"Down in a Hollow" from recent sessions
"There's a whole culture that is immersed in trance and electronica styles of music. It's a whole world like the Burning Man world, and you know those people really enjoyed the direction that String Cheese was going," says String Cheese guitarist and frontman Bill Nershi. "At the same time, there were a lot of people who were like, 'What is this? What happened to the String Cheese sound?' And a lot of people who were more acoustic music fans didn't go with String Cheese when we started changing our sound. Those people are, I think, excited to hear some of those songs in a different setting, played by basically a straight-ahead bluegrass band."
Both Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident did as much as any band out there to make fiddles and banjos mainstream. But as their crowds grew, the desire to break new musical ground led each group toward a more electrified sound. Although Leftover has regrouped, and is sporadically touring, String Cheese dissolved last year, primarily over concerns among members about the move toward electronica the band was taking.
Nershi initiated the String Cheese breakup, stating that he often felt unsure about his role when a song moved toward trance-like build-ups. In the aftermath, he solidified his friendship with Leftover lead singer and mandolinist Drew Emmitt, and, together with Andy Thorn (banjo) and Tyler Grant (bass), they've stripped down their songs to fit a four-piece, traditional bluegrass outfit.
"Writing a song like 'Black Clouds' [a String Cheese staple], I kind of heard in my head what it would sound like," says Nershi, on the phone from his home in Colorado. "The beauty of String Cheese is that it's like, 'Wow, you take this song that I thought would sound like this and it becomes a whole different thing.' And that's exciting. But now when I play it with the Emmitt-Nershi Band it's the way it sounded in my head when I was writing it. For me, it's like resetting my musical buttons, getting back to bluegrass and checking back into that sound, because it's one of my favorite styles to play, for sure."
Fans of String Cheese and Leftover can certainly expect to hear plenty of familiar tunes, albeit in new, harmonious arrangements, as well as new takes on traditional bluegrass numbers.
"We don't have setlists. They're a thing of the past," says Nershi. "That's the beauty of playing these smaller gigs. We don't feel the pressure to have all the songs lined up — we just look at each other and I'll say, 'Go ahead and sing one, Drew,' or he'll say, 'What have you got, Billy?' It's really fun that way, real spur of the moment."
Nershi says that the greatest joy of playing with Emmitt is hearing his voice: "I'll be playing and just listening, thinking, 'Man, that is so cool, that sounds so good.'"
Aside from the two frontmen, the other two pickers aren't too shabby themselves. Bass-playing Grant actually won the 2008 National Flat Pickin' championship in Winfield, Kansas last month — "and he's our bass player!" laughs Nershi. Banjo-player Thorn may be the most familiar to the Pour House crowd — he's played there many times as a member of Larry Keel's band, Natural Bridge.
On the road, Nershi says the reaction from bluegrass and String Cheese fans alike has been positive.
Even though the songs are strictly acoustic with Emmitt-Nershi, that doesn't preclude plenty of hot jams. Both lead members come from backgrounds of inciting thousands of revelers into frantic dancing, and Nershi says they're particularly excited for their first tour of the Southeast. In our increasingly bluegrass-friendly town, they'll likely be warmly welcomed at the Pour House.