Andy Thorn was destined to claim the banjo gig with genre bending acoustic legends Leftover Salmon.
Since studying jazz guitar at the University of North Carolina, Thorn has played with some of the most influential progressive bluegrass pickers in the business. Thorn’s banjo mastery has been sharpened during his tenure with, among others, Larry Keel, The Emmitt-Nershi Band, and Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band, a short lived Colorado based bluegrass collective whose members soon dispersed to form some of the most significant bluegrass bands currently touring.
But Thorn’s musical mission doesn’t begin and end with Leftover Salmon. This month, he has released his first solo record in nearly a decade, Frontiers Like These, which he laid down during a return visit to his native North Carolina and which features some his of oldest music minded friends.
This new collection of songs cements Thorn’s place, alongside stalwarts like Noam Pikelny and Chris Pandolfi, in the vanguard of great contemporary banjo players.
I recently caught up with Andy Thorn to chat about climate change, the new record, and getting back together with his mates in Broke Mountain.
BRO – A friend once told me that locking oneself in a room for a dozen years was a good start in learning the banjo. Accurate?
AT – Hah! I’m glad I didn’t have to take that approach. I was lucky to find a banjo at my neighbor’s yard sale when I was twelve years old. When you’re young, you have the time and patience to sit around and practice for hours a day without the distractions of adult life. It’s definitely never too late to start, though. For people starting out I would encourage them to get out and go to jams, rather than sit around and practice by yourself all day. Bluegrass is a very social music, and getting out and playing with other folks will only encourage you to get better.
BRO – How does the new record represent your own new musical frontiers?
AT – Most of the new songs were written on our deck at 7.300 feet, just above Boulder. It’s not hard to find inspiration up here. And the players are some of my oldest musical buddies. Jon Stickley, Bobby Britt, Andrew Marlin, Miles Andrews, and I learned bluegrass together when we were teenagers, so having them on the record feels about as natural as it could be.
BRO – There is a definite sense of eco-awareness on multiple tunes on the new record. Are you confident that we can get this whole thing turned around?
AT – It’s hard not to think about climate change in Colorado and the rest of the West, where forest fires and droughts are a constant threat. I don’t claim to know how to deal with the situation, but it seems like the first step is to stop being in denial as a country. The Green New Deal is a great first step. We need massive changes. Writing songs to raise awareness can’t hurt.
BRO – We are featuring “Star of St. Elmo” on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind this instrumental?
AT – St. Elmo is one of Colorado’s coolest ghost towns. It’s way up a dirt road past Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. Tyler Grant and I used to hang around up there while camping in the area. After spending a full moon night wandering the town, we felt the spooky vibe, and I wrote the tune the next day. It’s kind of a spin on an old Irish tune called “Star of Munster,” so we called this one “Star of St. Elmo.”
BRO – Later this month, you will be reuniting with your buddies in Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band. Stoked?
AT – I’m insanely pumped. This has been a long time coming. I remember wading across the creek to sneak into the campground at Telluride with Anders, Travis, Stickley, and Robin fifteen years ago! We’ve all come a long way. It’s not easy to align the schedules of The Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon, Town Mountain, and Jon Stickley Trio. It’s a miracle it’s finally happening, and y’all aren’t going to want to miss it.
In true festavarian fashion, Andy’s summer schedule is piled up with Leftover Salmon festival dates. You can catch him with Vince and the rest of the Salmon gang at the aforementioned Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Weiser River Music Festival, High Sierra, Floyd Fest, and many, many more.
And, of course, be on the lookout for that Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band set at Telluride.
For more information on Andy Thorn, the new record, or where you can find him on the road, be sure to check out his website.
And be sure to take a listen to “Star of St. Elmo,” along with other great new tunes from The Lark & The Loon, The Iveys, Frankie Lee, and many more on this month’s Trail Mix.