From Pittsburgh polka to Boulder bluegrass, guitarist and songwriter Vince Herman of popular jamgrass band Leftover Salmon has been at it for the better part of three decades.
What started as Herman simply needing to fill a few spots for his band the Salmon Heads for a 1989 New Year’s Eve show, would go on to be a thirty-year bluegrass dynasty. Herman called upon his Boulder cohorts, Drew Emmitt and Glenn Keefe, to assist him to close out the decade that night, and since then, Herman and Emmitt would be the faces of LOS for years to come.
Those faces have embarked on their first ever duo tour, and will be hitting City Winery here in Nashville tonight, February 7th. In honor of their 30 years together, LOS has released their Limited Edition Complete Vinyl Box Set, 30 Years Under The Big Top, for all of you die-hard Salmon Heads, which you can pre-order HERE.
Herman, Emmitt, and the various iterations of LOS have put out ten albums since their inception, accumulated hundreds of thousands of miles touring (a million?), and are mainstay festival acts. Perhaps more notably, the band put out Nashville Sessions in 1999, which featured an All-Star lineup of musicians including Waylon Jennings, Earl Scruggs, Taj Mahal, Lucinda Williams, and many more. During a LOS hiatus in the mid-2000s, Herman created the band Great American Taxi, which still plays today, with or without him.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Herman about his roots in bluegrass, reflecting on his lengthy tenure with LOS, his lucky pair of pants, and much more.
Music Mecca: So I’ve read a bit about the fusion of Left Hand String Band and Salmon Heads forming to make what we know as Leftover Salmon, but I was hoping I could get a first hand account of the years leading up to and into the transition?
Vince Herman: So I moved from West Virginia to Colorado in 1985. I pulled into Boulder with my buddy I came out with, and parked in front of a place that said, “Live Bluegrass Tonight!” And we we’re like, “Alright! Boulder is a bluegrass town, let’s go check it out!” And it was Drew [Emmitt] playing with the Left Hand String Band. I mean this was literally the first thing we did when we got into town was see this Left Hand String Band show.
MM: And were you playing music at the time?
VH: I wasn’t doing it professionally, but yeah I’ve been playing music since I was a kid. I started playing piano early, and started guitar lessons in third grade. I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is an incredibly musical town, really. A lot of different ethnic music. Polka was probably in my ear in terms of live music more than anything as a kid. Big family, and all the weddings we went to had to have a polka band, ya know? So I grew up kind of in that environment, and moved to West Virginia for college and got into the bluegrass and old timey scene. Morgantown had a bunch of pickers, and we played, but it wasn’t anything professional. So upon arriving in Boulder, I ran into a whole different kind of music scene here, and all kinds of people playing gigs and that kind of thing. So I started playing in the Left Hand String Band about two years after moving there, did that for about a year, and then I started the Salmon Heads. And about a year and a half later, the two combined to form Leftover Salmon.
MM: And the rest was history. Thinking back even further, do you remember what artist, song, or show just blew you away as a kid and made you realize you wanted to dedicate your life to making music?
VH: It was at the Smoky City Folk Festival in Pittsburgh in probably ‘77 maybe. ‘76 or ‘77. And I saw this group of like 40 people standing around playing tunes. And I realized they had this common repertoire. And probably a bunch of them had just met each other. To interact in that way through music, I was like, “Holy Toledo man!” This is the social aspect of music that doesn’t have anything to do with polkas. (laughs) And it’s just a great way to hang out with people.
MM: Did you ever have a fellow music mentor you looked up to as a young musician who you maybe played with or for?
VH: A couple. There was one in my hometown of Carnegie, Pennsylvania named Bob Gabig. He was the president of the International Hysterical Society. And he wrote tunes like the president of the International Hysterical Society would. Really fun, topical tunes. He taught me that having fun was what’s really, really important. Involving sarcasm and comedy and all that stuff. And then a guy named Vince Farsetta. He lived in Morgantown where I went to school, and had a ska band, but was also a national champion clawhammer. He also played fiddle. I played a bunch of tunes with him, worked with him doing construction, and he taught me a lot about the construction world and the music world. We would end up doing a bunch of his tunes in Salmon. A lot of calypso tunes we cover I learned from Vinny.
MM: I’m sure you’ve grown into a routine for how you approach shows, but do you have any rituals or things you make sure you do or have before each show? Maybe a favorite pair of pants?
VH: I’ve worn the same pants for thirty years.(laughs) Naw, ya know we usually do the set list and talk about what we want to do, maybe what medleys to throw together, ways to break it down. We often feature the trio of bass, drums, and keyboards and break it down to that just about every show. Maybe add a jazz section. Just plot out what’s going to happen. For these duo shows I’m sure we’ll do a set list, but the shows will be so intimate and people can yell requests. The cool thing about Drew and I doing this stuff is, ya know we’ve been playing together for God, 35 years, so we know each other pretty well, and can pretty much just pull anything out of the top of our heads and just go with it.
At this point Vince starts to heave and cough.
VH: Yikes. Doin’ one of those pre-gig rituals here. So yeah, the set list is kind of all over the place, ya know? We’ve got 30 years of material, so we’ll be bringing out old ones we never recorded, and new ones we haven’t released yet.
MM: Not long ago I came across your 1999 Nashville Sessions album at the Inglewood Library here in Nashville. Could you talk about how that project came to life with all of those legendary musicians?
VH: Our manager Chuck Morris from out here in Denver had managed The Dirt Band and all kinds of folks, and we had lots of Nashville connections. We were on Hollywood Records, which gave us one of the rare things in the music business these days, a “budget,” to make an album with. So Chuck arranged Randy Skruggs to come hear us at a show in Colorado, and he thought he’d work with us. So he called up some friends like Waylon Jennings, and yeah. A lot of the folks on the record we had a relationship with, except for Waylon and Lucinda. We pretty much put together a wish list of who we wanted to have, and to have Earl Scruggs play on the record…and Randy Skruggs too. It was fantasy island, that’s for sure.
MM: What does time off look like for Vince Herman? Do you have certain hobbies or pastimes your passionate about when you’re cooling it from music? Maybe fishing, chess, hang-gliding…
VH: God, I’ve been in so deep: I’m producing a record, and just since New Year’s I’ve produced twelve tracks for a local band here. I’ve made a High Hawks record. I toured Texas, did a singer-songwriter night in Jackson Hole with Oliver Wood and Justin Townes Earle. Just got back and spent the day in the studio yesterday working on a project we did with a local band- picking myself up from making one record, and going up to get back in the studio to work on another record! (laughs)
MM: So basically no days off…
VH: I like to fish! And I’m going to Jamaica in a couple days to play with some guys from Little Feat. But there will be a few days off down there. I’ll find some recreation.
MM: Well good, it sounds like you could use some relaxing time off.
VH: But I love it, you know? Touring isn’t all that comfortable anymore. And getting on planes and all that stuff is tiring. But the producing thing I really love doing. I made this last record with my son as the engineer. And it’s really, really nice to make a record with the family. And I have another son who’s a musician, and we have a little family band.
MM: What newer generation of bluegrass artists are you digging most going into 2020?
VH: Oh Billy Strings rules the world. He’s awesome, man. He’s got the fire, and having played metal he knows about that approach and intensity of being on stage, and really putting it out there. He’s got a real appreciation for bluegrass and the old stuff. He’s got all the skills in the world man, and is the ultimate combination for what bluegrass needs right now. He’s got the personality and consciousness to be able to deal with the onslaught that’ll be coming at him. I think he’s incredibly prepared for it.
MM: Reflecting on 30 years of music with LOS, what comes to mind as some or one of the most pivotal and meaningful milestones you’ve had as a band?
VH: Man, um. Probably a few of the festivals we’ve thrown. Those were really, monumentally fun. (laughs) It helped build culture. That’s what we need these days. We need musical culture to counter the bastards controlling the other aspects of our society. (tapers off into hearty laughter)
MM: Where did you throw the festivals? Right in Colorado?
VH: Yeah we threw one in Lyons, Colorado quite awhile back with Planet Bluegrass. And that was way fun, and got a bit too rowdy. Some folks didn’t like it so much, but the first one we did was in Lesterville, Missouri. Middle of nowhere. We did three years of that. They were just epic blends of very fun things. We’re going to try to revive that again this year. See what we can build for a festival there.