Atlantic Salmon are known as "the king of fish" for their natural fortitude and cunning ability to make the astonishing life-long migration from the fresh water streams of their birth to the bigger feeding grounds in the Atlantic Ocean and back again to spawn.
Their ability to return to the exact same stream where they were hatched has baffled the world's biologists for centuries. Most salmon species die after spawning. Their decomposing bodies add important nutrients to the water and provide food for a wide range of wildlife.
It's not just convenient journalistic coincidence that the band Leftover Salmon has parallel habits to that of its aquatic namesake. For fifteen strong, energetic, and eclectic years, no band ruled the underground roots-music stage like Leftover Salmon. They traversed the North American highways all in the name of music – using fun as a guiding principle and festival as a religion.
The band's Colorado roots were always very strong. As far as they might travel, Salmon would always return home for the special gigs – festivals, themed multi-show runs, and popular calendar holidays.
Early in the morning of January 1st, 2005 – after fifteen years, to the day – Leftover Salmon walked away from the stage.
Theorize what you will about Leftover Salmon's future. The band members insist their self-imposed hiatus is open-ended.
Why did they do it? Many reasons factored into their decision, but it was made easier by a window of opportunity to help them make a clean, natural break. And they took it. That window was opened when replacement banjo player Noam Pikelny decided to follow his heart and take up with the John Cowan Band.
The two remaining original members – Drew Emmitt (multi-instrumentalist) and Vince Herman (guitarist) – saw it as a chance to move on. Over the course of their career, Leftover Salmon were a bunch of road-dogs. Right from the start they filled their calendar with tour after tour. They tried to cut back, but even in their last year, they were still juggling 150 dates. The two men looked at this as an opportunity to reconnect with their families and to do their own thing.
Emmitt & Herman :: NYE Final Show by Tony Stack
The biggest reason Leftover Salmon stayed on the road as long as they did was to fulfill the dying wish of their fallen friend – Leftover Salmon co-founder and banjo player – the inimitable Mark Vann.
Mark wanted us to continue after he left the band, and that's what we did. We have toured just as hard, rebuilt the band, and put out a new record. Now we feel that we can take a break without letting him down. – Press Release (6/15/2004)
Emmitt, Herman, Vann
Leftover Salmon was faced with a perfect storm of reasons to end it. The decision wasn't without its second guesses, of course, but in the end, they all agreed – the time was right. "Vince and I talked on the phone one day," Emmitt explains. "And he was like, 'What do you think? Should we keep it going?' And I was like, 'Well, let's take a break.' And that's how we kind of approached it."
The band's casual and unlikely end was very similar to its beginning. And so, perhaps, the life cycle of Salmon begins anew.
HOT RIZE, IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE
Anyone who has ever asked "Who?" after overhearing the name "Leftover Salmon," has probably heard a synopsis of the band's origins and of how they got their funny name. However, a more proper understanding of "Leftover Salmon" must first begin with Hot Rize, the seminal progressive string band, also from Colorado, and also with a funny name, who kicked in the door for a generation of picking pioneers.
From 1977 to 1987, Hot Rize stretched bluegrass further than was ever thought possible. Incorporating elements of jazz, rock, Gypsy, and hard-core country, the quartet forged their music alongside their own unique vision. They gained national attention with frequent appearances on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" on National Public Radio. In no time at all, their stage show gained renown, featuring deft and snappy bluegrass spiked with a wacky alter-ego known as "Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers," who played '40s and '50s country-swing songs. Though the group's own material is credited with helping birth newgrass, the Hot Rize boys were also recognized as the finest traditional pickers around.
Like country music in Tennessee, pickers the world over flocked to Colorado like mice to the Pied Piper. Colorful Colorado became firmly entrenched as the place to be for anyone with an inclination towards bluegrass, mountain, and/or string music. Naturally, all the transplants started looking for honest work, which, in turn, mushroomed into off-handed gigs and picking parties. The creative groundswell that bubbled up in the Rocky Mountains made for a prolific breeding ground for musicians looking to form a band. Vince Herman was among them:
Hot Rize is who kind of attracted me to Colorado to begin with. It's a very fertile music town here (Nederland). It's pretty cool to see all the things go down. It's been great living up here because there are so many musicians. I think a lot of it is the seed that Hot Rize planted. It got me here. And you know, Colorado has kind of been building with this mountain music kinda thing for a lot of years. It's cool to be a part of it.
Vince Herman by Robert Massie
Having already moved with his family from Nashville to Boulder in 1973, Drew Emmitt was present for the hot rise of this sensation:
My Dad got a job at the Denver Post. We moved from Nashville so he could work there... I basically grew up in the Boulder music scene. I met them [Hot Rize] in about 1980, and I took lessons from Tim O'Brien (multi-instrumentalist). He was my first teacher, and eventually, I got to be good friends with all those guys. And Charles Sawtelle (bass, guitar) produced our first two records – the first Left Hand record and the first Salmon record. So we have a lot of connections with Hot Rize. They were a big influence on the band and our music, for sure.
Throughout the '90s, Hot Rize reunited a few times each year to play festivals and brief tours. In 1994, Charles Sawtelle was diagnosed with leukemia and died five years later from complications of a bone marrow transplant. Using Peter Rowan and Jeff White on guitar, Hot Rize fulfilled its remaining commitments in 1999 as Charles Sawtelle memorials, in which Leftover Salmon participated.
The striking similarities between Leftover Salmon and Hot Rize go far beyond statehood and funny band names, which in the end, proved to be both a blessing and a curse.