Jamgrass veterans dial-back their taste for adventure as they channel their classic influences.
Whether you’ve ever been to Colorado or not, you probably have a mental picture of what the landscape there is like if you’ve followed bluegrass music at any point over the last half-century.
Even if that part of the U.S. hasn’t been romanticized in song quite as much as, say, California, Texas or Appalachia, the myth of Colorado will forever be immortalized in our collective imagination, thanks to iconic tunes by the likes of John Denver, Jimmy Buffett, Townes Van Zandt, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Joe Walsh.
Arguably, though, few acts have come up with a sound to match that myth quite as well as Leftover Salmon.
Over the last thirty-plus years, the veteran Colorado outfit has perfected a style that, at times, can be as tranquil - yet as captivating - as a shallow mountain stream gurgling softly over a patch of smooth rocks. With their singular knack for playing in unison, Leftover Salmon often make their music more powerful the more gently they play.
Moreover, the band both epitomize and stretch beyond the thriving “newgrass” and “jamgrass” movements they’ve come to represent. By the time they had made recent albums like 2018’s Something Higher and last year’s Brand New Good Old Days, Leftover Salmon had crafted a form of progressive bluegrass that steered so far into other areas that it verged on adult contemporary: sleek, catchy and able to absorb aspects of country, funk, jazz and pop.
On new album Grass Roots, for example, there’s a moment during their take on The Grateful Dead’s ‘Black Peter’ where Jay Starling’s lap steel blends seamlessly with the churning flow of the rhythm section.
Likewise, on the album-opening cover of Dock Boggs’ ‘Country Blues,’ Thorn’s banjo and co-founder Drem Emmitt’s violin blur together into a beautifully eerie slice of atmosphere.
On the New Orleans-influenced ‘Fire and Brimstone,’ the band employs an approach that’s slinky and dusty enough to imagine the song as the theme music from old ‘70s TV shows like Welcome Back Kotter and Barney Miller.
Mostly, though, the album sees Leftover Salmon dialing back on their versatility and taste for adventure as they channel their earliest influences, either covering outright or paying homage to classic tunes written by and/or performed by the likes of David Bromberg, Bob Dylan, The Neville Brothers, Link Wray, The Seldom Scene (which included Starling’s father) and Hot Rize (which included Emmitt’s mandolin teacher).
Dating back to the repertoires of both The Left Hand String Band and The Salmon Heads, which merged together in 1989 to form Leftover Salmon at a campground at the legendary Telluride festival, the covers here carry a lot of personal significance for the band.
If you’re a fan of traditional-styled bluegrass in a live setting, Grass Roots should check all the boxes for you. But if you’re a fan of Leftover Salmon’s more exploratory studio work, it’s hard to avoid the sense that they could’ve taken more risks with this material, however ear-pleasing—and, at times, flawless—their execution might be.
Leftover Salmon's 2023 album, Grass Roots, is released May 19 via Compass Records.