Leftover Salmon: Thirty years of Polyethnic Cajun slamgrass, Part 1

September 19, 2019
Tim Newby

This is part one in a three-part feature on Leftover Salmon’s 30 years on the road.

Vince Herman’s unrestrained laughter echoed around his house. I had just told him that his good friend and mentor, Bruce Hampton, once said to me, “Leftover Salmon was the only band to make state birds evaporate and get healthier.”

Herman’s laughter was infectious and built every time he thought again about Hampton’s seemingly nonsensical quote. It was a classic Hampton quote, that on the surface may seem to make no sense, but upon deeper thought makes perfect sense. It spoke to the absurdity Leftover Salmon has embraced since first coming together three decades ago when they added drums to bluegrass and turned the staid, traditional style on its head. 

As I sat in Herman’s living room flipping through old notebooks and digging through boxes of memorabilia, you could smell thirty years of history.

Thirty years of Polyethnic Cajun slamgrass.

Or maybe it was just the musty smell of old newspapers that is so distinct; or perhaps it was simply the smell of Herman’s joint as he stood over my shoulder pointing things out as I dug through box after box. I was in Herman’s living room continuing a journey that had begun when I first approached Leftover Salmon’s manager about writing a book on the band. They were about to celebrate thirty years together, no small feat, but more importantly, they are a band who, while not always getting the mainstream recognition and wider acclaim they deserve, are massively influential. Their presence and influence are felt and seen in countless bands they have mentored and inspired over those thirty years, and it was that story that needed to be told.

Through the course of my research I have lost count of the number of times someone told me, “I would not be doing what I am doing now if it was not for Leftover Salmon,” or, “They are the most important band in my life,” or some similar statement acknowledging their importance. Each of those interviews made it clear how necessary Leftover Salmon’s story was to tell.

I was in college when I first discovered Salmon’s music tacked as a filler to the end of a live Phish show tape a friend passed onto me. I wish I could I say exactly what show and song were on that tape, as it would make this story much cooler, but I can’t. As a 20-year-old then, I had no idea I would be writing a book about that music as a 43-year-old now. That first exposure did what Salmon’s music always does—it inspired me, made me smile, and made me want to have a really good time.

A few years after that initial discovery, on a weekend when we packed way too many people into a 1990 Chevy Corsica and sacrificed necessary supplies we would need for the weekend to make more room for beer, I saw Leftover Salmon for the first time in the mountains of West Virginia at the AllGood Festival. On a chilly, wet night, with a head full of good times and some of my best friends Salmon showed there is nothing better than having a good time with good friends, while listening to good music.

That night Salmon led a large contingent of fans in parade formation across the stage in full costume. My friends and I shared their energy and excitement in the audience. Since that show, as Herman so accurately stated from stage that night, “In no way, shape or form, has the party ended.” For Leftover Salmon, the party has not ended, as few bands have been able to stick around for thirty years as they have done. Even fewer bands leave a legacy that establishes them as a truly special, once-in-a-lifetime band. And no band has done all that and had as much fun as Leftover Salmon.

Since their earliest days as a forward-thinking, progressive bluegrass band who had the balls to add drums to the mix and was unafraid to stir in any number of highly combustible styles into their ever-evolving sound, to their role as a key player in the jamband scene that emerged in the 1990s, to being pioneers of the modern jamgrass scene, through days of tragedy and rebirth, to their current status as elder statesmen, they have cast a huge, influential shadow over every festival they play. Leftover Salmon has been a crucial link in keeping alive the traditional music of the past while at the same time pushing the music forward with their own weirdly unique style.

When listening to Leftover Salmon it is easy to draw a line that runs straight from Bill Monroe to John Hartford to the Grateful Dead to Hot Rize to Little Feat to New Grass Revival to Col. Bruce Hampton and end with Leftover Salmon. Connecting all those disparate sounds is no easy feat, but Salmon pulls it off with acrobatic ease. It is simply what they have done since first forming 30 years ago in Boulder, Colorado.

Their story starts in Boulder, with a chance encounter between two young musicians in the Walrus Saloon on a late October evening in 1985. Emmitt was there playing a show with his Left Hand String Band and Herman, who had just arrived in Boulder early that day after a cross-country drive from West Virginia, stopped in looking for a beer, a burger, and some bluegrass music to listen to. The two become friends. They began playing music together whenever the opportunity arose, at house parties, in the Left Hand String Band, and in the campgrounds of the bluegrass festivals they frequented around Colorado.

At one of those festivals in Telluride in 1989, they met a banjo picker, Mark Vann, from Virginia, whom they recognized as a similar musically mischievous soul. After a couple of campground jams and a late-night show at the Roma during that Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a new band—Leftover Salmon—was formed. Emmitt, Herman, and Vann would affectionately come to be known as the “The Big Three,” and form the nucleus of Salmon for the next decade.

Since the band’s humble beginnings born from Drew Emmitt’s bluegrass outfit, the Left Hand String Band, and Herman’s Cajun-jug band the Salmon Heads, Leftover Salmon has always tiptoed the line between genres with their musically diverse approach of effortlessly bouncing from one style to another. They found their own piece of musical real estate existing somewhere between bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll. It is musical real estate not settled before Leftover Salmon slamgrassed their way onto it, planted their freak flag, and created something entirely new. It is a sound uncomfortable to some.

As bluegrass icon Sam Bush says, “When the bluegrass people think you’re playing rock and the rock people think you’re playing bluegrass, you’re on the right track.” Leftover Salmon was on the right track. There have been other attempts at this fusion of bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll. The Earl Scruggs Revue, John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain, David Bromberg, and New Grass Revival immediately come to mind, but no one has done it quite like Leftover Salmon. 

Over the years, Salmon has never had a hit song or mega-selling album, never crossed over into the mainstream (beyond a brief flirtation in the nineties), but they have amassed a passionate legion of fans, including many legendary musical icons who sing their praises every chance they get.

“They should be ten times the size they are,” says Col. Bruce Hampton. “We are not a commercial band,” explains Emmitt with a sense of pride in his voice. “We are ever the underdog band. We are the band that clawed our way out. We toured in a school bus for years and did everything grassroots style from scratch. We are the band that never got radio help or financial backing. None of that. Everything this band has gotten is purely from the love of music and touring and I am proud of that. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had we gotten some of those breaks other bands got, but historically in the music business the bands that set trends, the bands that come before, or start movements are not necessarily the bands that get huge.”  

Leftover Salmon came first and did help start many movements. They were part of the first wave of jambands originally lumped together on the H.O.R.D.E. Festival and helped spawn a new sound and style, often referred to as jamgrass, that has seen bands including The String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters, and many others follow in their footsteps. Their lasting impact and legacy is not only in the music they have created, but also the countless bands and musicians they have influenced.

Along the way, Leftover Salmon has established themselves as one of the foremost stewards of Americana music, comfortably traveling down the highway of American music and making all of it their own. They belong in the long lineage of bands defying simple categorization, who instead set their own musical agenda. Like their musical forefathers Hot Rize, New Grass Revival, and Little Feat, they have achieved greatness, suffered loss, and found rebirth.

Like so many bands who experienced tragedy and hard times, Leftover Salmon could have easily faded away and become a footnote in the long history of American music, but much like their namesake, they persevered, swimming upstream through obstacles and struggles, and in year thirty are still standing and playing some of the best music of their career.

They are Leftover Salmon. This is their story.

Stay tuned for parts two and three, and click here to check out Tim Newby’s book Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival!

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