Emmitt and Nershi: Taking A Step Back

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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