AUK’s Chain Gang: Leftover Salmon “Left Unsung”

Photo by Tim Newby

Before Christmas Tim Martin introduced us to the Rodney Crowell led ‘Songs From Quarantine Vol. 2’ a benefit album for the Music Health Alliance that is a musicians resource for healthcare solutions and access.  Health care benefits for musicians in the United States has long been an issue as they work jobs that often do not provide benefits and feature unstable income.  Connecting to the album musically would have provided a wealth of options from Crowell, to Guy Clark, to Willie Nelson, to Shelby Lynne, to many, many more.  But in this season of giving it felt better to continue Tim’s thoughtful approach and make the next link in the chain a song that highlights the often overlooked issue of mental health in the music industry and feature a song and organisation that address that.

Leftover Salmon’s ‘Left Unsung’, written by bassist Greg Garrison was originally released in 2019 as a single benefiting Backline, a resource hub for mental health and wellness in the music industry.  (It has since been released on the band’s 2021 album, ‘Brand New Good Old Days’.)  The song is dedicated to Yonder Mountain String mandolinist Jeff Austin who tragically took his own life in 2019 after years of battling mental health issues.

Garrison was a lifelong friend of Austin.  The two first met in middle school in the mid 80s while living in the Chicago area, before attending both High School and College together.  After college the two both drifted to Colorado and the progressive bluegrass sound that was prominent there with Garrison ending up in Leftover Salmon and Austin forming Yonder Mountain String Band.  They were bands that were peers and contemporaries of each other, often sharing stages together over the years.

Lyrically the song tells the story of their lives, while at the same time tackling the mental health issues that plagued Austin for his entire life.  Garrison sings of their first meeting, “Might have been ’86, both of us kids near the city/ Midwest, flatlands, suburbia felt like such a pity/ I was jazz band, you were theater class/ How were we to know it would end in such a mess?”  Before singing of their college years, “Champaign, Monkey House, radio, music and the rain/ Home-brewin’, growin’ in the closet but we didn’t see the pain/ Saw you find that mandolin/ Now we all hear that were never gonna see it again.”  Eventually Garrison addresses Austin loss, lamenting, “No new songs to sing/ Or highways left to ride/ No more good times with your friends/ Cause you’re on the other side/ No new melodies/ Or trips around the sun/ But we’ll all be here/ To write the songs you left unsung.”

For Garrison the song was even more personal given his own mental health issues he has struggled with over the years.  He explained, “I have always struggled with a certain amount of social anxiety (not the easiest thing when you’re in a band like Leftover Salmon) … It makes being a musician, which involves a healthy amount of ‘putting yourself out there’ a difficult task at times.  Thankfully, when the music is happening and I’m playing the bass, I can close my eyes, quiet my mind and feel at home.  I discovered that I suffer from low level depression (called dysthymia) during one of my most difficult periods as a human and as a musician.  When I parted ways with Punch Brothers in 2008, a lot of things came crashing down …  Fortunately, through counseling I was able to get my proverbial “shit together” to some extent, and I started taking medication (which I still take to this day) … Like many, I certainly wish I would have understood the extent to which Jeff was hurting, and that I could have given him a helping hand when it was needed.  I’m glad that an organization like Backline exists now, as having the support of others who have gone through or are going through a similar situation will allow the healing to start and leave far fewer songs left unsung.”

You can learn more about Backline and their mission to connect music industry professionals and their families with a trusted network of mental health and wellness providers here: https://backline.care/

About Tim Newby 58 Articles
Author of books, writer of words, enjoyer of good times. Often found with a beer in hand and barefoot at a festival somewhere. Author of 'Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin' Sound & Its Legacy' (2015), 'Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival! (2019). New book 'Pete Browning: The Life & Troubled Times of a Forgotten Legend' due out in 2023. Follow him on twitter @Tim_Newby9 .

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