Drew Emmitt Balances Bluegrass, Rock ‘n’ Roll on Long Road

Leftover Salmon Singer Joined by Darrell Scott, John Cowan, Tim O'Brien

After 25 years of life on the highway, it’s no wonder Drew Emmitt draws on his extensive travels for his third solo album, Long Road. Along with a batch of new songs, he covers the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Take the Highway,” Van Morrison’s “Gypsy in My Soul” and Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home.”

Throughout the 1990s, his band Leftover Salmon attracted legions of jam band fans, and last year, he teamed with Billy Nershi of String Cheese Incident (billed as The Emmitt-Nershi Band) to create an energizing ensemble. When fall arrives, he’s hitting the road again on a tour with the Waybacks. During a break at the recent Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, the mandolin master chatted about his famous friends, how the audiences at bluegrass festivals have evolved and the advice he would offer to a younger version of himself.

CMT: I think the song “Get ‘er Rollin’” captures the vibe of this album. What was going through your mind when you wrote it?

Emmitt: I wrote that with a friend of mine, Benny Galloway, who’s somebody I’ve collaborated with quite a bit. He and Yonder Mountain String Band put out an album called Old Hands, and it’s all his tunes. Anyway, that was a song he had started. He had written the first verse, and I was captured by it. It was such an interesting collection of words: “When here to there is looking like it’s good as gone again.” I mean, man, it doesn’t really make sense — but it does. We built the whole song around that. Then he had “get ‘er rollin’,” and I filled in the other part. It came together really nicely, and I felt like it had an old Hank Williams vibe, sort of a cross between old country and Cajun music.

Why was it important to include your friends on this album?

I have the fortune to be friends with my musical heroes, and that they will come make records with me is a very high honor. Chemistry to me is as important on a record as musicianship’s been. This was just such a great group of people to put together. This was my third record with [fiddler] Stuart Duncan, and I love, love, love working with Stuart. He’s just the master, and of course Jeff Sipe on drums from Leftover Salmon. But really, the big treat for me was getting Darrell Scott, John Cowan and Tim O’Brien to be the singers. That was just fabulous for me. That was really fun.

Because you know those guys so well, was it an easy process to capture that live feeling in the studio?

Definitely. We came up with a lot of the arrangements while we were sitting in the studio. A couple of the tunes we learned. “Take the Long Way Home” and “Take the Highway” were songs we didn’t know, and we didn’t know how they would come off. So it was really fun to watch how it unfolded.

You’ve been playing music festivals since the 1980s. Do you remember a specific time when you noticed that your audience also liked somebody more traditional like Del McCoury — that the audiences overlapped?

I think it’s gradually overlapped through the years. When we first started doing Leftover Salmon, we were one of the first bands to actually play bluegrass festivals and rock ‘n’ roll venues. We felt very lucky that we were treading between those two worlds. At first, it was a novel idea for a band with drums to play bluegrass festivals. Now it’s becoming more common. I think people are becoming more accepting and more wide open to different kinds of music.

In the spectrum of music, where do you see yourself fitting in?

I’m a rock musician and a bluegrass musician, so I can go either way. I have equal roots in both genres. I love playing acoustic music, and I also love playing electric guitar.

I know you can’t just throw musicians together and hope for the best, because it won’t always work. What is it about the Emmitt-Nershi Band that really works?

Billy and I have a great chemistry. We’ve known each other a long time, and we come from really similar backgrounds. Of course, our two jam bands led kind of parallel lives. Tyler Grant, who plays bass with us, is also a guitar player in my band. Then we met Andy Thorn a couple months ago, and he is working out great on banjo. It’s really easy. It’s fun. There are just four of us. There’s no machine behind us. I’ve been there. I’ve had the tour buses and the huge crews and the record companies and all that — and I prefer it this way.

Is there any country music that you want to give a shout-out to?

I’m a big fan of Big & Rich. I love their attitude. I really like Brad Paisley a lot. He’s very whimsical. He’s very talented and has a great voice. I mean, I’m an old school country fan because I grew up in Nashville, so I have a hard time with a lot of the real slick country, but there are a few country artists out these days that I really like. … Every once in a while, I’ll turn on country radio and hear something that’s like, “Wow, that really tells a story.” Brad Paisley played a song on Prairie Home Companion where he was singing a song to himself. That ["Letter to Me"] song makes me cry. That’s just so touching. If I could pick one person, it would probably be him.

So, what would you say now, if you could talk to yourself back in 1984?

I would tell myself to be patient because it’s all going to come if you just let it.

Listen to Drew Emmitt’s new album, Long Road, on CMT.com’s Hear Music Now.