It’s hardly surprising that Leftover Salmon chose to recruit Billy Strings, Oliver Wood, and Darol Anger to contribute to their new album, Grass Roots, especially considering the fact that they, like the band itself, represent some of the more progressive forces of today’s bluegrass variety. The fact that Leftover Salmon has been a formidable influence in the newgrass evolution finds any collaboration of that sort especially well considered, and even more so on this project intended to highlight the bluegrass side of the band.
So too, the choice of covers — including songs from Dylan, The Grateful Dead, David Bromberg, and Link Wray — all testify to Leftover Salmon’s verve and versatility. So too, being as vibrant as they are varied, Leftover Salmon finds an easy groove that easily adapts to whatever muse happens to inform their music at any given time.
That’s not to say they don’t take their traditional trappings seriously. Opening tracks Country Blues and Blue Railroad Train keep to a vintage template that hews to strict bluegrass basics. Drew Emmitt’s mandolin chop comes to the forefront, while the other members of the band — vocalist/guitarist Vince Herman, bassist/vocalist Greg Garrison, banjo player and singer Andy Thorn, drummer Alwyn Robinson, and Jay Starling, who shines on dobro, lap steel, piano, Wurlitzer, and vocals, mesh their instruments accordingly. California Cottonfields and Fireline follow suit, with the former finding Jay Starling reprising a song his father, John, made famous with Seldom Scene.
The material also offers plenty of opportunity for some imaginative interpretations. A reverential replay of Simple Twist of Fate culls all the tattered emotion of the original, while recasting it as a homespun homily. Their take on the Dead’s Black Peter stays true to Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass roots as well as the populist threads the two bands share in common. Bromberg’s The New Lee Highway Blues is recast with a down home delivery, while another Dylan standard, Nashville Skyline Rag, comes across in a way Bob himself likely imagined, given that Earl Scruggs played on the original. On the other hand, a carefully considered Fire and Brimstone is scarcely recognized as a Link Wray original.
Ultimately, Grass Roots offers all its title implies. It shares the sentiment and sensibilities plied from a vintage sound, all imbued with modern aptitude and attitude. It’s yet another reason why Leftover Salmon remain one of the best of their breed.