Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass, Part 2

November 9, 2019
Tim Newby

Leftover Salmon and Keller Williams

This is part two of three of author Tim Newby’s inside look into the writing of his latest book, Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival.  Read part one here.

The first thing I’m asked about my book “Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival” is why did I devote a few years of my life to telling Leftover Salmon’s story?  Before starting the project, I hadn’t met any members of the band, and had only spoken with Vince Herman and Bill Payne for an article I was writing for Honest Tune Magazine about their High Country album in October of 2014.  During that conversation, Vince said something that really struck me.  He said, “I started playing with Drew when I was first out of college over 30 years ago. It was pretty footloose and hippie van when we first started, and over the years there have been marriages, breakups, band changes, and all kinds of things, but at the end of the day there was always Drew and Leftover Salmon.”  

I had recently had my first book, Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound & Its Legacy, published and was on the lookout for a new project and that thought just kept coming back to me. To have something you have done for the vast majority of your life that still inspires and brings people joy, happiness, and all those emotions that music can cause is a pretty profound thought.  Vince’s comment kept rattling around and I kept thinking how there had to be a story there.

Any band that has been around 25, 30 years has a tale, but there has to be more than longevity to make it a compelling story. What was it about Salmon’s story that made it intriguing? 

To me the answer was the music. Music is supposed to remind us of the good times, help up get through the bad ones, and make everyday that much better.

To me, their music was the story; it’s why we travel across the country to see this band. The music brings us together. And, with all of that, I thought there has to be a story in there that needs to be told now.

When I first had the idea for the book I reached out their publicist, who put me in touch with the band’s manager. He presented it to the group, they were interested, and we moved forward from there. I first met the band at Delfest in 2015 and started interviews shortly after that. 

The band could not have been more helpful and open. Vince even had me out to his house in Oregon for a week, where we went through old trunks and boxes of stuff he had kept over the years which provided some amazing finds. 

I had to recognize how open the band would be in this journey. I told their story as I felt it needed to be told, and Salmon deserves huge credit for trusting me and allowing me to do that. There were difficult topics and subjects that I covered in the book; while I am sure were uncomfortable to discuss, the band still answered every question I had – deeply and thoroughly.  But before those conversations, I had to start the research that would lead me there.  

My first interview was a series of three conversations with Drew. For the first interview I just wanted to talk about Salmon and and Drew’s life, to see where the conversation went. For the next conversation I wanted to talk in detail about the different members of Salmon (in chronological order,) followed by another interview about the band’s discography.  The idea was to compile a timeline from which I could work and add to as I continued researching.

One of the first things I discovered is that while Salmon – like many bands of similar ilk – has an extensive setlist and show archive available online, theirs is far from complete. In those first conversations with Drew I wanted to start creating a timeline to organize over 30 years of story, not fully recognizing how important that timeline would become as I dug deep into the story and the band shared long-forgotten events. The timeline would help place Salmon into a larger context because their story is so intertwined with so much musical history.

I have often joked about the band not always being able to remember specific dates or answer questions about something that happened in ‘93 or ‘94.  I was asking them to recall every specific date, show, and event in their life and remember all the details about it. For us as show-going live music fans, each show is a special moment, a highly memorable night. 

For bands, though, that show may have simply been night 16 of a 27-night run. It stands to reason that they may struggle with specific dates. However, Salmon’s memories of the events were always spot on and full of details, so creating an ever-evolving timeline helped solidify exact dates.  To help with that, I started with primary sources with verified info from which to work…schedules from festivals, old show posters, and newspaper articles etc.

A good example of this was when Vince and Drew first met Mark Vann at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1989.  Everyone I talked to who was there had clear memories of the major events from the weekend and agreed about all the details, but four days of partying at a festival and the ensuing 30 years made for some haziness on the actually chronology events. Using the schedule of events for the weekend and some pictures Vince had from that weekend, I was able to piece together the exact order of events for the weekend.

Another helpful source was listening to old Salmon shows and focusing on the banter in between songs which provided useful insight into specific dates, providing a window into the thoughts of the band at the time. Their stage banter often mentioned what was going on in the daily happenings of the band. providing an interesting look into the band real-time. Some days I was listening to three, four, five shows or more a day.

Following those initial conversations with Drew I began interviewing the rest of the band. All followed up with countless emails and texts, and I caught up with the band on the road when possible. At one of those get-togethers – the Hot August Music Festival in Maryland in 2016 – Vince provided me with the first collection of personal items I would get: he dropped a bag full of notebooks, calendars, pictures, old setlists, and many other scribblings into my lap with a simple, “take care of that.”

As the process wore on everyone in the band helped provide unique items that helped crystallize the timeline and story. Vince eventually delivered handwritten notes from the recording of the Nashville Sessions album. Banjo player Andy Thorn provided photos of the Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band featuring Anders Beck from Greensky Bluegrass and Travis Book from the Infamous Stringdusters, and photos of his high school band that featured Jon Stickley.

In addition to the band, I wanted to speak to as many other musicians as I could. It was Salmon’s story being told, but their story is also the story of so many. The number of people they have played with and the number of young musicians they have influenced is staggering. 

All of those musicians wanted to talk about Salmon – how much they love them and were influenced by them. Ben Kaufmann from Yonder Mountain String Band said bluntly, “You could not find a more important band or group of people who had an impact on my life musically and on my career.” 

Adam Greuel from Horseshoes & Hand Grenades stated, “Salmon unlocked a sense of musical joy in my heart and mind.”  He added, “Whenever I get to see them live I find myself throwing my hands in the air with the biggest smile I could ever create at their shows.” 

Rob Derhak from moe. said, “We saw what they were doing and it inspired us to put more energy into the live show and connect with the audience. I didn’t get how important that was until I saw them.” 

Each of those conversations led to new conversations and new trails to follow. An afternoon phone call with Rev. Jeff Mosier led to life-altering conversations with Col. Bruce Hampton. Near the conclusion of my first interview with Bruce I asked him for a quote about Salmon. Bruce, who I had never talked to before, laughed and told me he needed six months to think about it before he could even begin to sum up the absurdity of Leftover Salmon. We both laughed and said our farewells.

Six months later I called Bruce out of the blue. He answered as if he had been sitting by the phone waiting and delivered this beauty of a line: “Leftover Salmon is the only band who makes state birds evaporate and get healthier.”

Near the end of my research I went to Vince’s house in Oregon for a week-long visit to go through boxes and trunks of his old stuff.  After a lengthy, delayed-filled, cross country trip from my home in Baltimore, I finally made it to Vince’s house in Ashland, Oregon.

The timing for the trip was perfect.  It was a few years into the writing process, and I had established a detailed timeline, but there were still many dates and events that had an air of uncertainty surrounding them. Vince had all of Mark Vann’s old, handwritten calendars that doubled as the band’s business ledgers from the earliest days. Those allowed me to clarify any remaining questionable dates and compile an accurate show list for the band. 

The calendars also provided an interesting look into the band’s earliest years. Mark’s handwritten notes showed how they were paid – everything from money to a couple of cases of microbrews to rooms and dinner. The ledgers also revealed band expenses: how much the band spent on various items including such necessities as pot.

While rummaging through the footlockers and boxes, many new gems that had been long forgotten were discovered, like Vince’s handwritten notebook from the day he first met Drew in 1985. All helped provide more depth to Salmon’s story.  Vince could not have been more generous with his time and memorabilia. As I prepared to leave, he told me to take whatever I needed for the book; Many notebooks, posters, pictures, and clippings made the trip back home to Baltimore with me. 

The trip to Vince’s ended with a Salmon show at the Armory in Ashland, Oregon – his hometown at the time. The day of the show started with a trip into the mountains for the video shoot for “Southern Belle,” a new song from their upcoming album Something Higher.  The video shoot was finished outside the Armory before the show and featured a-blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from your humble narrator when Vince said they needed someone who looked tough, (at the 3:08 mark).

The night ended with a party at Vince’s and, a great jam that saw Keller Williams (who had opened the show that night) singing along with Drew on the Salmon classic, “Bend in the River,” while everyone jammed late into the night.

As night crept towards morning, I was talking with Vince about what to do.  I had a 5:30 am flight to Seattle to catch my flight home. Do I try and catch a few moments of sleep before making the trek to the airport?

I put that question to Vince who delivered this sage advice: “Sometimes you just have to play through.”

That’s what I did.

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