TELLURIDE - In a year dominated by anniversary watermarks for Telluride’s most important festivals, it is the 40th anniversary of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival that will kick off the summer season properly.
Four decades in the making meant mandatory slots for staple performers like Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Tim O’Brien, Edgar Meyer, and many others.
The new breed of bluegrass elite will also be represented by the Yonder Mountain String Band, the Punch Brothers, the Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass and Elephant Revival. What more could any self-respecting, foot-stomping grasshead ask for? Well, the return of Colorado’s bigger band, the String Cheese Incident, the introduction of standout indie pop voice Feist, a set with Jackson Browne and a last-minute booking of Steve Martin to replace Mumford & Sons arguably puts the deep lineup over the top.
Falling somewhere between the festival legends and the rising newbreed are Telluride favorites Leftover Salmon. You would be hard pressed to find someone more passionate about this festival than mandolinist Drew Emmitt, because without it, he and his Salmon partners would not be here. From picking in the campgrounds to his first time onstage with the Left Hand String Band in 1990, Emmitt has managed to perform at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival a total of 20 times. The later-formed Leftover Salmon outfit (of which he is a founding member) was created by accident, after coming in second-to-last (on purpose) at the festival’s annual band contest. The group would go on to pull off some of their first real shows at the Roma Bar and Fly Me to the Moon Saloon before becoming on of the most important jambands ever. If anyone understands the communal power that drives this festival to international recognition and four decades of success, it is Drew Emmitt.
We spoke about the band’s full-time return, and what the Telluride Bluegrass Festival means to him.
Last time our paths crossed was after an Emmitt-Nershi Band show on Andy’s birthday, sharing Coronas. Now we are both in Telluride, about to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Oh yeah, that was a funny little gig, I remember [laughs]. That is some small world type stuff right there.
For sure. So let’s talk about the newest of your albums, Aquatic Hitchhiker, which is produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, was released on Los Records (and obviously the acronym for your band is L.O.S.). Tell us about the record and this three-letter conspiracy here.
Essentially, LOS Records is our label for all practical purposes. These days the entire record label climate is just completely different from how it used to be, so rather than try to go through one, we saved up the money and paid to do this album ourselves. We then released it in conjunction with the Del McCoury Band’s distribution arm, Rainmaker. It has worked out well because we own the masters, and it has been much easier for us as a band to call the shots on creating it.
Was the formation of Los Records the driving force for putting out your first album in eight years?
Yes, that and really wanting to make a real go at it instead of being a band that was just doing reunions. We felt like it was time to make a new record and to start touring for real again. So yeah, all of these things sort of coincided and served as a catalyst for us to get out there and start hitting it again.
The title itself is intriguing; where did that name derive from? And what was it like working with Steve Berlin on the project?
First of all, working with Steve was just great. He was a really solid choice for us, because of the depth of experience and ideas that he brings to the table. From the beginning, he helped us in songwriting sessions and as a mediator, in crafting the new tunes. In the studio, he understood what Leftover Salmon should sound like, and never tried to turn us into a band that we are not. As for the title, it was one that had been kicking around in my head for a while, just from touring up around Montana and Idaho. There are these signs everywhere that say ‘stop aquatic hitchhiking,’ which I thought was the coolest phrase that I had ever seen. I was like, what is that? It turns out it has to do with scraping mussels off your boat when you pull it out of the water so you don’t export them. When it came time to name the record, I put it out there and it stuck. It makes sense for what we do as Leftover Salmon, traveling around the country.
Not that fans are complaining, but why the choice to do all original material on this album?
That was the initial premise of the record to begin with, to finally write an entire album ourselves, and collaborate as a band in that way. We had always brought songs to the band individually, so this time we felt like we should really work together to make a collective record. We still each provided a basic framework for a song idea, but then everybody jumped in – even our rhythm section were really helpful in fleshing them out. Our bass player, Greg, he has a doctorate in music now, so he is usually the guy that stands back and listens to everything, and then comes up with ideas that really make sense. That also applied to him contributing to chord progressions. That combined with our drummer, Jose, bringing creative rhythmic ideas to the table. The songs that Vince and I brought the rest of the band really helped bring to life, and that was different from past records.
It seems like there is a new spark among the band in the live setting. How has the addition of Andy Thorn worked within the chemistry of the band? Has his presence changed the live dynamic?
Yeah. Andy actually brought two songs to the new album, too. As for live, he absolutely contributes to the interaction onstage. It is very similar to how it used to be in the old days when Mark [Vann] was in the band. Andy’s energy and enthusiasm for playing has brought that back in a lot of ways. He is great to feed off, and is just excited to actually be in the band. After seeing us with his mom when he was 14, at a show in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, it is a dream come true for him to be in this band, and how that manifests is definitely something we were missing.
Am I right in saying you have been Ustreaming your shows? Where did that idea come from, and what is the reasoning behind it?
Yeah, we have! The reason we are doing that goes back to the new climate of getting your music out there. All bands need to find different ways to get their music to the people, and the studio records are just one way now and they are really not even the main way. It is all about the Internet and streaming is a great way to get people excited about shows that are upcoming, or that they might miss. We are also starting to do live downloads of our shows, as well. It has taken us a little while, maybe longer than some other jambands, to get into that arena, but we are finally picking up the ball and running with it. It helps to turn people onto the band and what we are doing.
You guys obviously love Telluride as much as it loves you. Now nearly a quarter century into your musical career with Leftover, what is it about this place that seems to bring out the best in the band and keeps you coming back?
Telluride created Leftover Salmon. As a band we were born here at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. We came out of picking in the campground, goofing off, and then decided to be in the band contest one year, mostly as a joke [laughs]. We tried to get as many people on stage as we could, and in truth we were really trying to lose the contest. We didn’t lose, we came in second to last, but that lead to doing a gig in town at the Roma, and then another at Fly Me to the Moon, and that is where it all started. For us, when we finally got the play the festival, it was a huge dream coming true that also led to getting to know the heroes that we had all watched there for years onstage, and then, one-by-one, they would sit in with us and become great friends. Being accepted into the Telluride bluegrass family is a big deal, so every time we come back and play it is like a homecoming.
You’re playing Telluride Bluegrass Festival for the 40th Anniversary along with a bunch of artists you have played with in the past. How important is preserving that spirit and legacy of this music?
I started playing the festival in 1993 with the Left Hand String Band, and to be coming back in 2013 is big for me because this is the 20th time I have played. It being the 40th makes it even more important, and we were hoping we would be a part of that landmark anniversary. It was also nice finding out that our buddies the String Cheese Incident will be there with us, too, because they came from the same sort of bluegrass tradition that I do not see going away anytime soon. It has become much more of a culture on top of itself than just the music, but it is all deeply rooted in simply sitting around in the campsites picking. It is the perfect music to bring people together, and I think it will always be that way.