For almost a quarter century now, Colorado-based band Leftover Salmon has been playing a unique brand of music they've dubbed “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass” and winning fans through their relentless touring and frequent festival appearances. On Sept. 15, Leftover Salmon will take over the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to celebrate the 15th anniversary of their best known album, “The Nashville Sessions”, bringing a host of guest artists, many of whom appeared on the original recording, along with them. We caught up with Leftover Salmon's Vince Herman by phone on Aug. 6 to talk about the show, his memories of recording “The Nashville Sessions” and the band's philosophy.
We're talking to you today primarily because you guys have a big show coming up in our area on September 15 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of “The Nashville Sessions.”
Yeah, we're as fired up about the concert as we were to record that record. It was kind of like a beautiful “Fantasy Island” to get to pick with all those guys.
And you're playing at The Ryman, which is a pretty historic venue in its own right.
Yeah, that's for sure. We've had the chance to play there a few times before and it's just an honor to be standing on that piece of stage there. It really packs a powerful punch, the history of that place. We're just honored to be there and psyched that the Americana Conference is going to be there. That was what prompted this was we heard Taj Mahal was going to be in town to receive an award and we thought “Whoa! Taj is going to be in town and 15 years ago we made this record. Let's see if we can pull off an event.
You have a lot of guests appearing with you in addition to Taj Mahal, including Sam Bush, John Bell, and several others.
Yeah! We've got Reese Wynans, Jo-El Sonnier, John Cowan's going to be in town. Kind of uncertain about The McCoury's right now. Not sure if they're going to be able to make it. Todd Moore of Big Head Todd and the Monsters will be there.
A lot of your guests at the show are people who performed on the “Nashville Sessions” album.
Almost everyone who is sitting in with us was on the record except Bill Payne, who is pretty much in the band with us now so that's how he's involved. Man, to have them there makes us feel so lucky, and to have made music with those we've lost, Waylon Jennings and Earl Scruggs. And we're so thankful to Randy Scruggs for pulling this together for us and bringing his family on board. I remember after we did the album release show at Tootsies, we were walking back near the Ryman to the back door of Tootsies and I took Earl's arm and said “careful, it gets a little slippy here.” And he smiled really huge and said, “oh yeah. It's gotten a little slippy here.” Of course, that famous bar was where you could sneak out the back door of The Ryman and get a shot before you get back on stage. It's been a little slippy for years!
I imagine with so many people coming in and out of that recording, you've got some pretty interesting stories. What memories stand out?
One of the things we did, was we had this big Mardi Gras cape and we took a photo with everyone on the record wearing this cape and a crown. And Earl was in the studio and his wife was there, and she was such a gem, and we asked her “Do you think Earl would put on the cape for us? Could we get a picture?” And Louise shot right back at us “You go ask him yourself! What the heck are you asking me for!” She was such a whippersnapper! She told me about getting contacted by Vanderbilt University to get some help getting Joan Baez to play and while she had them she said “maybe we could have my husband play there sometime.” And she said the person on the other end said “This is Vanderbilt University. We will not be having bluegrass music. And a year after that, Flatt & Scruggs released the “Live at Vanderbilt” album which sold a ton. It was such a great experience to not only meet and play with Earl but also meet and talk with Louise.
Also, talking and trading stories with Waylon Jennings. We lost so much history with those characters in terms of stories and music and so on. You look back and you're just thankful for the time you had with them.
The song you did with Waylon on the album, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” is my personal favorite track and I'd like to get your take on it today because it seems more topical now than ever.
-laugh- Yeah. Country music is an evolving thing. And Leftover Salmon kind of being a bluegrass band, we pushed the bounds of that genre too. Country now is what we used to call country rock and that's alright. It's a wide world of sports out there today. We don't have a lot of borders to our music. We try to tell a story and do the instrumentation justice and just make the best songs we can. We kind of pigeonholed ourselves with that “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass” thing. Backed us right into that corner! -laugh-
You left yourself a little bit of wiggle room with that one! -laugh-
Yeah, we did. We did some branching out a bit, throw some rock and pop music in there, and I guess that's what country is doing too!
When you released “The Nashville Sessions”, it drew a lot of comparison to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and Jeff Hanna participating on your album just cemented that. Was that album a major influence on you guys?
Oh yeah! Definitely. I take a great veneration of the traditions of country music and that album brought it forward to a new generation of listeners. They were hugely successful at it. “Nashville Sessions” certainly didn't sell as many as that one! But I think the music is there too. But yeah, we certainly knew we were following in the great footsteps of that institution when we did this. We were really honored when Jeff Hanna came out to give us a hand.
You spoke a little earlier about arranging this around the Americana Festival and you've played there before, along with just about every other festival in America. Do you guys tailor your shows differently for festivals with a hardcore fanbase like Americanafest and the really focused jam festivals than you do for the really broad festivals with a lot of genres?
We hope to tailor our show to the audience every time we play. We have been doing this for 25 years in January so we have a pretty wide repertoire that we can run with. We may write a setlist and then get to the show and just roll with it. Playing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, for instance, you know the guys like Sam and Bela and Jerry are there every year and it's one of those things where you know you have to bring your A-game you approach the set differently than with some of the more freeform “hippie fests.” We don't change the character of the band or what we do, but we might take a jam a little longer here or there or throw in a medley of stuff we had no intention to play if the festival is real loose, or if we need to put the best stuff on and really shine we might tighten up ship a little. We just do what we do.
What do you guys have going the rest of the year?
We have a West Coast thing in September and early October. Then we take a little time off until Thanksgiving weekend in Boulder, then a run of shows at New Years with two nights in Chicago. Then it's on to Alaska and Hawaii. We've got a new record coming out around November, right around Black Friday. Doing lots of stuff and getting ready to celebrate our 25th year.
Well, we sure hope to see a 20th or even 25th anniversary show of “The Nashville Sessions” in a few years. We like having you guys around!
Well, it sure is a dream for me to be able to do this for so long. It surprises me every day, I wake up and pinch myself. We feel lucky to be able to work so hard!
You can catch the 15th Anniversary “Nashville Sessions” concert at The Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 15. Tickets range from $25-$45 and can be purchased here. The Americana Music Festival and Conference will be held Sept. 17-21 in venues around Nashville. You can find more information at their website.