High in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, before there was the Yonder Mountain String Band, before the String Cheese Incident ever struck a chord, there was Leftover Salmon. Formed in Boulder in 1989, the polyethnic Cajun slamgrass group was among the first to mingle the sacred waters of bluegrass and rock 'n' roll.
"It was unheard of," recalls founding member and mandolin player Drew Emmitt, speaking with City Paper during an April snowstorm from his home in Crested Butte, Colo. "People were like, 'What do you guys do? You play bluegrass on electric instruments?'"
What once seemed so foreign is now remarkably commonplace among jam bands, but it took pioneers like Leftover Salmon to forge the path. Their business plan two decades ago mirrors that of today's self-managed startup bands in an era of increasing major-label irrelevance.
"You didn't need a manager or a booking agent — you just started making phone calls and then got on the school bus and drove around the country," Emmitt remembers. "I think we were helpful in showing other bands that it was possible to do, but ultimately we're just part of a chain of groups that kind of did the same thing."
Emmitt credits New Grass Revival, Phish, and Widesread Panic for having laid the foundation for Leftover. After playing the early '90s H.O.R.D.E. tours, Leftover's closest brush with major success came with 1999's The Nashville Sessions, a collaboration disc of musical friends that included everyone from Taj Mahal to Waylon Jennings to Earl Scruggs. Three years after that release, founding member and banjoist Mark Vann lost a fight with cancer, leaving Emmitt and guitarist Vince Herman to carry the torch. The group soldiered on briefly, but ultimately began an extended hiatus in 2004. Herman focused on his side group, Great American Taxi, while Emmitt formed both the Drew Emmitt Band and the Emmitt-Nershi Band, with String Cheese front man Billy Nershi.
"In a lot of ways, there was a division, almost a competition there for a while [between String Cheese and Leftover]," Emmitt says. "Sometimes I feel like they were the band that was meant to become really big, and Salmon was just meant to do our thing and have fun with it. Playing together [with Nershi] was really nice. We're all part of the same scene."
The two bands' parallel careers continue today, with both mounting comebacks after lengthy breaks. Last week, Salmon released their first studio album in eight years, Aquatic Hitchhiker. Recorded over a post-Thanksgiving week in Denver with follow-up sessions in Portland, Ore., the sessions "really helped us feel like a band again," Emmitt says.
The quintet collaborated on writing 11 of the dozen tracks, mostly during a week-long session at Herman's house in Nederland, Colo. "We had the studio time booked and basically had no songs, and we were all kind of freaking out," Emmitt says. "We got out our pads and pens and turned ideas into songs at the last minute. It was a very collaborative Salmon effort."
The instrumental title track may be the disc's tour-de-force, featuring new recruit Andy Thorn, a veteran of the Emmitt-Nershi Band and a former Larry Keel cohort, tearing through banjo rolls. It is practically a declaration that Leftover Salmon still exists, and not in a self-tribute sort of way, but as a relevant force in the jam band world.
"It feels good to get back on the bus together," says Emmitt of the band's recent tours. "We definitely feel the tightness coming back to the band, and we're really looking forward to making a run through the Southeast."