by Keith Valcourt
Most musical partnerships don’t last decade after decade. If a band is lucky, the creative core of talented people come together to burn bright for a few years and maybe a handful of albums before exploding and splintering away. Not the case for the creative center of Leftover Salmon Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt.
In 1989 the two players first came together at a new year’s eve party and have been musically in sync ever since. 31 years later the pair continues as the heart and soul of the legendary bluegrass jam band. 2020 see them hitting the road for a series of acoustic duo gigs including a stop at City Winery in DC on February 11th. I caught up with Drew Emmitt recently to discuss the time he jammed with Neil Young, how John Paul Jones inspired him to play the mandolin and what he may do with his downtime in DC.
Q: What can people expect when they come out to see you and Vince Herman at City Winery in DC?
A: It’s like a totally stripped-down Leftover Salmon show in a way. A lot of songs they like down to the two main voices and songwriters of the band. It’s just the two of us playing our songs. The songs we’ve been playing together for the past thirty years. Between the two of us we know quite a few songs. It’s fun. We can turn on a dime and go with whatever strikes us at the moment. There will be a lot on spontaneity.
Q: Where did the idea to do a duo tour come from?
A: We did this show years and years ago in Hawaii. And that as a lot of fun. We realized then that the two of us could cover a lot of ground. But doing a tour wasn’t really our idea. Our management thought, “Why don’t we give the band a beak and get you two guys out on the road?” It was a surprise to us originally. As it turns out it’s a pretty good idea. This is a special tour is a perfect way to go back and play the smaller, more intimate rooms. Who know when we will ever do this again? I hope people come out and enjoy it.
Q: How do the other guys on Leftover Salmon about being left home?
A: I think they’re fine with it. Everybody is finding other things to do this month. Our bass player is a music professor at C.U. Denver. So, he’ll be teaching. Our banjo player has got some shows on the side. Our keyboard player lives in Mexico City and he’s got some shows lined up down there. Plus, he does studio stuff. Our drummer lives in Brooklyn and he’s got some jazz shows lined up there. We are all taking a break from the band for the next month.
Q: What is the future of Leftover Salmon?
A: We will be back at on the West Coast in March. Playing in San Francisco, Tahoe and Sacramento. Then we do our “Boogie At The Broadmoor” in Colorado Springs at the end of March.
Q: I know you play a bunch of instruments, which was did you pick up first?
A: I picked up the guitar first. I went from the guitar to the banjo for a little while. Then banjo led me to the mandolin. Followed by mandolin to fiddle. But guitar is still my first instrument.
Q: What drew you to the mandolin?
A: I always in different kinds of music. Strangely enough I hadn’t heard it that much n bluegrass. I more focused on the banjo in bluegrass. first. heard it more in rock. Like early Elton John and Led Zeppelin. Rod Stewart. I really loved the texture of it. That’s kind of what drew me to it. Later, when I started playing Mandolin, I discovered David Grisman, Sam Bush and Bill Monroe. Tim O’Brien. I discovered the bluegrass side of it an got drawn into that. But it started with hearing it in rock music. And then my mom decided she would buy me a mandolin one day in 1980. A cheap Kentucky I spent a whole day linking on it and loved it immediately.
Q: Because of your connection to the mandolin and bluegrass one would assume your heroes were people like Bill Monroe, but the reality is they were more likely rockers?
A: Yeah. Strangely enough John Paul Jones and Jimmie Page would be the main ones. I got to meet John Paul Jones backstage in Telluride a few years back. I got to tell him he was the reason I started playing the mandolin. It was great. Quite an honor. He was tickled and thought that was cool.
Q: What was playing with Neil Young like?
A: He was a big hero. It was quite the thrill. On the HORDE tour in New York at an outdoor amphitheater. He was the headliner. We were playing on the side stage. It was the 1990s before we hit it big. He had been watching our sets. He would put on a baseball cap and sunglasses and watch us from the side of the stage. We never met him because he would disappear before we finished our set.
On stop on that tour his bus pulled up next to ours and Vince (Herman) said, “I’m going to go over there and get on his bus to say hi.” And he did. (Laughs) He came back and said, “Neil said not to tell anybody, but he might come and sit in with us.” We were in the middle of our set and Colonel Bruce Hampton was onstage with us and suddenly the crowd went crazy. I looked over and Neil Young was standing six inches from me. Looking right at me. It was crazy. He played harmonica. Then we did one of my tunes and he harmonized with me. After it was over, he gave me a big hug and thanked me as he walked off. It was a hug moment.
Q: You and Vince have been making music since 1989. What has kept you guys together for 31 years?
A: I don’t know. We are both Geminis. Our birthdays are four days apart. One year apart. It’s had its ups and downs. And we don’t always agree. But we are a brotherhood. He’s family. He’s like the brother that I’m not actually related to. I just think we’ve learned how to go with the flow with each other. And not sweat the small stuff. When we do butt heads, which we do occasionally. A little bit. We’ve got good a letting thing go. And moving on. Like you do with family.
Q: Your personalities seem very different.
A: He’s more of an entertainer. He loves the wacky side of music. He loves to improvise lyrics and go off on whatever tangent strikes him in the moment. I’ve always been maybe a little bit more serious of a songwriter and a musician. We’re opposites but we’re also sort of coming from the same place. I think that’s what has always made Leftover Salmon what it is. We each bring something different to the table. The two worlds that we bring really work well together.
What is the longest you have ever jammed on one song live?
A: At least a half hour to thirty-five minutes. (Laughs) That’s probably the longest. We’ve also been known to do medleys that go on for a long time.
Q: Do you have downtime in DC and how will you spend it?
A: I don’t think we will. This tour is going to be one city to the next. We’re not on a bus for this. We will be in a van with our road manager driving us around. If I do get a free moment, I figure I’ll go straight over there to that impeachment trial and give em what for. (Laughs)
Keith Valcourt is a Los Angeles based music and entertainment writer. He has interviewed thousands of celebrities in the worlds of music, film, TV and comedy for dozens of outlets including: L.A. Times, Washington Times, LFP Publishing, ChelseaCommunityNews.com, RetroRoadMap.com LaArtsOnline and more. Much More