Nashville native Drew Emmitt discovered bluegrass with a twist of the radio dial and it was love at first listen. The mandolinist packed up his gear and headed to Colorado, founding the progressive bluegrass outfit The Left Hand String Band in 1984 and later signing on to play with a group called SalmonHeads. That band morphed into Leftover Salmon, which fused rock and roll with bluegrass, and became a staple of the jam band scene in their lengthy tenure. When the band dissolved after 15 years at the start of 2005, it freed Emmitt up to resume a solo career, picking up where his debut, Freedom Ride, left off in 2002. With Across the Bridge [Compass], he revisits Freedom’s formula, gathering an eclectic ensemble of roots and rock luminaries including Del and Ronnie McCoury, Sam Bush and John Cowan (both formerly of New Grass Revival), Nashville Bluegrass Bands’ Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Little Feat co-founder/guitarist Paul Barrere. The CD features strai

When did your love affair with bluegrass begin?
When I heard a banjo on the radio. I’ll never forget that sound. But I didn’t really get into bluegrass until I moved to Colorado and heard Hot Rize and watched Tim O’Brien play mandolin. He was my first teacher. I wasn’t playing bluegrass at that time; I was playing folky rock stuff. Tim especially struck me because he was incorporating blues and rock into his bluegrass playing.

Why the mandolin?
My bluegrass exposure at the time, other than Hot Rize, was the Stanley Brothers. I was way into Ralph Stanley’s banjo playing and was actually playing the banjo, taking lessons and taking it seriously. I’d been intrigued by the mandolin off and on. My mother decided that I needed one and bought me this $80 mandolin. I sat around all day playing the thing and fell in love with it. I loved that I could pack it up, drive somewhere, sit by a creek, and play it.

I started listening to various mandolin players and really got into David Grisman and then I heard Sam Bush. I saw New Grass Revival and it changed my life. Here was a band playing bluegrass and rock and roll, and a mandolin player playing like I’d never seen before. That’s when it hit me: I wanted to combine bluegrass and rock, and that’s what Leftover Salmon did.

You incorporate some non-traditional techniques and sounds into your playing.
I have a solidbody mandolin—an 8-string, not a 5-string—built by this guy in Boulder named Ron Oates. I was messing around with a distortion pedal and a slide and got this amazing sound by accident. I was also using a Digitech Whammy pedal, which has different kinds of effects on it and made the mandolin sound like a steel drum. It’s this silly little effect, but more people have come up to me to ask how I get that sound.

What other gear do you use?
I play through a Mesa Boogie amp using the amp’s distortion, which works well. I also have an MXR Phase 100 and a Digitech delay pedal, and that’s the extent of it. I’ve played around with effects processors but didn’t like the tone I got through them. I’m a purist as far as that goes.

Do you get satisfaction from the fact that you and Leftover Salmon have helped turn younger audiences on to some of the older bluegrass legends?
That was our goal. We had a dream to not only play with our heroes, but to expose them to the wider audience that we were enjoying. These guys have given us so much and have become buddies. To have them appreciate what we’re doing—that’s a huge honor.