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A simple thing
Drew Emmitt and Bill Nershi take a break from their giant-sized jam bands
Bill Nershi, left, and Drew Emmitt

They could have called it Leftover Cheese, or the Salmon Incident, but Drew Emmitt and Bill Nershi, leaving creativity to the music, went with the obvious. So we have the Emmitt–Nershi Band.

Lynchpins and mainstays of Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident, respectively, Emmitt and Nershi have forsaken the stadia–stage trappings and festival–sized crowds of their regular gigs for acoustic instruments and the simple delights of straight–ahead bluegrass music.

Well, straight–ahead as defined in the big jam band dictionary. Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident – both bands are based in Colorado – are famous for tossing bluegrass, rock, jazz and Caribbean music into a blender and hitting the “Puree” button.

Rest assured that the Emmitt–Nershi Band, making its Savannah debut Thursday at the Live Wire Music Hall, is not your great–uncle Ira’s bluegrass band.

Guitarist Tyler Grant and banjo player Andy Thorn are the guys behind singer/guitarist Bill Nerschi and lead vocalist/mandolin minstrel Drew Emmitt.

For those who know Leftover Salmon, what’s different about this band?

Drew Emmitt: Well, there’s a lot of differences and a lot of similarities. I guess the main difference is that we’re acoustic – we don’t have drums or electric guitars – it’s basically a bluegrass band. We’ve written some songs together, and we just put out a record. Which has been really cool, collaborating with Billy and creating a whole new repertoire of tunes.

Also, we’re playing some songs from String Cheese, and some songs from Salmon, but in a bluegrass format, which kind of brings some new life to the tunes.

It’s stripped–down – it’s not the big production, like either of our bands are. It’s just real rootsy, and it’s just fun pickin’ and rocking it out without drums.

Is that fun for you, to have a smaller unit that you can just say “Grab the cases, let’s go play”?

Drew Emmitt: Absolutely, absolutely. We’re just the four of us touring, no crew, in our van. You know, it’s kinda like just traveling the country with your buddies and playing tunes. We fly, too – we went to Alaska recently – it’s so easy to get on a plane with just a pre–amp and an instrument. There’s a definite freedom to it, especially after being with the big machine.

Salmon still exists, right? Don’t you have a few gigs this year?

Drew Emmitt: It’s been a couple years now we’ve been doing shows since we stopped touring in ’05. We played a couple shows in San Francisco in February, one in Salt Lake, and we just did a show in Florida a couple weeks ago, at the Suwannee Springfest.

There’s a blurring of the lines these days between audiences who like traditional bluegrass and those who enjoy the more contemporary stuff. Do you see that happening, or are there still separate and distinct audiences?

Drew Emmitt: Well, there’s definitely separate and distinct audiences, and I’m sure it’s always gonna be that way. But I’m definitely seeing a little more blurring, a little more acceptance of the more progressive bluegrass among the traditionalists.

And then the jamgrass, progressive crowd, I think they’re starting to discover the McCourys and the Ralph Stanleys, and the Stringdusters.

There’s always going to be the people that are just staunch in their taste and their traditions – and that’s great. You need those people too.

But I think that by and large yes, it’s definitely broadening, and people are opening up to the different ways of playing bluegrass.

That wasn’t conceivable 30 years ago, was it? All I can think of is that it must have been David Grisman and Sam Bush saying “Screw that, I’m breaking out.”

Drew Emmitt: Oh, big time. You are right on the money. Those two are my two biggest influences on the mandolin for sure. Grisman’s been around for pretty much longer then any mandolin player now, especially in this genre. He’s definitely the guy that threw some different styles together – gypsy jazz and bluegrass and bebop – and created Dawg music.

You always risk getting some backlash from the traditionalists, and that’s to be expected. Grisman definitely went through that. Sam Bush definitely went through that with New Grass Revival. The traditionalists were in an uproar!

Don’t get me wrong, ‘cause I totally respect the traditionalists. I respect the roots of bluegrass, and the people that think if there’s an electric bass it’s not bluegrass. I grew up in Tennessee, so I know what it’s all about.

For you, what came first, mandolin or guitar?

Drew Emmitt: Guitar. When I was probably about 10 I started playing the guitar. I didn’t really get into the mandolin until I was about 18. I’d always really loved the sound of it, and I was way into bluegrass, but I was playing guitar and also the banjo.

Growing up in Nashville ... they don’t call it Music City for nothing. It’s not just country music, it’s all kinds of music. I grew up at a time when there was a lot happening in the music world. So I was exposed to equal parts rock ‘n’ roll and country, and bluegrass and folk and all that. And classical.

I have a real strong rock ‘n’ roll base, I think, in my playing, mainly because I started playing rock ‘n’ roll first, before I started playing bluegrass.

When I was a teenager I started playing bluegrass only; I didn’t pick up my electric guitar again until Leftover Salmon started. And at that point I was able to play rock ‘n’ roll AND bluegrass!

To me, “slide mandolin” is an oxymoron. But you play it in Leftover Salmon. Is that something you developed, or was there a predecessor?

Drew Emmitt: I’m only partly responsible for that. Sam Bush was really the first one to do it, but he always did it on his Dobro mandolin. Sam never put it together with playing on the electric mandolin, using distortion. When he plays electric, he plays straight–up five–string.

So he took it partway, and I kinda picked it up and ran with it a little further. His acoustic slide mandolin playing is awesome, it’s a thing of beauty.

I’d been playing slide on the acoustic, and when I got my first electric mandolin, and I tried it with the distortion pedals, I was like “OK ... now we got something happening here.”

A bluegrass band called Crooked Still just came through here ... and they have a cello. Are there limits to what a contemporary string band can or should do?

Drew Emmitt: I don’t think there’s limits. It’s just up to what people can accept. You know, you’re always going to bum somebody out when you’re pushing the limits, but that’s what it takes. It takes really being brave and trying new things. I think it’s really important and vital to music.

The Emmitt–Nershi Band

Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.

When: At 10 p.m. Thursday, April 22

Tickets: $10 advance, $12 day of show


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