There were a couple of big reasons why the String Cheese Incident parked its tour bus for good in summer 2007, halting a decade-long run for one of the jam-band scene’s biggest bands.
Understandably, the musicians needed a break from 14 years of hard touring — and, well, from each other.
But for singer-guitarist Bill Nershi, the Colorado group’s gray-bearded, unofficial frontman, there was also a pressing creative issue.
“The direction of the music in String Cheese was definitely going away from my interests,” Nershi explained by phone last week, heading from Durango, Colo., to Los Angeles, with his new Emmitt-Nershi Band.
“As an acoustic guitar player, I’m a little out of my depth when the music moves toward electronica,” Nershi continued. “It’s just like, ‘Well, I guess this is cool. But, you know, as an acoustic guitar player, I’m not sure what my role is. Or even if I have a role anymore in some of this music.’”
That concern is a distant memory now. After leaving String Cheese, Nershi found a like-minded musical soul in Drew Emmitt, vocalist and mandolin extraordinaire for Leftover Salmon. Along with bassist Tyler Grant and banjo player Andy Thorn, Emmitt and Nershi crank out one specialty: bluegrass — the improvisation-friendly, newgrass kind.
Mountain music always was a key element in the fusion approach of the String Cheese Incident, as well as the bluegrassier Leftover Salmon. But, with other members contributing disparate musical influences — particularly in String Cheese — it wasn’t the focus.
Emmitt and Nershi had been hoping to work together for the past five or six years, Nershi said. After finally holing up in a friend’s house in Estes Park, Colo., they wrote an album’s worth of songs in three days and realized they truly clicked as musicians.
Since disbanding, the String Cheese Incident has reunited for a couple of special concerts. But, mostly, Nershi said, his post-Cheese life has been about spending time with his family and enjoying the new collaboration with Emmitt.
“It’s great. We’re having the time of our lives,” Nershi said. “We didn’t know when we started playing if this was going to be a long-term thing or not. But I think that making the album together has really shown us that, ‘Hey, this is something that is really working and is a really worthwhile project to keep doing.’ So the album has really changed our perspective. And, hopefully, it will change the perspective of the people that listen to it.”
Released on Sept. 29, the 11-song “New Country Blues” will sound familiar to longtime fans. Nershi and Emmitt re-recorded a song from their better-known groups: the upbeat “Restless Wind” from String Cheese, and the uplifting “This is the Time” from Leftover Salmon. The CD’s title track also may remind diehards of an old Leftover Salmon-covered bluegrass classic called “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.” The playing level on the CD is high, but not overtly flashy. Concerts, however, could be a different story. Emmitt is a smoking mandolin player. And Grant, the group’s bassist, also happens to be the 2008 National Flatpicking Champion.
Being a bluegrass group, the Emmitt-Nershi Band doesn’t have a drummer. But the acoustic instruments create a rhythmic punch that can be “pretty in your face at times,” Nershi said.
“This band definitely gives me incentive to practice,” he added. “There’s a lot of really hot picking going on.”
As expected, the Emmitt-Nershi Band is performing for much smaller crowds than String Cheese did at its peak. Nershi says he’s enjoying the opportunity to sign CDs, meet fans and gig on a more personal level.
The Emmitt-Nershi Band’s setlists generally include original tunes, String Cheese and Leftover Salmon favorites, and traditional bluegrass breakdowns.
Already, Nershi pointed out happily, “tour hounds” are following the Emmitt-Nershi Band on tour just like they did String Cheese. The difference is that fans won’t see a fancy bus rolling up to the venue. The Emmitt-Nershi Band tours in a van.
“We don’t have a lot of gear, and that’s the beauty of it,” Nershi said. “It’s less about equipment and having all the gear and more about just playing your instrument — and the four of us locking up to create a rhythm together that has power.”
THE STRING CHEESE INCIDENT: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Bill Nershi (guitar): Touring with the Emmitt-Nershi Band.
Michael Kang (mandolin): Working with his environmental and social awareness non-profit group Our Future Now.
Kyle Hollingsworth (keyboards): Touring in support of a new singer-songwriter, pop-influenced solo album, “Then There’s Now.”
Michael Travis (drums/percussion) and Jason Hann (percussion): Touring in electronic jam band EOTO.
Keith Moseley (bass): Has been playing dates with Keller Williams’ backing band.