Leftover Salmon: 20 Years Down River

One of the things that kind of set them apart was their versatility, 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.

-Sam Bush

"We took a few different influences and put them all together," said Herman. "That's how we called it Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass. We took all our favorite influences, mixed them together, and that's what it became."

Del McCoury, Bush, Emmitt, Vann by Abramson
And other musicians and fans loved it, packing Leftover Salmon's shows and clamoring for more. One of the early devotes was Paul Barrere of Little Feat.

"Vince and Drew were two of the best young bluegrass pickers I heard in a long time," said Barrere. "The way that they incorporated rock & roll into the music was just brilliant. Their impact on the jam band scene is huge."

Musician Ronnie McCoury had first seen the band at Telluride in the early 1990s and was hooked by the eclectic sound and the members' energy.

"No one really does what they do," said McCoury. "Personally, I don't even know how they create that sound, but that's why they have such a great following that will stick with them forever."

There were certainly disbelievers, though, when the band started. Emmitt remembers one friend telling him the newly purchased electric mandolin was "cool but all those electric mandolins went out in the '70s." Still, the bandmates wouldn't be dissuaded.

"It really seemed like the smartest thing to do [to develop our sound]," said Emmitt. "You had bluegrass and you had rock, and in that respect there wasn't much happening. You had the [Nitty Gritty] Dirt Band and others with drums and stuff, but they were more country. We took it to a different place. We played with a lot more abandon."

Herman talks about the television show America's Got Talent and the parade of genres and categories showcased.

"I watch that and think we could be contenders in all the categories," he said. "We saw a window of opportunity and we combined all those categories."

Losing A Brother

Mark Vann by Abramson
The band was rolling along and life was sweet when suddenly everything changed. Mark Vann, the brilliant banjo player, became ill and was diagnosed with cancer. He died on March 4, 2002.

The time of his diagnosis was an odd time for the entire country because it occurred just prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Not only was the band without Mark but they also played a few gigs without a drummer because Jose Martinez was in Seattle. A native of Venezuela, he was concerned about trying to get on a commercial airline flight so soon after the attacks, so he rode a Greyhound bus from Seattle to Texas to rejoin the band.

"Walking onstage that first time without Mark was one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life," said Emmitt.

The pain didn't ease for years. Even now, raw emotion floods the voices of Emmitt and Herman when they discuss their former bandmate.

"It absolutely devastated us," said Herman. "It was hard to consider going on and playing again after he passed, but that's what we do. We would have loved to have canned the whole thing. Drew and Mark and I together, it was a spiritual thing that led it along. But none of us had savings accounts and we had to keep going. And we did. It was definitely one of the hardest things I have ever done. Playing music is so spiritually connected with well being and to go onstage and look at the empty spot where Mark used to stand was brutal."

Friends, including Sam Bush and banjo player Reverend Jeff Mosier, played with the band and helped ease some of the pain.

Herman & Vann - Leftover Salmon by Eric Abramson
"The Rev. Mosier was really the perfect person to go out with us as the first banjo player," said Emmitt. "He is a very witty, very funny, very energetic person, and also very spiritual, and it made sense to have someone who was called Reverend be with us at that point. He made us laugh at a time when it was really hard to find laughter anywhere."

In a way, music became a salvation for the band members. Playing, which had been a pure joy, became a form of healing for them.

"The music is going to be different but the music comes out of you and you need to express it just as much," said Herman. "Those gigs were really hard but they were also incredibly therapeutic. Music goes on."

At the end of 2004, the band announced it would take a hiatus. Until they reunited in 2007, many doubted they would ever return.

"I think we were like a three-legged beast walking on two," said Herman. "We had never quite gotten that balance back, and it was a struggle just changing personnel. We had never taken a break after he passed and we just said at one point it was time to give it a rest. It was too spiritually taxing. It had run its course."

When the band reunited in 2007 for performances at High Sierra Music Festival, All Good Festival, and, of course, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Herman and Emmitt were quick to dismiss notions that Leftover Salmon was back. Yet when they were announced at Telluride as "Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman and Friends," Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band said, "We all know what's going on here."

Leftover Salmon 2009
It is true? Is Leftover Salmon really back?

"We are in an interesting place," said Emmitt. "We were a reunion band at that time and we've done reunion shows and festivals. It's hard to say where we are, but it really works well this way. It is awesome. One of the greatest things that ever happened to me personally is putting this band back together because it's very fresh and enriched because of our solo work."

Emmitt, Herman, and the other members each support the other's solo projects that allow them to reach into needed creative areas, knowing they can always return to Leftover Salmon.

"It's comfortable to be back in this place," said Herman. "It's a great repertoire of music and it's very comfortable to dive back in. I don't know where it will go but we'll keep playing music and having fun."

That, said Bush, is really all their friends and family should ask right now.

"It left a big heartbreaking hole for them to lose Mark," Bush said. "They really loved Mark; we all did. If anything, since Mark's demise we are all thankful that they are back and pickin' together again. If anything maybe helps them all, it's that they played somewhat separately for a time. That gives them – and us – an appreciation to get them back."

Continue reading to download the first part of our free Leftover Salmon live double-album...

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