When it comes to the term, “jamgrass,” few compare to beloved Boulder band Leftover Salmon.
But what is “jamgrass” you may ask? Well, in Leftover Salmon’s case, it’s a cohesive blend of bluegrass, rock, zydeco, and Cajun music that makes for a uniquely original sound full of energy. And the dudes can just jam out, too.
For over thirty years and in various forms, the band has been hard on the road, and have been mainstays at festivals all over the world, carving out their own niche and influencing swaths of artists along the way. With the two constants of the band being Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman, the band has navigated through their share of changes and evolution since their inception.
The band formed from happenstance and the alignment of the Rocky Mountain stars at the tail end of the 80s when Herman’s band, Salmon Heads, ended up joining forces with Emmitt’s band, Left Hand String Band, after some members of each fell to the wayside. After that, Leftover Salmon would forge ahead, year after year. Banjo player Mark Vann would be a beloved fixture of the band until his untimely passing in 2002.
Longtime music-writer Tim Newby, who also penned Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound & Its Legacy, has finally told the epic story of this fascinating band in his new book, Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival!’. His previous book was published in 2015, and named one of the “Thirty Great Books about Bluegrass Music” in 2016, and was awarded a Certificate of Excellence by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections for “Best Research in Recorded Country Music.” He was a contributor to the Phish Companion (2nd Edition) published in 2004. Newby has also written for a number of outlets over the years including Paste, Relix, Bluegrass Unlimited, Glide, Inside Lacrosse, Slide & Banjo, AmericanaUK, and Honest Tune where he served as the Features Editor.
We got the chance to ask Newby about his book, his favorite Leftover Salmon shows, and much more.
So from idea to distribution, how long did your book Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival! take you to complete?
Just under four years. In April 2015 I first reached out to the band’s manager, John Joy, with my proposal. He presented it to the band who were on board with it. I first met up with the band at DelFest in May of 2015. Research began in full that summer with countless interviews and trips to meet up with the band over the next few years. There was even a week spent at Vince Herman’s home going through old trunks and footlockers full of notebooks, pictures, and memorabilia that unlocked many long forgotten memories. The book was eventually published in February of 2019.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting this book together?
Getting all of the exact dates and timing of events correct. Everyone had good memories of what happened, but when or in what order was sometimes not as clear due to fuzzy memories, time, and how much fun was being had on said night in question. To help get everything in order I created a bunch of timelines that I continually edited. I would then compare old daily show and festival schedules that had fixed times and dates and fill in the gaps from there. Another big help was recordings of old shows. The banter in between songs was a great peak into what was going on each day. On the trip to Vince’s he shared Mark Vann’s old daily calendars which listed all the shows, events, interviews, etc. the band had over the early years. Also in the calendars were notes that Mark had kept at the time which proved an invaluable insight.
What made you choose to write a book about Leftover Salmon over other similar acts?
I am a fan of the band, and have long loved their music. I have always been drawn to stories of influential people who for whatever reason are overlooked and I feel Salmon falls in this category. Their influence is wide-ranging and seen in every band who mixes bluegrass with drums and jams. This point was driven home and reinforced the need to tell Salmon’s story when I started interviewing other bands for the book and they all said the same thing: Salmon are the reason we can do what we do. The universal love for Salmon’s music and for the guys in the band spoke volumes to the influence they wield even if they are not as well-known as they should be. I also felt their story is not one that is finished. After thirty years of highs, lows, and everything in between, they are arguably making some of the best albums of their career and still killing it live.
What kinds of surprises (if you care to spill) or fun facts might fans learn from reading it?
I think how much Salmon is intertwined or involved with the history of so many other bands. A friend of mine sent me a message after finishing the book and said, “Damn, I’m starting to think that everything revolves around Salmon.” I think that sums it up pretty perfectly. Also sharp-eyed readers may catch some of Salmon’s lyrics throughout the book which have been incorporated as part of the text.
What drew you personally to the world of bluegrass and jamgrass music?
I love the honesty and openness of it and willingness to take chances on stage each night.
Now I have to ask: if someone (like me) were to ask, “What are your top three Leftover Salmon tunes?” you’d say…
The easy answer would be to say, the one they just played, the one they are currently playing, and the one they are going to play next, but that’s no fun. So I guess I would have to say, “Out in the Woods,” “Stay Away Monday,” and “Bend in the River.” But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I love, “Foreign Fields,” “Tu N’As Pas Aller,” and “Aquatic Hitchhiker.”
And how about your most memorable LS show? (or two)
There is so many. One of the first times I saw them at the AllGood Festival in West Virginia in 2000 was pretty amazing. I was with some of my best friends and we were in a very “lively” state of mind. Salmon’s set was everything you wanted it to be, Larry Keel and Danny Knicely sat in, there was a parade, they wore costumes, and it was a non-stop party. The Stories from the Living Room Tour in 2019 were also something special. The band played acoustic, seated on stage set to look like a living room, and chatted and told stories throughout the night. Being asked to be a part of those shows and open each night with a reading from the book was beyond special.
What makes their shows so special?
It sounds cliche, but no two shows are the same. Salmon writes set-lists, but they are more of a suggestion as the band reacts to the crowd and what they are feeling on stage, and will discard songs and add others on the fly. Conversations and events from the day influence what happens that night. One of my favorite shows from the Stories tour was at the Vilar in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Vince would often ask what I was going to talk about or read from the book and include appropriate songs to those stories in the setlist. I suggested they break out a cover of The Specials “Message to You Rudy.” It was a tune that was regularly part of Vince’s band the Salmon Heads in the 80s and played occasionally by Salmon when they first started, but soon dropped from their repertoire.
Vince joked how long it had been since they had played it and said he probably did not remember the song, and left it off the setlist. During the show that night as the band roared through the familiar segue of “Boo Boo” into “Gimme Da Ting,” I heard the jaunty, reggae-ish riff for “Message to you Rudy” begin to emerge as Vince started to sing the song’s opening line. The band fully embraced the song and a smile and glance my way from Vince assured me he remembered our earlier conversation. Later, some in the band admitted they were not even familiar with the song, but when Vince started it, they just followed along. And to me that loose, anything goes, approach that comes across as practiced skill is what makes their shows so special.
Do you have the wheels in motion for the next book?
Currently I am working on a biography of 19th baseball-slugger Pete Browning. Browning is the namesake of the Louisville Slugger bat, owner of one of the highest career batting averages not in the hall of fame, the first man to win batting titles in two different leagues, a legendary drunk, and man whose life seemed define by his odd eccentricities like drinking hot sauce to improve his hitting, naming his bats after biblical characters, or exhaling cigarette smoke into his eyes to improve his ability to see. He is an interesting character. I hope to have it out within the next two years.