Few bands have as enduring a legacy in the acoustic/newgrass/jam band scene as Colorado-based Leftover Salmon. Carrying the torch passed down by the progressive bluegrass pioneers, The Seldom Scene, and the fathers of newgrass music, Newgrass Revival, Leftover Salmon are true architects of the contemporary jamgrass scene, inspiring the careers of a generation of artists including Billy Strings, Greensky Bluegrass and Yonder Mountain String Band. Over the course of their 30+ year run, the band has explored a variety of ‘grass hybrids, creating their own musical culture and earning legions of fans in the process.
On their new project, Leftover Salmon reflect on its bluegrass and festival roots with a set of songs that were among their earliest inspirations. Drawing from the songs and tunes that The Salmon Heads and The Left Hand String Band played when they first converged in a Telluride Bluegrass Festival campground, ultimately merging to form Leftover Salmon, the new album is aptly titled GRASS ROOTS. Collaborating with jam scene icons Billy Strings, Oliver Wood, and Darol Anger, and with the recent addition of Jay Starling on resophonic guitar, lap steel and keys to the band’s official line up, Leftover Salmon have all the instrumental firepower needed to deliver hard driving versions of bluegrass standards and grassed-up versions of songs from Bob Dylan, David Bromberg, and The Grateful Dead. And as co-founder, guitarist, and lead singer Vince Herman says, “when you think of an album title as good as that, that hasn’t been used in our genre, you pretty much have to make the record.”
The album opens with a fiddle and banjo-driven take on Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues,” sung by mandolinist and band co-founder, Drew Emmitt. Emmitt says that he learned the song from the version Tim O’Brien sang with Hot Rize, whom he first heard when he moved to Colorado. (O’Brien was also Emmitt’s first mandolin teacher.) Special guest and long-time Leftover Salmon pal Billy Strings steps out on “Blue Railroad Train,” the perfect vehicle to showcase Emmitt and Strings’ tight vocal harmonies. Vince Herman explains the track is a tip of the hat to old Nashville, and particularly to Doc Watson and Tony Rice, who helped to define the path for contemporary bluegrass. And newest LoS member, Jay Starling, brings the bluegrass classic “California Cottonfields” to the project. It’s a song that Jay’s father, John Starling, sang with The Seldom Scene, a band that was an important early influence on Leftover Salmon.
Leftover Salmon reach into Bob Dylan’s catalog for“Simple Twist of Fate”,delivering an up-tempo version featuring Herman on lead vocals that spotlights the band’s all-around instrumental prowess. And continuing in the progressive vein, LoS pays homage to their self-coined genre of “poly-ethnic Cajun slamgrass” with the New Orleans-styled cooker,“ Fire and Brimstone.” Originally conceived of as a tribute to The Neville Brothers, bassist and producer Greg Garrison instead steered the song in the direction of Link Wray’s early‘ 70s version, and it serves as the perfect vehicle for an impromptu collaboration with Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers. The cut also gives long-time LoS drummer, Alwyn Robinson, a chance to shine, anchoring the “bluesgrass” interpretation with a deep percussive pocket.
Banjo player Andy Thorn takes the lead on vocals with a version of the Grateful Dead’s“ Black Peter,” a song that exemplifies the unique hybrid sound that has entranced Salmon fans for the past 30 years. And on “The New Lee Highway Blues,” the band offers a tip of the hat to David Bromberg, the folk/blues icon who had a huge influence on Herman, both for his solo work and for his role as producer of the genre-defining John Hartford album, AEREO-PLAIN. The song has been in Salmon’s live repertoire for years, but the band was inspired to cut it during the tracking sessions at Compass Sound Studio , which happens to be where Hartford recorded his legacy project in 1971.
GRASS ROOTS asserts Leftover Salmon’s place at the crossroads of bluegrass, newgrass and jamgrass, and the importance of their shared musical vision which has helped to broaden the audience for all traditionally-rooted music. The album’s 10 tracks capture the energy and fun of the band, which is central to every Leftover Salmon show. But even more important, GRASS ROOTS shines a light on the bluegrass heart, which beats strongly at the core of Leftover Salmon’s music. And it’s an ear-opening pleasure.