Leftover Salmon Return to Ancestral Waters

Progressive Bluegrass Pioneers Release New Album After Eight-Year Hiatus

Leftover Salmon might sound like a meal best avoided, but don’t let the name fool you. This is one fish that has only gotten better with age.

The Colorado-based hippie-bluegrassers were a favorite on the summer festival circuit for over two decades before leaving the road in 2005. Now they’re back in full force with a new album, new tour and a new member.

“We were really psyched with the way it turned out,” says the band’s cheerful lead singer and guitarist Vince Herman of the new album. “I think the whole bunch of other projects that we did on our own before coming back to the band helped our ears and helped us feel more comfortable.”

Aquatic Hitchhiker, released Tuesday (May 22), finds the reformed band feeding off the fresh energy their new banjo player Andy Thorn brings to the group. Fiery solos and elements of country, bluegrass, jazz and jam rock combine into a heady mix of feel-good tunes — and some that carry a hefty message, as well.

Herman called into CMT.com to discuss the band’s reunion, the roots music culture that spawned Leftover Salmon and the reason his turntable is back in rotation.

CMT: Could you tell me a little bit about how the band got started?

Herman: Well, it was by accident. It was a combination of two bands, one called the Salmonheads, which was kind of a Cajun jug band, and another band called the Lefthand String Band, which was more straight ahead bluegrass. On New Year’s Eve 1989, a couple of guys from Salmonhead couldn’t make the gig, so I got a couple of fellows from Lefthand to fill out the band. On the way to the gig, [mandolin player] Drew [Emmitt] and I came up with the combination of Lefthand Stringband and the Salmonheads — and Leftover Salmon was born. Had we known it was gonna last so long we probably could have come up with a better name. (laughs)

What was the roots music atmosphere in Colorado like at the time you got started?

We played ski areas a whole lot. And at the time, the ski areas were pretty rowdy places to be. You could still lead that mythical life of the ski bum, and kids migrated through Colorado a lot doing that and they were pretty high-energy kids — and I guess we were, too. We found that the older the tune we played — the more up-tempo bluegrass stuff — people would start slam dancing and doing things that would normally happen in heavy metal shows. We were like, “Wow,” so we kept doing it.

Was there anybody else doing that at the time?

There was a lot of progressive bluegrass going on at the time, but for fear of offending people, a lot of them wouldn’t have drummers in the band. We started from the word go, playing in rock ‘n’ roll bars and figured that you needed to have a drummer. Those were just the places to play. They weren’t typical places for a bluegrass band. And that affected how we approached it, I guess, playing to younger, rowdier bar audiences.

Why did the band go on hiatus in 2005?

Well, [banjo player] Mark Vann passed away in 2001, and he and Drew and I were really the tripod that the band stood on. We were together for about 10 or 11 years, and we should have probably taken a break right there after that, but it kind of hit us by surprise. It’s what we did for a living, and we had to march on, and Mark really insisted that we carry on. So to honor his wishes, we plowed on for a couple of years, but I think spiritually it showed in the music that our hearts weren’t quite in it. It took a few years of doing other projects and finding other ways to make a living before we could come back to the band and bring new energy to it.

And one of the big reasons we’re doing that now is Andy Thorn on the banjo. He really makes Drew and I feel like Mark’s energy is back in the band. He’s a phenomenal player with a great ear and a really fun guy to hang with. So we’re really excited with the state of the band now and figured it was time to take it out on the road and celebrate. It’s a really fun old catalog of tunes that we have to dig into, but going and writing a bunch of fresh stuff for the record and putting some new energy into it has been really fun.

One of the new tracks, “Gulf of Mexico,” talks about the BP oil spill. Do you remember your thoughts as you first saw those images of the oil gushing out?

I was absolutely distraught, destroyed. I love that area, and I’ve spent a whole lot of time on the coast and in New Orleans, and I love the lifestyles that have evolved there based on all those resources. And to think that for generations, people’s lifestyles are going to be affected. They’re just starting to see mutant shrimp show up in the third generation of those shrimp that were present during the spill. There are families that have been fishing for generations down there that are looking at their boats sitting dry, and a lot of folks that I’ve heard of, even though the fishing is open, they couldn’t bring themselves morally to sell that stuff.

Anyway, I was really glad to address what happened down there. That song is really a travel brochure saying, “Please come back down. There’s white, sandy beaches with nobody on ‘em. Come hang out and help rebuild so much of what’s been lost there.”

Why release a song like that now? It’s been a few years already.

Because I really took it like a ton of bricks and because I know the implications are going to be there for years and years and years. Leftover Salmon has always had a Cajun influence, and we love that swamp music and all that, so it was something that I felt that we really had to address.

Do you like to listen to your own records?

I don’t listen to them real often. However, this time is pretty different, and I’ve never been so excited to get a copy of the album — because this time we have vinyl. It’s just been a totally different experience for me. One of the guys who’s working on the record with us gave us the box, and I was literally jumping up and down I was so excited. As a kid growing up looking at those records, not being able to wait to buy a new one when it came out and all that stuff, it’s fun. You listen to the whole record while holding onto it, looking at the art, kind of gazing into it. And to have that experience with this one has been really fun. It’s really got me digging my turntable a whole lot more. It’s more like it used to be now than it ever has been. (laughs)

Chris lives in Nashville and has written for CMT.com and CMT Edge since 2007. The devil made him do it the first time, the second time he done it on his own.