Classic Americana Albums: Leftover Salmon “The Nashville Sessions”

Independent, 1999

Based on an updated concept of the Nitty Gritty Dirt’s Band’s legendary album, ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ is Leftover Salmon’s 1999 classic ‘The Nashville Sessions’. Salmon’s love for the communal aspect of music festivals is part of their identity and a defining trait of who they are. The band loves the camaraderie and bonding among fans and fellow musicians and wanted to incorporate that shared sense of community on ‘The Nashville Sessions’ by recording an album with a cross-section of musical guests just as the Dirt Band had done nearly three decades prior.

On ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’, the Dirt Band recruited some of the biggest legends of country and bluegrass music and recorded an album that would find the crossroads where rock and old-time music resided. For ‘The Nashville Sessions’, Salmon wanted to do the same. With the idea of bringing musical generations together, Salmon first looked to their friends and peers who they had come to know over the years and reached out to Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, John Popper from Blues Traveler, John Bell from Widespread Panic, Todd Mohr from Big Head Todd, and Taj Mahal. They then set their sights higher and looked to use their ace in the hole, album producer Randy Scruggs. Scruggs previously worked with Waylon Jennings and was able to enlist the country great into the project. He was also able to recruit his father, banjo legend Earl Scruggs to the album as well. Salmon brought in Lucinda Williams and in a sign of the circle being unbroken, Jeff Hanna from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made an appearance. The final list of musicians who appear on the album is a whose, who of roots music and included Sally Van Meter, Jeff Coffin, Reese Wynans, Jo-El Sonnier, and Del and Ronnie McCoury. The common factor among all the guests was they all had forged long careers colouring outside of accepted lines. They were all outlaws, trailblazers, and revolutionaries and Salmon felt at home among them.

Like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had done nearly thirty years prior, Leftover Salmon was a newgrass-inspired band coming down from the Colorado mountains and visiting Nashville to make a record with musicians of all ages and all walks of life. The first order of business was figuring out what songs each guest would play. Whereas the original ‘Circle’ album relied on an arsenal of traditional songs, Salmon was looking to use more of their own songs. As they began to work out what songs they would record with which guests, the band also remained open to working with whatever songs their guests might pull out in the studio. Relying on their good friendship and chemistry with Mahal the band entered the sessions with no clear idea on what song they wanted to do with him, and instead let moment dictate what they would play. From that an acoustic version of Mahal’s classic ‘Lovin’ in my Baby’s Eyes’ emerged. Some of the original songs they used were written specifically with certain guests in mind. Mandolinist Drew Emmitt had penned ‘Midnight Blues’ with the McCourys in mind. While banjo-picker Mark Vann had written ‘Five Alive’ with the express idea of having Earl Scruggs play on it. While some of the other new songs Salmon had written recently just seemed appropriate for particular guests. ‘On the Other Side’, was perfect for John Popper’s harmonica, while ‘Breakin’ Thru’ just lent itself to Jerry Douglas’ dobro. Salmon had never played with Jennings before, but knew they wanted to record his ‘Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?’ as an ode to doing things differently in Nashville. The finished track accentuated by Emmitt’s fiddle and guitar was not the same old tune Jennings originally sung in 1975. It also answered the question—“Where do we take it from here?”—that Jennings posed in the song’s lyrics as the new version featured a soaring duet with the grizzled, road-weary voice of Jennings and the expressiveness of Salmon guitarist Vince Herman updating the classic to reflect Salmon’s penchant for blazing their own path in the face of conventional musical norms. The inclusion of such talented guests made each song a chance to simply put on a seat belt, hold on tight, and take off on a musical journey. Much like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was during the making of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’, Salmon was completely open and willing to allow all the guests to be themselves and shine. They rightly realized, just as with ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’, the strength and power of the album would come from how Salmon integrated their varied roster of guests into the mix.

The finished album was a cross-section of all of this featuring eight Salmon originals and five covers, including three performed with the song’s original author, Waylon Jennings’ ‘Are You Sure Hank Done it this Way?’, Mahal’s ‘Lovin’ in my Baby’s Eyes’, and Lucinda Williams’ ‘Lines Around Your Eyes’. The other two covers were John Hartford’s ‘Up on the Hill Where they Do the Boogie’ (long a staple of Salmon’s live sets), and Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’.

At the tail end of the nineties and grunge, ‘The Nashville Sessions’ was a breath of fresh air that reminded of the simple beauty of roots music. It was also the perfect capstone to Salmon’s first decade as a band. The album showed a huge growth and maturity in the group’s songwriting and playing. On ‘The Nashville Sessions’ they focused on the presentation of each song and crafted a statement of musical purpose instead of ranging all over the stylistic map. ‘The Nashville Sessions’ is unified by its emphasis on country and bluegrass flavours and instead of sprawling at great length, the songs concentrate their improvisation into shorter, more focused arrangements. The album perfectly encapsulated who Leftover Salmon were and where they were going. It was a mature statement from a band not always known for mature statements. With the way they effortlessly brought a cornucopia of styles into their always welcoming musical tent, ‘The Nashville Sessions’ was truly a grand celebration of American music and a defining moment for the band.

About Tim Newby 59 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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