The band's huge turnover happened within a relatively short period of time, according to Emmitt.
Drummer Jose Martinez came to Leftover Salmon about the time their former drummer was leaving the band.
"I met Jose at the High Sierra Festival, which is close to Reno," he says. "We were doing a late-night show. He climbed in behind the drums in mid-song, and I didn't even notice. He didn't miss a beat. When I finally saw him back there, I thought, 'Wow, he sounds pretty good.' It's worked out well ever since."Bassist Greg Garrison was playing in the band the Motets in Boulder, Col., before joining Leftover Salmon. And McKay was invited to join about a year before Vann got ill, Emmitt says.
"That was the other large transition," Emmitt says of bringing in all the new members as Vann was dying. "It made for an interesting couple of years."That transition culminates with the new record.
"It's like climbing out of a huge hole," he says. "We can start feeling like a band again."Vann's loss, of course, left a huge void not only in Leftover Salmon, but also in Emmitt's soul.
"On so many levels, Mark was such a good friend," he says. "And, he was the driving force in the band. Besides being a great banjo player, he did all the books, the taxes. He thrived on that.""His playing was the same way. When he first started learning the banjo, Mark would practice for eight hours a day."Emmitt says the record is a good step in the band's evolution. It represents where Leftover Salmon is and where the band is, Emmitt says.
"This is a crucial time for us," he says. "We're trying to really get it out there. We did suffer a setback, but we're seeing new life. As far as we're concerned, the time is now."Though the freewheeling - and sometimes meandering - spirit of previous albums has been replaced by a more focused approach, the new record still covers some interesting ground.
Emmitt wrote 4 of the album's 11 cuts, including "Last Day." Though the song brims with nostalgia, it was not written in Vann's memory.
"It was before Mark got sick and the whole world got turned upside down," he says. "I wrote that after our son was born. It was fall on the Front Range. The wind was blowing through the Aspens, and I was feeling a little nostalgic. Fall's a time of change and introspection for me anyway, and that's what came out in the song."Emmitt says his smoky, Band-esque tune "Delta Queen" captures the vibe of New Orleans.
"It's a gospel-y, bluesy thing," he says. "The words and music just came together. We were doing a riverboat show during Jazzfest. As we were pulling in, we played the song. It seemed pretty poignant."Emmitt also wrote the hardcore bluegrass number "Down in the Hollow," but was especially happy to finally commit the Jim Messina song "Whispering Waters" to a studio album.
"We've been playing it live for many years," he says. "We tried recording it for the 'Euphoria' album, but it just didn't happen."When Payne dropped by for a Leftover Salmon show in San Francisco, he sat in and played a piano solo on the song, Emmitt says. The song perhaps represents Leftover Salmon at its jam band best on the new record, with Payne again displaying his chops on the eight-minute-plus number.
"It's on a Messina solo record from the '80s," Emmitt says. "I heard it KBCO in Boulder back when they used to play a lot of different stuff. It's a pretty weird world out there, radio-wise. The bigger triple-A stations are playing us, but it's pretty tight. You'll hear us on public radio and the non-commercial stations that play whatever they want. If I were to pick two songs that might appeal to commercial radio, I'd probably have to say 'Delta Queen' and 'Just Keep Walking,' since they're a little less bluegrassy."It's unlikely that radio will devise a jam band format in the near future, Emmitt says.
"It's basically the category we fall in," he says. "It's defined by the audience more than anything. It's mostly young people who go to the shows. You play very long songs and not a lot of lyrics. It can be bluegrass, jazz, funk."String Cheese Incident provided a lot of inspiration when the band was first figuring out its style, he says.
"When we first started touring 15 years ago, a lot of others started," he says. "There were not a lot of places for us to play. There wasn't a big touring circuit for a bluegrass band with rock 'n' roll instruments. We pounded it out until we saw results."In the early years Leftover Salmon, toured endlessly, Emmitt says.
"We used to do 250 shows a year, and we rode in an old school bus," he says. "That was intense. Now we're down to a manageable level at about 130 shows a year."After hitting the road all February, the band hit the southeast and is readying for the festival season.
"We'll do the same thing as last summer," Emmitt says. "We did mostly weekend festivals. This year we'll be going to Manchester, Tenn. (for Bonaroo in June). Right now, it's the biggest festival in the country. It draws people like Bob Dylan, Dave Mathews and Del McCoury. This is the first year we've done it. Most of the bands in our genre are there."But something of a tradition for Leftover Salmon will be broken. The band won't be playing the Telluride bluegrass festival this year.
"It's the first time in 13 years we won't be there," he says. "It's part of taking a new direction."