Drew Emmitt is known as Leftover Salmon’s bluegrass-inspired mandolin player, though his first love was hard rock.
“I came into bluegrass through the back door,” explains Emmitt. “The first mandolin player I ever heard was John Paul Jones. That’s what got me into the instrument. Electric guitar and mandolin are two totally different worlds, but I love them both. Now the mando is like a part of my body, but I was a rock-and-roller first.”
Emmitt’s prowess on the electric guitar, along with his acclaimed acoustic dexterity, can be heard on Leftover Salmon’s new album, Something Higher; it was recorded at WaveLab Recording Studio in Tucson, where artists including DeVotchKa, Iron & Wine and Calexico have put down projects. Emmitt, who was born in Tucson, says the recording includes songs the group has slowly been introducing to its live repertoire.
“We played some of these new tunes at our Boulder shows over Thanksgiving,” says Emmitt, a resident of Crested Butte, now in his early fifties. “I think we played the title track ‘Show Me Something Higher,’ and we might have done ‘Southern Belle’ and our banjo player Andy’s [Thorn] tune ‘Evermore.’ We’ve been trickling them out. We’re doing about half the record now. We’ll likely get to performing the rest of the songs by the time we’re at Red Rocks and Telluride.”
The band will mark the release with a special performance at eTown Hall in Boulder on Friday, May 4, followed by a co-bill with Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band on Saturday at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Something Higher will be released on CD, digital and vinyl. “All we’re missing now is eight-track and cassettes,” Emmitt jokes. “Our new one is actually a double album on vinyl, so, yeah, if you want to go old-school, you could drop your weed in there and use it to roll joints.”
The album, produced using analog recording equipment with the help of Steve Berlin from Los Lobos, touches on a variety of themes, including travel (“Places”), optimism in the face of darkness (“Show Me Something Higher”), and the passing of souls (Emmitt’s own “Astral Traveler,” dedicated to the late Colonel Bruce Hampton).
Leftover Salmon is nearly three decades into its career, and Something Higher is its tenth release. The band took a two-year hiatus, between 2005 and 2007, following the death of original banjo player Mark Vann. After a couple years off, the members decided to give it another go, and Emmitt says they’re glad they did.
“We missed touring, so after getting a little space from each other, doing some side projects and figuring out that we could survive on our own, it felt like a good time to come back,” he says. “There was a lot of interest in having us play, and it all fell back in line. We don’t do it quite like we used to, because when we took that break in 2005, we needed to end an era of touring our brains out. From the time we started in 1989 up to 2005, we were on the road solid. When we got back together in 2007, we did a few one-offs and short runs and stuff, so we didn’t really get back together full-on until 2012, with a bigger tour that took us through the Midwest and down into the South. We got back on the bus. Now we do a bus tour maybe once or twice a year instead of three weeks out of every month, which we did for many years. It’s fun when the music is good and the crowds are into it. That’s what keeps you going, but certainly the travel isn’t easy.”
Emmitt attributes Salmon’s recent recording output to band manager John Joy, who he says pressed the group to get back to touring more regularly and releasing new material.
“John started with us after Mark Vann passed,” says Emmitt. “We had Chuck Morris as a manager for a few years, which is how we got our Nashville Sessions record deal, and then we worked with various people under Chuck for a few years before John. I think Mark found John. He had managed a couple of acts before us, including the Rebirth Brass Band. John was great about stockpiling funds, which allowed us to put out our last few records on our own.”
The track “Show Me Something Higher” marks the first time that Emmitt and frontman Vince Herman have collaborated on a song, with both of them contributing lyrics and vocals.
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“We were finishing up the album last November while we were practicing for our Neil Young tribute show in Denver,” Emmitt relates. “We were at eTown recording, and I came up with a tune where I thought Vince could write the second half of each verse. That tune became the title of the record.”
The record also includes original material and arrangements by bandmembers Greg Garrison, Alwyn Robinson and Erik Deutsch.
“I generally have song ideas that I keep in my head as I’m going along,” Emmitt says. “But we’re writers that kind of need a fire under us to produce, so releasing records helps. We’re super-excited about this album and our upcoming shows. Red Rocks with Phil [Lesh], who we’ve played with before, is going to be pretty epic.”