Leftover Salmon: The Brand New Good Old Days
Leftover Salmon fall backward into their a new era with a fitting pandemic release that still manages to capture both their prankster spirit and their musical brotherhood.
Jamgrass forefathers Leftover Salmon have been festival-ready rabble rousers and consummate road dogs for over three decades, so one would assume that they’ve seen it all. But nothing compares to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
“It’s a complete reset in every way— good and bad,” co-founder Drew Emmitt surmises, phoning from his home in Crested Butte, Colo. “Obviously, it’s been very scary with so many people passing due to the virus, so many people getting sick and all the back and forth between these different ‘our side versus yours’ ideologies. Last year was about the most tumultuous year I’ve ever seen. It’s like, ‘Oh, my god, how much crazier can things get?’”
Naturally, Emmitt spent much of the quarantine with his instrument in hand, strumming his strings, writing new songs and anticipating when he could play live again.
“It’s been a real time of reflection for all of us,” he adds. “It’s just been about getting back to the basics of what’s important in life, the people that are important to you, what is important about playing music and what it means to write songs.”
That “carpe diem” spirit is fully reflected on Leftover Salmon’s newest release, Brand New Good Old Days, which dropped on May 7. On the title track, amid a rollicking “On the Road Again”-esque riff, Emmitt’s co-founder/co-pilot Vince Herman croons, “These days, we won’t be getting any younger/ And before time takes us under/ I’m living big every minute of every day.”
Leftover Salmon actually recorded Brand New Good Old Days in 2019 and, according to Herman, “Brand New Good Old Days” was fully written long before the COVID-19 crisis. But, its message managed to arrive at exactly the right time, as the live-music world begins to collectively reawaken after its long, dark night.
“Col. Bruce Hampton mentored us for so long, I guess maybe we’re able to see into the future or something,” Herman says with a laugh, acknowledging the song’s near-perfect timing. “It’s funny that a lot of the tunes we wrote sound like they could have been about the pandemic, trying to find that silver lining in this stuff. I can’t say that it was done intentionally. But that’s the wonder of art: A good song can apply to anything.”
As far as musical partnerships go, Herman and Emmitt are among the jam scene’s most beloved. The story goes that Herman first pulled into Boulder, Colo. in October 1985 and almost immediately stumbled into a club where Emmitt happened to be performing. They quickly developed a friendship and, a few years later, joined forces to birth Leftover Salmon. The group helped pioneer the jamgrass movement, paving the way for acts like The String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band and Greensky Bluegrass, and ascending to headliner status at Morrison, Colo.’s famed Red Rocks.
And while the band’s lineup has changed over time—especially after original banjo player Mark Vann died of melanoma in 2002—the current roster boasts Emmitt, Herman, bassist Greg Garrison, banjoist Andy Thorn and drummer Alwyn Robinson. Through it all, Emmitt and Herman have remained the outfit’s musical core. They’re an unlikely pair that one could compare to any number of famously quirky duos— Herman’s preference is Jay and Silent Bob. “It’s been a great time with Drew over all the years,” Herman explains. “It still seems like yesterday that we combined two bands [Herman’s Salmon Heads and Emmitt’s Left Hand String Band] and figured out what the hell we’re gonna do. Now, 31 years later, we’re still kind of figuring out what we’re gonna do. [Laughs.] We’re born a year and a couple days apart. And we’re definitely, definitely soul brothers in that we love roots music and old-time music as well as rock-and-roll, calypso, zydeco and some more modern stuff. It’s all in our wheelhouse. It’s hard to randomly find someone with those kinds of interests. We just kind of dovetailed right into each other. We’ve been really lucky.”
“We are definitely like bookends: opposites in certain ways but also one in the same in a lot of other ways,” Emmitt confirms. “[Vince’s] wackiness and his leadership in the band is awesome and we kind of balance each other out because the way that I front a band is a little more about solos and songwriting. He’s always been the one to spearhead everything, which has been great for me because I can kind of step to the side. I’ve never seen anybody, other than maybe Col. Bruce Hampton, who is as good an emcee/ bandleader as Vince Herman. He has made me laugh more than anybody I’ve ever been around in my entire life. There’s a great friendship there. We’ve spent half our lives together.”
Brand New Good Old Days opens with an unexpected dose of ‘90s nostalgia, a twanged-up version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” According to Emmitt, “off-the-wall covers” are just another Leftover Salmon tradition; in fact, they have a history of turning well-known songs on their head and giving them a welcome, slamgrass treatment.
“I’m a closet grunge fan,” Emmitt chuckles. “That era of rock was really interesting—Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots and so on. I thought Soundgarden was really creative and a lot of their other songs are equally cool, but this one, ‘Black Hole Sun,’ just kind of spoke to me. One day, I was listening to it and I thought, ‘This would make a cool bluegrass tune’ and it’s completely out of left field. I just think it’s a really haunting, pretty tune. So I’m tickled to death that the band thought that it was a good idea to record it.”
Perhaps a sign of the times, the members of Leftover Salmon also get political on Brand New Good Old Days, especially on the mid-album “Red Fox Run.” The track was originally conceived by Thorn, who was inspired by a real-life fox that he saw on his Colorado property. But, he quickly turned the tune into a metaphor for gun violence in America. The banjo player brought it to the rest of the group in late 2019, and they promptly debuted it at that year’s Strings & Sol event in Mexico. At one point, the track name-checks the NRA and asks, “How many more children have to die before we say, ‘It’s time to go and put that gun away?”’
“Especially for us, after the shooting in Boulder—and there’s been over 50 shootings in the last month or so—it’s too eerie,” Emmitt says, making note of the deadly March 2021 shooting that took place on the band’s home turf. “To have that song on the record is pretty poignant and deep. It’s definitely a tough subject. And it’s definitely one of those subjects that divides our country. It’s a gutsy tune, we know. But it’s something that needs to be said. More political and more human rights ideas have come into our music, and, unless you’re living under a rock, it’s pretty hard to avoid all that sort of stuff.”
While they proudly introduce new dimensions into their sound, Leftover Salmon will always be true to their leave-your-problems-at-the-door ethos. After all, many of the group’s fans and fellow musicians depend on them for a carefree, cathartic, old-time get-down. Their recent return to Red Rocks included sit-ins by a slew of musical friends— Andy Frasco, Dave Bruzza of Greensky Bluegrass and Keith Moseley of The String Cheese Incident, just to name a few—and, pre-pandemic, there always seemed to be a line of musicians rearing to get in on their onstage antics. Just look at the album cover for their 2002 album, Live, which depicts a friend of the band—aptly named Magoo—mid-sprint atop a row of porta-potties. At a Leftover Salmon show, the only rule is to have fun, and the lines between band, crowd, friends and follies is razor thin.
“Bruce Hampton said, ‘Take what you do seriously—never take yourself seriously,’ and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that,” Herman concludes. “He also said, ‘There’s nothing worse than a good band.’ Like: ‘How was the band last night?’ ‘Oh, they were good.’ It wasn’t, ‘They went out, they put a garbage can over their head and ran around the crowd making duck noises,’ you know? It’s about being open and finding ways to celebrate the present right then and there. It may involve playing a really good song, or it may involve taking a risk, doing something you’ve never done before and seeing what happens. Sometimes that works out great. Sometimes it doesn’t. That’s certainly what I do when I make up words to a song kind of on the spot without knowing where it’s going or whether it’ll expose me as an absolute freak or something. You just roll the dice and let it go. And that brings it more into the moment right there than anything that I’ve been able to find.
“I heard Bruce say, ‘There’s some people out there who are good players, playing good stuff, but you can’t figure out why they’re doing it. It’s all intention’” he continues. “My intention has always been to bring everybody into the moment and do as much as I can to celebrate it.”
Emmitt agrees, noting that it’s often the most “serious” musicians who are itching to wreak some havoc onstage with Leftover Salmon.
“I’ve felt like we’ve always flown by the seat of our pants. It’s great to be serious, and it’s great to work hard and put together great arrangements and all that but it can also be a little stifling,” he says. “You need room to move. You need to have fun with it, too.”
And that’s certainly the case for Brand New Good Old Days, an album brimming with optimism, self-reflection and the kind of falling-backward-into-success intuition that has rewarded Leftover Salmon for over three decades.
“I think the timing of putting out a record and getting back on the road is pretty great for us,” Emmitt grins. “We’re pretty excited that somehow we pulled this off. And I don’t even know how we did it.”