The Wit And Wisdom Of Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman

first_imgFor more than 25 years, Vince Herman, along with Drew Emmitt and some mighty fine pickers and grinners, have been making joyful sounds together as Leftover Salmon. In that time the gregarious and free wheeling nature of Herman’s larger than life personality have made him and his band beloved staples of the music circuit. After losing original banjo player Mark Vann to cancer, Herman and the band took a lengthy hiatus before five string master Andy Thorn reignited the fire still inside them.Riding a spectacular return to form, the finest (and only) Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass band in the land has been making records and fans across the country with their high energy performances. With their annual Thanksgiving concerts in Denver coming up next week, our own Rex Thomson caught up with the Mayor of the High Sierra Music Festival himself, Vince Herman, for a chat bout musical ambitions, his political aspirations and the honor it is to help pass the torch to the next generation of roots players, including his own sons.Live For Live Music: To get some perspective, let us start at the beginning. Did you grow up in a musical household?Vince Herman: Yeah, I was the youngest of seven siblings, so I grew up with varying music influences. All the way from Motown to The Beatles and the British invasion. Pittsburgh was a big polka town so there was lots of that at family weddings and stuff like that. I kinda, on my own, started following that, all the way, all the way down.L4LM: Around what age were you when you found bluegrass?VH: I was in the eight grade and I was at the Smokey City Folk Festival and I saw a bunch of old guys standing around in a circle playing old time-y music. I thought “Wow! That is pretty good stuff!” You get to play tunes and have that kinda fun and you get to meet a whole bunch of people. To have a way of interacting with strangers  that immediately forms a community.That’s what attracted me to it. I’d been playing guitar since I was like two or something like that. But it was when I saw the social context that I got really fired up about playing music.L4LM: As you were exploring the world of bluegrass and music in general, did you have a teacher or mentor who helped you find your way?VH: No, not really. When I first took lessons the guy who taught them was really an accordion player who happened to have a couple of guitar instruction manuals lying around the studio. That was like third through seventh grade. I started teaching at a little studio when I was in ninth grade.That was a good job. I kinda picked up music when I was growing up by tracking down players and musical situations. In my high school years I was pretty much alone. I had a few good folks in the neighborhood like Bob Gavyk who wrote a few tunes that we are playing right now, but not a lot of that in those years.Really, though, it was when I got to college that I got into bluegrass and that old time-y thing. I went to school in Morgantown, West Virginia and there was a guy Ginny Farsetta. He was a mentor on the bluegrass stuff and my introduction to calypso and that sort of thing.Also in college I was a regular attendee at the Augusta Heritage Festival down in Elkins, West Virginia. That is a six week festival and they would feature a different kind of music each week. One week it would be bluegrass music, then Irish, Cajun, blues… all of it.That’s where I was first introduced to calypso music really, with Dewey Balfa, Canray Fontenot and those kinds of cats. I was lucky where I was in the situation where I got to hang with a lot of old masters. West Virginia is full of Smithsonian level old-time fiddlers and guys like that.Getting to hang with them and the calypso folks who came through Augusta who came through was really fundamental in developing my ear for American roots music, I think.Here is Leftover Salmon performing a fun but chilly version of their tune “Western Skies” for a very appreciative crowd at WinterWonderGrass Tahoe earlier this year:L4LM: Your band, Leftover Salmon, is known for the wild mix of styles and genres present in your song book. Is there anything genre you consider off limits, that just doesn’t fit with your sound?VH: There must be something, but not yet. It’s all music. It’s all just aspects of humanity, man. I welcome all forms of expression. Some of it I will spend a little more time with than others, but I enjoy all kinds of tunes.L4LM: It has been over twenty five years since the founding of Leftover Salmon and safe to say you have learned a few things along the way. Do you have any wisdom you want to share with the world?VH: Hang out with old people. Yeah man…try and find old masters of any type and listen to what they have to say. And dig into old records and stuff when you can’t find any of them. For me the best way to learn is to hang out with older people and see what they have to say.I’m really lucky to have this chance to make music. When you do it for a living there is a danger of forgetting what pure joy it is when you get caught up in the travel, the hotels and the shitty road food. You need to be reminded, from time to time, how lucky we are to express our humanity for a living.That is what I advise people to do. Seek and enjoy the beauty of it all.L4LM: You are a bit of a larger-than-life figure on the music scene. Your cries of “Festivaaal!” and the perma-grin on your face make you seem like the happiest guy on Earth. Are you really having that much fun?VH: Yeah man! Like I said…I know we’re damn lucky to do this. Community is what this is all about for me. Especially at festivals. I feel this critical mass of joyful humanity and it just takes over me.L4LM: Thanks to your spirit you have been declared “Mayor For Life” at the High Sierra Music Festival. That is a pretty awesome responsibility. What do you see as you job description?VH: It is kinda like the coming Donald Trump presidency. He ain’t gonna do much stuff himself, he is gonna make Mike Pence do all the hard stuff. I just heard he doesn’t even want to live in the White House.I’ve pretty much turned over the administrative stuff to other folks.L4LM: One last question about High Sierra. You played a rollicking Sunday set backing up festival favorite singer-songwriter Steve Poltz. I don’t know if I have ever seen a musician laugh as hard as you were during as show. Is it always like that when you two get together?VH: Most of that set was absolutely improvised and off the cuff. He is one funny guy! That set was one of the most satisfying musical experiences ever for me. I’d never gotten to see Steve do a live show. I’ve heard a bunch of recordings, but that was my first in person experience.That was as entertaining for me as it was for anyone in the audience, I tell you that.L4LM: Sharing the stage and sharing knowledge seems to be a habit for you. I’ve interviewed folks from bands like Elephant Revival, Shook Twins and Fruition, and every time your name is mentioned as someone who taught them about the music that has preceded you all. Is the mentor role something you now seek out?VH: Man, those Elephant Revival cats just lived in my neighborhood. I guess that is just what happens when you are the old man on the block. It is an honor that they say stuff like that but I am probably just as inspired by them as they are of me.That is what a music community is. People inspiring each other back and forth. That is what music and life is, and I am so glad to be a part of it.Vince and Leftover Salmon welcomed Jon Stickley and Lyndsay Pruett to the stage at the Suwannee Roots Revival for a fun take on “Oh Me Oh My”.L4LM: Your son Silas is tearing up the mandolin with the excellent band Gipsy Moon. Do you see this as talent being passed down or were you sneaking tiny instruments into his crib when no one was looking?VH: No, no. He always had access to instruments but I didn’t push it on him. And when he did play with them I didn’t push them to play them right, or to play chords or anything like that.He would pick them up and strum them and screw around on them so when he decided that he wanted to learn to really play them he was already physically comfortable with them. When he applied mind to that physicality he just nailed it. He also had a great teacher, John Rindell, a terrific jazz player and a great educator.Rather than handicap the kid with my perception I turned him over to John and he taught him quite well. Silas has a ton of influences, growing up and going to Rocky Grass Festival. Folks like Sara Jarosz, Dominique Leslie and that whole younger generation of the bluegrass kids. He certainly found his own voice.I am real psyched that over the holidays I am gonna play some gigs with him as The Herman Clan. It is gonna be Silas Herman, Colin Herman and myself of course, Vince Herman. It is really fun. As you can imagine playing music with your kids is about as much fun as you can have.L4LM: How much pride is there in seeing your sons up there wowing the crowds just like their dear old dad?VH: Great. I guess this is how it is supposed to be: the continuity of the generations.L4LM: Even though the next generation is already up and running, you aren’t planning on stopping your own music anytime soon are you? There is still a lot of music to make and folks lined up to learn from you.VH: Well, you know I am willing to play music as long as it takes to wait for my political career to get going.L4LM: Well, the bar for political qualifications has been dramatically lowered recently.VH: Yeah, the need for everyone getting more motivated to take personal responsibility for the direction of the country couldn’t be more clear right now. There are a lot of lives to live. I have spent a lot of time in this one and I am interested in checking out a few more of them before I check out of this one. But I think I will always be making music.L4LM: Since we determined already that you are sort of a guru when it comes to roots music you seem like the perfect person to ask for musical recommendations. Are there any acts you are into right now you’d like to share?VH: Well, definitely Gipsy Moon. Check them out as soon as you can. I was just turned onto a band out of Colorado called Intuit that is really good. I have been digging some new reggae stuff. Lucinda Williams new record, The Ghost Of Highway 20, is awesome. Eric Deutsch‘s new record Outlaw Jazz is pretty good too.I’ve been digging a Roland White reissue called I Wasn’t Born To Rock & Roll sounds great. The Royal Southern Brotherhood is doing some really good stuff. I have been doing some stuff with David Nelson. He hurt his shoulder and I have been helping out so I have learned a LOT of David Nelson’s material the last couple weeks and his stuff is incredible.L4LM: You’re once again hosting a special run of Thanksgiving week shows in Denver. Do you look at these shows as a good deed, a chance to help people work off their turkey gut?VH: You know, Thanksgiving has always been a big community thing for us. There’s that word again, community. Everyone is back home for the holidays…you bring family together. A big music gathering is a good part of that, bring everyone together and make them happy.We’re doing a special one this year. We’ve got Los Lobos playing on the bill on Saturday at The Filmore and on Friday night we are doing a Neil Young set at Ophelia’s with a particular focus on the Harvest record. You know…Harvest, Thanksgiving…makes sense.L4LM: Well, thank you for not only taking time for this chat but also for helping ensure the next generation of roots musicians has a man they can turn to to share the wit and wisdom of your many years.VH: Thank you It was and is my pleasure!Let’s squeeze in one more song from Leftover Salmon’s two nights at the Suwannee Roots Revival with their rootsy take on the T-Rex classic “Bang A Gong” below:last_img

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