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Freedom Ride – Drew Emmitt

Compass Records
Years ago, Drew Emmitt’s Left Hand String Band forged into the then
seemingly extinct frontier of newgrass. In 1991, with the release of Get
Me Outta of This City, Emmitt and his cadre attempted to fill the void
created by New Grass Revival’s 1989 dissolution. The successful amalgamation
of reggae and bluegrass on "Just Before the Evening" and the David
Grisman-inspired instrumental "Dreams" revealed a band with untrammeled
potential. Until, as the infamous story goes, Mr. Vince Herman and his
Salmon Heads absorbed the fledging bluegrass band and decided to fuse
bluegrass with Cajun music. With the creation of Leftover Salmon, Emmitt gained widespread
recognition as a dynamic performer and mature songwriter, despite the
confluence of personalities on stage and, at times, the insouciant music.
While Leftover Salmon appeased many jamband aficionados, certain people
(mostly those with Left Hand String Band tapes from the Telluride Bluegrass
Festival), ruminated on the possibilities had Emmitt kept his precious band
Freedom Ride, Emmitt’s first solo album, represents a return to the
early music of the Left Hand String Band, and can be considered a
theoretical answer to the hypothetical question posed by many over the last
twelve years. Considering Emmitt’s growing relationships with bluegrass
elite – instrumentalists like Sam Bush, John Cowan, Vassar Clements, Scott
Vestal and Peter Rowan – he has gathered the necessary talent to bring his
newgrass visions to fruition. With such a collection of string band virtuosi
and Emmitt’s musical aspirations intact, the album becomes an agglomeration
of New Grass Revival, Michael Doucet, and the Grateful Dead, with no lulls
to preclude a critical utterance. The long awaited combination of influences
will unquestionably attract a throng of unexpected fans and, as a
consequence, these unsuspecting listeners will find a compendium for
bluegrass past and future, with Emmitt as the guide.
The title track, a bouncy combination of fiery bluegrass-based rock with New
Grass Revival’s John Cowan providing soulful and complementary vocals,
proves the above argument is more than mere hyperbole. Emmitt and Cowan’s
harmonies are similar to the Bush/Cowan harmonies in New Grass
Revival; which will create a comforting allusion for many bluegrass
epicures. Vocally alone the track acknowledges New Grass Revival, but
rhythmically, Emmitt’s mandolin playing, combined with Scott Vestal’s banjo
filigrees, conspicuously emphasizes the connection. Moving from soaring
verses to a slowed Southern rock chorus and bridge, "Freedom Ride" might be
Drew Emmitt’s finest musical composition; a song which clearly embodies his
influences, yet does not have the frivolity created in the Leftover Salmon
After "Freedom Ride", an old Leftover Salmon favorite "Bend in the River"
finally receives a studio rendition. Fans of the song will find the version
of "Bend in the River" potentially disconcerting with the drop in key and an
entirely different fiddle part for the song’s introduction and intermittent
fills. However, the change solidifies the Cajun elements of the composition,
which are further embellished by the inclusion of accordion and Greg
Garrison’s germane triangle playing. Unlike the Ask the Fish version,
"Bend in the River" finally sounds like the Cajun ode Emmitt had intended.
The results of Bend in the River are representative of the album’s
reoccurring theme of talented performers adding appropriate instrumentation
to a given song. Another old Leftover Salmon favorite, "Lonesome Road,"
begins with Emmitt’s Bill Monroe-inspired mandolin intro, only to yield to
the crying fiddle of Vassar Clements, which befits the music’s moribund
lyrics of the perils of "rambling". Bluegrass artists incessantly expose an
inability to make form and content interdependent. For example, a song such
as "Little Maggie" which has the lyric "Over yonder there stands little
Maggie with a dram glass in her hand," will have the melodic
extemporizations of a pleasant stroll through Central Park. Thankfully,
Emmitt and those supporting him on "Freedom Ride" prevent such common
misconstructions with "Lonesome Road".
Equally complimentary are Emmitt’s vocals, which adumbrate a youthful Bill
Monroe. When Emmitt sings "And a life of rambling, is a life you chose," his
yodel on "rambling," which mimics Clement’s fiddle, again asserts and
complements the music’s maudlin nature. Examining form and content on Ask
the Fish, Emmitt’s vocals had less melancholy and a more upbeat,
"Festival!" nature. The studio has allowed the finer aspects of
introspection in "Lonesome Road" to garner adequate attention. Such elements
dignify the piece and intensify Emmitt’s songwriting prowess, making the
listener believe Emmitt has indeed experienced the difficulties mentioned.
The change adds more truth to the music, an
aspect at times missing in not only Leftover Salmon’s performances, but in
most of bluegrass.
Glimpsing at the album’s tracks, some startling covers are obvious: Bob
Dylan’s "Tangled Up In Blue", J.J. Cale’s "If You’re Ever in Oklahoma", Bill
Monroe’s "Memories of Mom and Dad" and Peter Rowan’s "Rainmaker". Each cover
has a remarkable ebullience, while they each represent or reveal another of
Emmitt’s talents. "Tangled Up in Blue", which combines instrumental speed
and panache with vocal finesse, explores Emmitts ability to reconstruct
certain clearly definable songs with a renewed perspective. Similar to Sam
Bush, whose reinterpretation of "Girl From the North Country" epitomizes and
intensifies Dylan’s song, Emmitt exposes a similar prowess. As the song
rambles forth, the lyrics of love and loss are patent, yet the bluegrass
idiom yields a more redemptive nature than Dylan’s plaintive cry.
If "Tangled Up In Blue" displays the ability to recreate a folk song in
bluegrass’s structure of celerity, then "Memories of Mom and Dad" becomes a
loving nod to bluegrass’s illustrious past. Intriguingly, in an album filled
with newgrass references, Emmitt concludes with the most traditional
selection he has ever recorded. By including Monroe, Emmitt has possibly
alluded, again, to New Grass Revival whom always included a traditional
piece on every album. Despite the possible reasons, in a landscape where
bluegrass has garnered interest, the knowledge of Monroe’s influence in the
genre remains somewhat obfuscated. While Emmitt alone cannot solve the
problem, on an album likely to be purchased by non-bluegrass listeners, the
inclusion will aid in contending bluegrass legacy.
With a concentration on powerfully constructed songs and intelligently
chosen covers, Freedom Ride becomes the quintessential newgrass
release, which should silence the long ruminations of "what-ifs" and
"could’ve beens" for Emmitts career. The album also transcends most of the
confining expectations of music in the world; while the extremely stubborn
traditionalist might remain wary, the rest of the listening world, from
jamband fans to folk, bluegrass, CMT listeners and even straight rock
listeners will find the album befitting to their CD collections. Astute
listeners will eventually follow the performers and various songwriters
lineage and discover a wealth of music, such as Peter Rowan’s Dust Bowl
Children, which might be the finest aspect of "Freedom Ride": the
succinct bluegrass education it offers.
A note of commiseration: To discuss Mr. Emmitt’s new album means to
reference the banjo player whom first complemented his newgrass aspirations
years ago: Mr. Mark Vann. While Vann’s banjo may not be on Freedom
Ride, his effervescent, luminous spirit has unquestionably influenced the
album in an ineffable way. We will all immeasurably miss Mr. Vann and send
my condolences to his family and Leftover Salmon’s fans and friends.

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