Drew Emmitt, A Somewhat ‘Weary Traveler’
Shortly before Leftover Salmon took a time out from the group's career, I spoke with mandolin player Drew Emmitt. Due to scheduling, it turned out the phone interview took place while he enjoyed dinner at an outdoor restaurant with his family.
Acting like a true professional, he dealt with the questions about Leftover's hiatus for what was probably the umpteenth time. Understandably, his demeanor became more excited when discussing his latest endeavor – playing straight bluegrass when he tours with the Drew Emmitt Band. For someone who discovered the style, growing up in Tennessee, it's an opportunity to bask in his roots and re-energize his creative self after spending so many days as part of Leftover.
For Emmitt, it's all about evolving towards the future — for him, his bands and for the entire jamband scene.
JPG: First off, the Leftover Salmon hiatus. I interviewed Dave Schools of Widespread Panic a few months ago and we got into a discussion about all these different jambands are taking a break or breaking up. In your case what brought it about and what is your theory about other bands doing the same thing?
DE: I think if you've been doing this for a long enough period of time, in our case 15 years, that something was going to cause you to stop for a while. That could be a number of things. I think it was just inevitable that it was time that we took a break. As much as we've toured…I mean, we have just toured like crazy men. It was just a matter of time before we needed to give this band a break.
In a lot of ways, it's a good thing. I think we all need to do some solo things. We need to explore some other musicians and get some space from this. It's been a very all-encompassing kind of band. It left us pretty much not a lot of time to do other things or be with our families, so it's a really healthy thing. And I think everybody's really excited about having this change. It's not a break up by any means. It's definitely a break more than anything. It's just really stopping the touring machine for awhile.
JPG: Was there say a particular meeting or particular off-handed comment that brought this all about? Was this before or after Leftover Salmon was made?
DE: It was after. It was an event that happened and it was our banjo player, Noam Pikelny, deciding that he wanted to be out of the band and play with the John Cowan Band and play bluegrass. I pretty much understood where he was coming from. He's got an opportunity to play with a more straight-ahead bluegrass band. This family thing can get kind of intense and if you're thinking you want to play more of an acoustic kind of music, then follow your heart. That's where Noam was.
It was so hard to replace Mark Vann. Then the idea of trying to pick right back up and not miss a beat somehow by replacing…Nobody had the energy for it. I said, You know what? I think it's time that we stop for awhile.' We've had Matt Flinner playing banjo with us. He fits right in, but he doesn't want to commit to full time as much as this band needs to tour to keep it going. So, that was the impetus. And we all felt like, Okay, well there you have it, it's time to take a break.'
Personally, I felt since Mark died that at one point we were going to have to stop for a while, digest all that's happened and get some space from it. So, that's pretty much what happened. Vince [Herman] is going to be doing some cool solo stuff with Rob Wasserman and Jim Page. I'm starting out with my four-piece bluegrass band with Greg Garrison on bass, Matt Flinner on banjo and Ross Martin on guitar. So, I'll be going in more of a bluegrass direction for awhile. We'll all be doing some different things and I really think it's, ultimately, a very healthy thing for all of us.
JPG: With the Drew Emmitt Band, what material will you draw from?
DE: It'll be most of my originals I've been doing in Salmon, some traditional bluegrass and some new stuff. I'd like to incorporate some of the other writers in the band too because Matt Flinner and Ross Martin and Greg Garrison are all great writers in their own right. Looking really forward to incorporate all of it.
JPG: When people hear that you’re going to be playing out are you talking about playing around home or touring the nation?
DE: All over the street and, hopefully, at some point going to Europe. With a four-piece bluegrass band, it's much easier to do trips like that. Logistically it's going to be a much simpler operation.
We're getting things cranking. I'm going to be making a new record in January. I made a solo record a couple of years ago ("Freedom Ride"). We're pretty excited about it.
*JPG: I reviewed your last release, Leftover Salmon, for Jambands.com and must say I was really impressed with the songwriting.
It seemed melancholy in certain places, in broad strokes, but it wasn't specific. Was it a matter of making the personal so that other people could catch it or were you just writing in that manner?*
DE: I guess it was just that kind of a time. A lot's happened in the last few years. This record was a culmination of that — Mark passing away. There's been some happy times, kids being born.
I think that, especially with the band taking this break, it's even more poignant cause it is kind of a bittersweet time for us. It's fitting and the tune "Weary Traveler" that I made up basically about being away from home and traveling, it's a cool way to end the record now cause it's got a whole new meaning.
JPG: It’s so funny you mentioned that because I was just about to mention "Weary Traveler" and how it just seems appropriate.
DE: (Slight laugh). Well even though it's not going to completely end, the amount of touring that we were doing is definitely going to end. It's a good thing.
JPG: How are fans taking it?
DE: I think a lot of people are just sad at it ending, especially our old time fans. A lot of our close friends totally understand the need for us to take a break.
A lot of people just don't get it. It gets a little old. People are always asking the same questions, But why, why are you stopping?' It's a lot of reasons. It's hard to go into with everybody. Ultimately, I just try to impart to people it's a good thing and we'll be back. In the meantime, find another band to follow around (Laughs)
JPG: When you say, go follow some other band’ I don’t think you mean it in a flippant way but how do you feel about the health of the jamband scene that in some way you helped to create? Suddenly, some of its better known artists are taking a break and fans are wondering who’ll they’ll latch on to next.
DE: It needs to grow. I think that it's amazing what's been created by everybody, but I think that somehow the jamband scene needs to evolve to something else. I'm not sure what that's going to be, maybe a little more substance in some respects. Maybe the songs need to have a little bit more going on than just two chords for 45 minutes. I'm not directing at anybody in particular. There's a lot of that in this culture and that's what people complain about most.
Sure, there's, a certain amount of that's called for. We certainly noodle around at times, but we've always focused more on songs and trying to really say something. And I think that maybe the jamband world is coming more to that because it's definitely a voice of this generation and it needs to be more than let's get really out there and space out for three years. Maybe it should say something. Maybe we should be the voice of this generation instead of come on out and party. If anything I think that's maybe what it needs to evolve into, a little more substance.
The Grateful Dead had a lot of substance. They didn't just noodle. They had songs with great words. I think a lot of that has been lost. A lot of people have just picked up on that they jammed for a long time. Well they did, but they also had great tunes. And I think that that's been missing from the jamband world.
JPG: Talking about "great words" reminds me of an idea I once had, that Robert Hunter should supply all the jambands with lyrics.
DE: Exactly, exactly. I'm speaking to friends of the String Cheese guys and I get the feeling that their next record, they really want to write with a bunch of different people cause of what I'm hearing and that's a great thing to hear. Great! Let's collaborate. Let's get some songs out there. We've all proven that we can jam for hours, okay, that's great. So let's see if we can add some substance to what's going on here. In a time when the world really needs it, especially the people that go to see jambands are people that are searching. Let's give em something.