Leftover Salmon: 20 Years Down River

Their music is unique. It just makes you feel good. There is nothing like them, with their incredible buoyancy and joy. That's what they do – they make joy.

-Wavy Gravy

The Right Place

Drew Emmitt - LoS by Abramson
Musical aspirations and intentions are one thing, making it big quite another. Both Emmitt and Herman said that there are large doses of luck that factor into the equation.

"It has to be the right people for sure," said Emmitt. "We happened upon it. There are so many great musicians in the world that really deserve to be famous [but don't make it]. It's all about timing and finding the right people."

Sam Bush remembers watching the young band when they were first performing as Leftover Salmon.

"One of the things that kind of set them apart was their versatility," said Bush, "to be able to play electric music [with] fiddle, mandolin. It's not surprising they found such a large audience. I love all their influences – the newgrass, the rock, the reggae. It really caught my attention."

Herman said the deep roots of Leftover Salmon can be traced to the musical experimentation he and the other members of the band have explored since they were young.

"Getting your brain wrapped around one thing allows you to speak the language, and once you speak the language it is kind of like entering a culture," he said. "In Boulder there was a player named Buck who was instrumental in uniting people. He called this thing he put together - before the Internet – Buck's List, and there were probably 100 people on it. If you wanted to have a picking party or throw together a band, that's where you started."

Of course following a musical dream isn't that easy to do when you have bills to pay. Herman remembers all to well the struggles he faced while working his way up in the business.

"It requires a lot of faith," he said. "I have a 22-year-old who's now trying to decide what to do, and I'd hate to see him live as close to poverty for as long as I did. But if that's what leads to happiness, that's the way you have to go."

Emmitt recalls how his parents both fretted about his musical aspirations.

Mark Vann by Abramson
"They always wanted me to have something to fall back on. Unfortunately, they passed away before they got to see me do this," Emmitt said. "That's a big regret in my life. They'd be so surprised to see the kind of life I lead."

Of course that didn't happen right away. After years of kicking around in music scenes, fate took hold in 1985. That's when Herman left West Virginia to move to Colorado influenced, like Emmitt, by Hot Rize.

"I was looking for a place to move that had different bluegrass," said Herman. "I drove to Boulder, walked into a bar that said bluegrass was playing, and that's where I first met Drew. It's kind of weird to get out of your car, walk into a place, and find someone you will play with the next 25 years."

That friendship deepened as they got to know each other through the Boulder music scene. Then, fate stepped in again one year at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival when Herman's band, The Salmon Heads, was playing. Emmitt was at the fest just hanging out, walking through the compound when he heard "just incredible banjo playing and walked over." That's when he met banjo player Mark Vann, who eventually became the third co-founder of Leftover Salmon. The three formed a fast friendship at Telluride while continuing to play in their own bands and competing in a series of silly contests.

"Mark and I were in two different bands. Vince and I definitely had a chemistry going," said Emmitt. "I thought something cool would happen."

After the festival ended the three new friends walked up to Bear Creek Falls and sat on a cliff talking until the sun rose.

"You could feel the energy among the three of us," said Emmitt. "You could really feel it going on."

As the sun rose in all its splendor, Vann suddenly yelled, "Down in front," referring to a large mountain that partially obscured their view. All three men started laughing.

"That was what sealed the deal for me," said Herman. "That was great."

Starting Leftover Salmon

Figuring out their new band's name was pretty easy. The three new friends and their buddies who would fill out the group just started playing with the names of the two main bands they were in, and Herman finally coined Leftover Salmon.

Deciding on what music to play was almost as simple.

Leftover Salmon at Telluride Bluegrass Fest by Abramson
"We really just said, 'Let's take bluegrass, crank it up, add drums, and that will be Leftover Salmon,'" said Emmitt.

"I really thought it'd last one gig," quipped Herman.

Not only has it lasted 20 years and counting, but that first gig will be celebrated on December 28 when the band plays The Eldo, the site of their first show. They'll follow with shows at the Boulder Theater on December 30 and New Year's Eve.

"It's not a very large place; I think it seats about 225 people," said Emmitt of The Eldo, "but after all we've done, all the large venues, it's a way to come full circle."

In a way, that small club filled with friends from the area is what gave Leftover Salmon the all-important push it needed to launch its career.

"You pick up energy from the audience," said Emmitt. "You discover people really want you to succeed, and you take that energy and you run with it. You stop worrying about it and you get up there and do your thing and give out energy and get it back."

The energy Leftover Salmon found reached higher levels the more old string band tunes they added.

"Those would get people really fired up," said Herman. "It was what really struck a chord with the whole slamgrass thing. People got real rowdy."

Both Emmitt and Herman admitted to being more than a bit concerned when slamgrass first began, but they say people weren't overly aggressive, just fun loving. That's almost the same way the signature sound of Leftover Salmon developed.

Continue reading for more on Leftover Salmon...

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