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‘It Felt Great to Play Bluegrass Again’: an interview with Drew Emmitt

After a few years playing electric guitar in rock bands, at the age of nineteen upon his mother’s insistence Drew Emmitt purchased an A-model mandolin and proceeded to learn as much bluegrass as possible. His insatiable appetite led to the creation of several bands, from the Tractors to the aptly titled Left Hand String Band.

In 1986, the Left Hand String Band opened for Hot Rize at the three hundred seat Gold Hill Inn. As the band performed Allman Brothers and Little Feat covers followed by traditional fiddle tunes, the audience began to dance uncontrollably. The crowd reacted with such a torrid fervor, Emmitt comments, "The floor started bouncing and moving from the dancing." In contrast when Hot Rize performed, the audience became languid and promptly sat and listened with reserved pleasure. Emmitt immediately noticed the possibilities for bluegrass in more liberating contexts. Four years later when the commute to several booked shows in Crested Butte prevented half of Vince Herman’s Salmon Heads from performing, the Left Hand String Band dissolved into the Salmon Heads to become Leftover Salmon, and Emmitt’s notion of obviating any unnecessary reverence in bluegrass became feasible.

In Leftover Salmon, Drew Emmitt has garnered attention for his electricity as an instrumentalist, vocalist and songwriter. As the self-described polyethnic-cajun-slamgrass band has circled the country, its sound has slowly gestated from a bluegrass band fusing rock and roll elements into a blues rock band with bluegrass references. Given the change in the band, one of Emmitt’s musical inspirations had been mollified, despite the touring success of Leftover Salmon. As a means to return to his pre-Leftover Salmon impulses, Emmitt’s debut solo album Freedom Ride released April 9th on Compass Records offers insight into the sonic possibilities had he remained steadfast in his bluegrass aspirations.

Returning to the music of the Left Hand String Band, Emmitt has crafted an album worthy of notoriety and prestige. Considering the renewed interest in bluegrass, the release moves to the cusp of the reinvigorated idiom with a New Grass Revival inspired redolence. The contributions of a myriad of bluegrass’ elite performers instills credibility to the album and to Emmitt as a bluegrass artist, akin to the respect garnered by Jerry Garcia with the release of Old and In the Way’s eponymous 1976 release.

In a candid interview from his home in Crested Butte, Emmitt discussed Freedom Ride, his influences, Leftover Salmon’s May 7th release Live also on Compass Records, and the phenomenal state of bluegrass.

Looking solely at Freedom Ride’s liner notes, I was amazed by the enormous amount of talent. What was it like to work with such a cadre of bluegrass musicians?

A joy. They were all extremely professional and that allowed me to let them go and do what they felt sounded the best. Everyone was very relaxed and respectful. Freedom Ride was my first time producing an album, and I was amazed at how everyone acted extremely respectful of my position, while aiding in the overall creation of the album. Dave Sinko whom engineered most of New Grass Revival’s records really helped me out, bringing his formidable intelligence to the room and adding another element. I really want to mention Dave Sinko because he pulled everything together, and without him and the musicians, I would have been unable to produce the album or give the album its overall sound.

I notice a recurring theme of New Grass Revival; a major influence I would gather?

Oh yeah, definitely more than any other bluegrass band. In the early 1980s, after my several rock bands years earlier, I had been into David Grisman and Hot Rize. At that time I hadn’t really written any bluegrass songs of my own, and I was using Grisman and Hot Rize as my blueprint. But as I began writing, my rock and roll ideas kept coming up and I thought, "What if I could fuse bluegrass and rock and roll." When I went to a show and saw New Grass Revival, and they had John (Cowan) with such a powerful voice, and Sam Bush with his mandolin and Bela (Fleck); the whole thing sounded remarkable, and it was exactly what I wanted to do.

Interesting you mention Hot Rize also as an early influence because your songwriting refers to the Colorado mountains and the natural environment much like Hot Rize did with songs such as "High On a Mountain."

On Freedom Ride, songs like "Bend in the River" and "Valley of the Full Moon" are entirely about special experiences in the beautiful world of Colorado. "Bend in the River" is about my wedding in Crested Butte, where my wife and I were married right by the river, under a willow tree; the whole thing is completely autobiographical. Similarly, "Valley of the Full Moon" references an incident at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival several years ago when I ran through the woods and the Festival campgrounds late at night. The moon glowed so brightly that it lit up the whole area as I ran all over the place. In a sense, I come from the same area which inspired the guys in Hot Rize, and there is something unexplainable about Colorado which permeates everything you do. I guess I can’t avoid writing about it.

Telluride conspicuously inspires everyone, both fans and musicians.

Telluride has a magic which I cannot explain. I remember we(Leftover Salmon) grew up in the campgrounds there, we loved the whole environment. We would pick in the campgrounds until the early morning every night of the festival. You know we are the only band which has gone to the main stage but still plays in the campgrounds simply because that was such a large part of our musical upbringing.

Last year I remember Pastor Mustard mentioning a late night jam in the campgrounds with the finest bluegrass players in the world. Did you conspire to bring more performers to your beloved starting place?

Yes, that was my fault(laughs). I remember talking to performers, like Sam Bush or Peter Rowan and none of them knew about the campground jams. When I asked Sam Bush if he wanted to play with us, he said, "The campgrounds? I didn’t know they had campground jams here!" So, I collected Chris Thile, Peter Rowan, Bela Fleck and myself, and we went and jammed in the campgrounds.

What did the non-professional pickers think?

What would you do?

Stop playing with my jaw firmly stuck to the ground.

Exactly. I mean the group looked absolutely perplexed. Here were these world-renowned players suddenly jumping into a bluegrass jam. But, I think that epitomizes the bluegrass spirit, where we all can jam no matter our ability or recognition. In the end we all come from a bluegrass jam and all love to do it. To see other players glowing and enjoying the camaraderie makes it really special.

With Freedom Ride, another reference concerns your mandolin playing. Throughout the album your mandolin tone and performance style sounds remarkably similar to John Duffey’s. How much did Duffey’s playing inspire your mandolin approach?

Funny you should mention Duffey, because many people probably do not notice his influence upon my playing. When I began playing bluegrass, my first bluegrass band the Porphyry Mountain Boys played a lot of Seldom Scene songs. At the time I listened to Duffey intently and studied his tone; I really liked his tone more than any other mandolinists. Around the same time I became enamored with Don Reno and in general all traditional bluegrass.

So you started out primarily focused on playing traditional bluegrass?

Without question. Back when I was nineteen into my early twenties, I would travel with friends to the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, which now incidentally goes by the name Rockygrass. The festival had really traditional acts which all inspired my playing. Of all of the acts mentioned, the Johnson Mountain Boys were the biggest inspiration in my early bluegrass days.

The Johnson Mountain Boys?

See not many people, even bluegrass knowledgeable fans are familiar with the Johnson Mountain Boys, but they were a great, great band, truly amazing. Without them and what their music brought to me, I doubt I would have fallen in love with bluegrass. Find their albums anywhere, anyway you can and you will become hooked, trust me!

What mandolin did you play on the album to create the traditional Duffey tone? Your Rigel G-110 mandolin?

No. I have been playing my Rigel Mandolin a lot, and played it on the whole recent California tour. Actually, the Rigel has such a nice feel and wonderful responsive, I plan on playing it more this year on the stage in amplified settings. For the album I used my 1984 Nugget F-5 mandolin made by Michael Kenmitzer. He makes a great, classic bluegrass mandolin and the tone when not plugged in but through a mic, sounds exceptionally traditional and clear. So the Nugget probably made the Duffey connection a little clearer then my standard amplified Nugget or Ron Oates electric mandolin.

Referring to your amplified, rock and roll playing, throughout the years Leftover Salmon fans have been confounded over the steel drum effect on your mandolin.

A cheap Whammy pedal turned up to the highest setting. Years ago I started messing with my Whammy pedal and found this setting which sounded like a steel drum. So, I kept the tone and used it in the band. While I don’t use it much any more, every once in a while on a calypso tune I will use the effect. As for the other amplified effects on my mandolin, they are all standard settings on my Mesa Boogie amp.

On Freedom Ride there are a sundry of covers, but the most familiar to jamband fans might be "If You’re Ever in Oklahoma." You are aware of the Yonder Mountain String Band’s performance of the song?

Definitely, because they learned it from me (laughs). I have been playing that song for years, back to my first band the Tractors. In fact, I have played that song in virtually every bluegrass band I have played in over the years. In the Left Hand String Band we kept playing it, and it has remained a part of the repertoire for years. Jeff (Austin) of Yonder Mountain String Band could be considered equal parts Vince [Herman] and myself. We often call him our kid because he acts like the kid Vince and I would have if such a thing were possible (laughs). But being our kid, he knows our songs and has pulled some from our repertoire.

"If You’re Ever in Oklahoma" has a rather intriguing arrangement.

That’s because of John Cowan. He constantly came up with great arrangements for the album and did so rather easily. His arrangements were so interesting; he has such a remarkable talent for arranging. Another cover on the album Bob Dylan’s "Tangled Up in Blue" was mentioned by John as a piece to perform. We were sitting in Craig Ferguson’s room [the producer of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival] and John mentioned we should play "Tangled Up in Blue." I remember responding "That song is like twenty minutes long, a great song, but I don’t know John." He responded "Just trust me," and then he proceeded to prove me wrong. As we were arranging "Tangled Up in Blue," Luke Bella, the violinist in John’s band, started playing "Dusty Miller." So we fused "Dusty Miller" into "Tangled Up in Blue."

Is "Tangled Up in Blue" representative of the process employed for the arranging and recording of music on Freedom Ride?

Every song went through such a process, even the older songs. For example "Bend in the River" ended up being slowed down and then Luke Bella and Stuart Duncan played twin fiddle parts to give it a more Cajun feel. Originally Luke Bella and Stuart Duncan were at the studio and rather than send one home, we decided, "What about two fiddles?" I didn’t play any fiddle on the album, because I wanted the fiddlers to figure out certain parts and bring their own ideas to the song. Casey Driessen on "Freedom Ride" could be considered a perfect example as he came up with all of the melodic ideas for the fiddle.

So you purposefully allowed these musicians to dictate the formation and performance of a song?

Honestly, I think it makes the music more interesting. All of the players on this disc are world caliber and when I let the process go in a hands-off manner, the results were more than I could have imagined.

With Freedom Ride did you follow the practices employed on Leftover Salmon’s Nashville Sessions, a similarly talent laden album?

I learned a ton from Randy Scruggs with the Nashville Sessions, and this album being my first attempt producing, most of my ideas came from his style. Honestly, all of my past producers, from Charles Sawtelle (_Bridges of Bert_ and Left Hand String Band’s Get Me Outta this City) to Justin Niebank (_Euphoria_) offered a largess of knowledge about production. But Randy Scruggs’ offered a style which keeps a record sounding more lively, where you finish the songs as you go along, not in disjointed sections where you record all of the drum tracks at once, etc., and then piece them together. Scruggs also showed me how to flow and let the artists be the creative forces, let the players inject their emotion into the record.

So you were able to have everyone in the studio to the point where you could feasibly finish a song rather than putting pieces together?

The only player we had to leave sections open for was Sam Bush. Sam has a ton of projects going on, one with David Grisman and work with John Cowan, so he had to wait to record his parts. I didn’t mind because we left perfect little passages for him. Then when we listened back to the album, we noticed some other areas where no one had really soloed where he could add other solos. Sam is the consummate professional, and I just love working with him. He made me feel comfortable as a producer. He never looked at me like he wanted to say, "What would you know?" So only Sam’s parts were recorded and placed into the song apart from our standard process.

Returning to the issue of cover songs, what instigated the recording of Peter Rowan’s "Rainmaker" a classic from Rowan’s "Dust Bowl Children"?

By luck, and some strange incidents! Peter and I have a long history, an otherworldly bond which would take hours to explain, and when we had the Salmon and Friends shows for Mark Vann, Peter, John Cowan and I played some trio pieces. The whole time we played I loved the sound and thought, "This should be on the record." At first Peter had come to Nashville only to sing a duet with me on the Monroe piece "Memories of Mom and Dad." Well, after recording the vocals, Peter ran into his songwriting partner from Dustbowl Children. A few hours later Peter returned with a big sheepish grin asking me if I wanted to record "Rainmaker." On Dustbowl Children, he recorded it solo, with just an acoustic guitar, so on my album the first recording of the song with a full band was made, which makes it even more special. Just another example of how this whole album kept coming together under such perfect circumstances by maintaining a flexibility and a flow.

So you recorded a classic via a chance encounter?

Can you believe it? Peter has a shaman power where great things move toward him, a real deep strength. I remember at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival last year, I took Peter to pick in the campgrounds and he was dressed in this Nepal piece of clothing; a mixture of Star Trek and Buddhist sensibilities. Peter walks into the campground to pick and I couldn’t decide if they were in awe of him or his shaman clothing (laughs). But he has that effect whether he wears the clothes or not (laughs).

With Freedom Ride, in its entirety, you have returned to the bluegrass which you played in the 1980’s with Left Hand String Band. Does the album represent such a return for you to your youthful musical pursuits?

Unquestionably. I never wanted to leave that world, and with people like Peter around, I had the ability to begin right where I concluded in the early 1990’s. When the concept for the album came up to make a New Grass Revival styled album I was overjoyed. If you had told me ten years ago, that in 2002 I would release a bluegrass album of this prowess, I would have considered it a dream. I keep shaking my head and realizing what an honor to have created such an album.

Can fans expect any live performances or a tour with the Freedom Ride players?

We are currently in discussion with the Sheridan Opera House about allowing me to perform on an evening during the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where I can have people from the Festival sit in on the Freedom Ride songs. Then at Telluride, you can expect John Cowan to sit in with Leftover Salmon and I will play with his band, which should be opportune times to perform those songs. Actually, this year at Telluride will be enormous, with plenty of artists sharing their talents and probably more people than ever.

Yes, the O Brother Where Art Thou? effect should make Telluride phenomenal this year.

The O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack isn’t the only album or artist which could make Telluride amazing this coming year. A week ago, Ricky Skaggs opened for the String Cheese Incident; Skaggs a Telluride regular probably turned three thousand jamband fans on to bluegrass. The guys in String Cheese Incident told me Skaggs absolutely loved the scene and the crowd. It inspired him and brought this energy to him which he hasn’t felt in years. Then you have Chris Thile and Bela Fleck whom have wonderfully crossed over into classical. Leftover Salmon brought bluegrass to a rowdy rock and roll audience, like String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band have consistently done. All of these acts have aided in the renewed interest in bluegrass. Years ago, Leftover Salmon had this na vision of people renewing an interest in bluegrass and though we probably did not do much, to see this dream occurring I consider amazing and wonderful.

Speaking of acts which have persuade audiophiles to examine bluegrass, what are you currently listening to on a regular basis?

Well, a lot actually. Jerry Douglas’ Restless On the Farm never leaves my CD player. Newgrange (featuring Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Alison Brown, etc.), the new Marshall/Anger disc Duo Live: At Home and On the Range and Alison Brown’s Replay. Talk about being on a great label with Compass Records. The main record executive plays the banjo so deftly; I just love Alison’s Replay. Then others which have remained in the rotation are the new Del McCoury Band album and Chris Thile’s Not All Who Wander Are Lost.

Chris Thile has fomented a different perspective of bluegrass, but being a mandolinist his new solo album has become the means for acknowledging my own incompetence.

You too! No question, I listen to it and think, what do I do wrong? Chris and I have a fairly lengthy history, going back to Merlefest about five years ago. I remember he sat in with Leftover Salmon and it was his first time playing plugged in. He used to play slouched over, and I didn’t know what to expect when he had my plugged in Nugget in his hands. The kid went crazy, rocking out like how he does now, just into it. Despite his virtuosity, I like how he plays reserved and not overpowering or showing someone up. He plays well in the group context, and refuses to make every moment his moment. Whatever he does in the future, I can say, "Yeah, well I saw him first really rock out with us."

Besides the release of Freedom Ride on May 7th, Leftover Salmon will be releasing Live (pronounced liv’). The album, culled from several live shows in 2001, seems like an affirmation of the seminal bluegrass performers which have created this renewed interest in bluegrass.

Yes, I consider Live a memorial to Mark Vann, as well as to all of the great musicians we have lost over the years. The album has a performance of John Hartford’s "Steam-Powered Aero-Plain" which we included as a memorial to John Hartford. Something I learned from Mark more than anything may have been the need for all of us to live. He died at 39, a year younger than me, and I learned from him, and Charles Sawtelle and Waylon Jennings and John Hartford the need to live as much as possible and to keep the music alive. The players which are innovative, like Mark and Charles Sawtelle are important and they push the music forward. Bill Monroe used to say, if I can paraphrase, "Learn bluegrass and then push it to another level." All of those players did that, and we hope the album embodies all of those ideas and philosophies.

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