The State of the Grass at the Leftover Millennium

Speculation is running rampant. Scholars are scouring the Bible looking for last-minute clues foretelling millennial apocalypsae in the realm of bluegrass. But the second coming of the banjo came more than twenty years ago, and the mandolin has been plugged in since long before Nashville even had a network.

It's been a good century for bluegrass music, and when the doors open at the Fillmore Auditorium on New Year's Eve, at least four generations of bluegrass innovators will take the stage for an unpredictable party to set the tone for another thousand years of frailing, finger-picking, and hammering on.

For Leftover Salmon, it doesn't get much better than this final year. Their best album to date was released in '99, a celebratory hootenanny featuring their musical heroes from Earl Scruggs and Del McCoury to Taj Mahal and Big Head Todd. "Oh, absolutely, everything's different," confirmed Vince Herman, guitarist and vocalist for the band on the effect the album has had on their lives, speaking from his home in Nederland. "Now the dump up here is closed on Wednesdays instead of Thursdays."

But while the Nederland dump tinkers with its operating procedure, Leftover Salmon is sticking with the approach that's brought them right where they want to be. "We've just been doing some projects where we dream up the funnest thing we could ever imagine doing," Herman explains, "and then we see what we can do to make it happen." Making it happen for New Year's meant getting local banjo wizard Tony Furtado on a bill with Salmon and the Godfathers I, II, and III of slashgrass in Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, and John Cowan.

There's no mistaking the influence of the New Grass Boys on the Leftovers. From Drew Emmitt's lightening-fast mandolin chops and Mark Vann's aggressive innovations on the electric banjo to Vince Herman's boundless energy and rock-informed vocals and the poly-ethnic funk of Tye North on bass and Jeff Sipe on drums, Leftover has isolated the best-fitting genes from a New Grass DNA sampling, fused it with their own rugged originality, and forged an inimitable brand of signature slashgrass.

"What they did was have a big pile of fun with bluegrass music and kind of took it to new places," Herman recalls of Sam and John's legendary collaborations. "And as much as their instrumental prowess was what made them so mythical, damn, they were great performers. Their shows were incredible. I really, really just enjoyed what they did with that energy." Herman is equally thrilled to have Peter Rowan participate in the celebration, citing his history of playing with Bill Monroe and his ground-breaking work with Seatrain, Old and in the Way, and his ceaseless incarnations as another huge inspiration. "God, as a songwriter you just cannot beat what he does. Combining mythology and characters. It's phenomenal. He's a great writer."

More than simply sharing studios and stages with the musicians that inspired and mentored them, LOS is using their clout to create the ideal environment for their music. To create the festive atmosphere they're after at the Fillmore, the band is opening the hall up at 4:20 for croquet and rollerblading while the auditorium resonates with acoustic jams and bluegrass picks scattered all over the place. "Bring your instruments and come early," Herman advises.

Though the band was tempted to bring in a musician from outside the genre-bending tradition to help diversify the line-up, they ultimately said "the hell with it" and kept as close to the ideal as they could, using the millennial moment as a bridge (to Bert) between the permutations ahead and the legacy of a century past. Salmon has long attracted younger fans to the older tradition -- Herman cites seeing "all these Phish-head characters just losing it" when LOS played a gig with Del McCoury recently, but he also notes that the line-up on their Nashville Sessions album has helped open them up to a slightly older crowd. "The album has maybe given more people a clue that what we do isn't all kind of rock 'n' roll slam-dancing," Herman laughs. "So people might not be as afraid of us now."

The tradition of the community hootenanny and the endless bluegrass picks endemic to Nederland's mountain climate is as important to Herman as the electrified energy jolting their audiences at venues across the country. As far back as the band's first concert -- ten years ago to the day on New Year's Eve -- LOS recognized the appeal of the older music. The rag tag ensemble was playing the Eldo in Crested Butte. Herman remembers someone slamming their head into a pole in the middle of the dance floor as the band's sound began to take shape. "It turned out that the older the tunes we played, tunes from the 1800's, the wilder people would slam. It was just intense."

"I went to college in West Virginia for five years," Herman explains, tracing his affinity for roots music. "I got to pick with all these real old-timey players that predates bluegrass music. It was kinda stringband music; bluegrass music did versions of those tunes in a more commercial radio-oriented style. Old guys like Uncle Dave Macon. Getting to play with guys like Melvin Wine, the Gowans Brothers--who are like West Virginia hard-core Smithsonian record label kind of guys--at these street festivals. It just gave me a great sense of wanting to know where the tunes come from. Especially since you get to hang out with these great characters that you're bound to get a lot of stories from."

Herman made the trek to Colorado after hearing rumors of a thriving music scene out here in 1985, based largely on the reputation of Hot Rize. "Drew's first mandolin teacher was Tim O'Brien," Herman recalls, speculating that part of the appeal of the Boulder -- Nederland circuit is the fact that "it's the first hill that you come to. It gets all those characters off the plains just coming to the first hill. ... Colorado attracts people on permanent vacation, which is kind of what you want to do," he concludes, assured that he's stating the obvious.

Although Herman speculates that their next album is likely to lean more toward their rock 'n roll tendencies, he's not against speculating about a sequel to the successful Nashville Sessions. "Next comes a west coast sessions," he jokes. "The San Francisco sessions where we get to play with Grisman, Paul McIndles, Hani Nasar, Dave Lindley, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, you know. I'm quite capable of dreaming. And we're just deliriously happy that every once in a while one dream shows up on the monitor."

As for the State of the Grass, Herman assures us that "It's going all over the place. As it should be. Sure sign of a healthy music form. And at the same time as it's going forward, a lot of people are digging back." When asked if the next step is backward, Herman offers a final belly laugh, closing the century with a bit of backwoods philosophy: "with people asking the question Y2K?, man, they kind of have a point there, you know? If you're afraid to Y2K, then just start counting backwards. We might do that."


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