A conversation with Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon

By Lea LeFebvre

April 14, 2015

When artists Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt got together a quarter of a century ago, there was no telling what their combined talents would turn into. Now in the heat of their 25th year, Leftover Salmon is still pushing the limits as to what a jam band should or shouldn’t be.

While their unique sound is rooted in bluegrass, the genre-defying band is known to seamlessly blend Cajun and zydeco, improvisational jamming and guitar-shredding rock to create a one-of-a-kind sound known as “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass.”


Of course they have had their fair share of ups and downs. The band took a hiatus in 2005 following the death of founding member Mark Vann in 2002, and for nearly five years the fate of Leftover Salmon was questionable.

A few lineup changes later, including the 2012 addition of banjo picker extraordinaire Andy Thorn, and Bill Payne of Little Feat in late 2014, there’s a new sense of rejuvenation that’s evident in their live shows and new album, High Country, which debuted last September.

CLTure had the chance to talk to fiddle player, mandolinist, guitarist and occasional flutist, Drew Emmit about the past and future of Leftover Salmon.

Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman

CLTure: For starters, I have to say congratulations and happy 25th anniversary. When you guys first started this band, did you ever think you’d make it this far?

Drew Emmit: Laughs, You know I don’t really know what we thought when we first started. We were really just having fun and putting a band together that could go out and play ski areas and bars because we were all bluegrass musicians, but there really wasn’t much of a plan other than just finding a way to play during the wintertime. At that point, bluegrass bands only really played in the summer at festivals. So yeah, I don’t think we really had any idea it would go this far.

CLTure: What about Drew Emmitt pre-Leftover Salmon, how’d you get into all this?

Drew Emmit: Well, I grew up in Tennessee and really got into music there. Then I moved to Colorado when I was a teenager and got into bands like Hot Rize and New Grass Revival and just started going to bluegrass festivals. That kind of got my career going, you know, just being in the bluegrass world. I formed a band called Left Hand String Band, which is one of the reasons we’re called Leftover Salmon. It was the Left Hand String Band and the Salmon Heads. Left Hand String Band was my band for, oh I guess ten years is what people are saying. We played festivals, did the bluegrass circuit and then I met up with Vince and the rest is history.

Drew Emmitt

CLTure: So you guys have a relatively new album out, the official addition of Bill Payne of Little Feat and a national tour, you must be pretty excited?

Drew Emmit: Yeah, we are pretty excited. We definitely feel like there is a lot of new invigoration happening. Bill Payne has really been great to play with. So, it’s just been all-good.

CLTure: How has the beginning of tour been going for you?

Drew Emmit: Well, we started back in St. Louis and then we did a show in Nashville at the Cannery, then we played the Bluegrass Underground with Greensky Bluegrass and Railroad Earth which was really cool. From there we came down to Arizona, got on a bus to Phoenix and played Flagstaff, then San Diego, then up to Chico and then three nights here at Phil Lesh’s place at Terrapin Crossroads. This is our third night here and we got to play with Phil Lesh the first night, which was really fun.


CLTure: Ah, yes I heard about that. That must have been a real treat. I also hear you guys are doing some pre Fare Thee Well shows up in Chicago, is that right?

Drew Emmit: We are, yes, at the Park West in Chicago on July 2.

CLTure: So, you guys have been collaborating with Bill Payne unofficially for a number of years, but this is the first tour he’s officially joining the lineup. How did he come into the fold?

Drew Emmit: Well we did shows with Little Feat a number of years ago and were looking for a producer for the last record we did before ending our break, so we decided he would be a good choice. He produced that record and we brought him and Paul Barrere out for a couple of shows in California which went really well. We had him out at Telluride Bluegrass a few years ago and then he played last year in Boulder at the Thanksgiving shows. At that point, Little Feat was definitely starting to slow down so this just came together. He’s having a great time and so are we.

CLTure: Would you say anything has changed since he joined, musically or otherwise?

Drew Emmit: Oh yeah, big time. Having another strong soloist, let alone someone of his caliber has definitely given us quite a boost. Our music has definitely been elevated and we’ve gone places we had never gone before as a band. His influence and experience has been really great as well, just having that kind of person around. He’s been writing with Robert Hunter so we’ve been playing some of those tunes. He just brings so much to the plate; it’s pretty crazy that we get to play with him.

CLTure: What about your new album, High Country? What did he contribute to the album?

Drew Emmit: He played the keyboard on pretty much everything, including the song “Bluegrass Pines” which he co-wrote with Robert Hunter, and I had the honor of singing the end of it, as well as the Little Feat cover “Six Feet of Snow.” So, he was definitely a presence on that record; he was a bit of a latecomer but definitely brought a lot to the plate.

Leftover Salmon
Photo by Jay Blakesberg

CLTure: And what about you, are there any songs you wrote?

Drew Emmit: Yeah, I’ve got four songs on there. I’ve got “Two Highways” and “Western Skies,” which have been on heavy rotation on Sirius XM’s Jam On, as well as a song called “Light in the Woods,” and one more that’s escaping me at moment. Laughs, I guess those are the ones I wrote, but then I also sing “Bluegrass Pines,” which is the fourth one.

CLTure: I hear you guys are already talking about a new album. What can you tell me about that?

Drew Emmit: Yeah, we’re going to make an album called The New Orleans Sessions, which is kind of a sequel to The Nashville Sessions, except we’re going down to New Orleans and getting some local musicians to write with. That’s going to happen in the fall.

CLTure: Well before I let you go I’ve got to ask, the Bluegrass Underground that you mentioned earlier, I’ve heard it’s awesome as a spectator, but what was it like to play there?

Drew Emmit: It’s like nothing else. You’re in an underground cave, with a PA system and a crowd. It’s definitely quite the different environment to be playing in, it’s like an underground Red Rocks.

Leftover Salmon
Photo by Jay Blakesberg

CLTure: Sounds like a great place. I hope to make it down there sometime.

Drew Emmit: Yeah, and it was actually the biggest crowd they had down there, it was packed. So it was really fun.

CLTure: Well, we’re excited to have you back in Charlotte here on April 20, especially for the Up in Smoke gig. I think that’s about it and I want to thank you for taking your time to talk with me. Good luck on the rest of your tour!

Drew Emmit: Thank you, we’ll see you in North Carolina.

Catch Leftover Salmon when they return to Visulite Theatre on April 20.

In this article