinated as I listened to Emmitt talk about his early collaborations with Nershi. To me it seemed like such a long time ago; in 1995 I was only 10 years old and had yet to be introduced to bluegrass music. I probably didn't even know what a mandolin was, much less what it's capable of in the right hands. But back then Emmitt and Nershi had already been playing bluegrass for two decades. And now – nearly 15 years later – here they were, still playing the music they love, music that has come to embody the essence of American culture, music that was designed to capture the spirit of a nation built on the blood, sweat and tears of those who know what hardship and struggle is – but who also know that nothing good in life ever came easy.

Emmitt-Nershi Band will be on tour this fall with Assembly Of Dust. Their next show is on July 23 at FloydFest, complete tour dates available here.

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