Andy Thorn has always walked a fine line between tradition and experimentation. Even as a kid in bluegrass-obsessed North Carolina, watching banjo greats chop it up at traditional showcases like Doc Watson’s legendary MerleFest, the future Leftover Salmon musician knew he was a little different.
“My banjo playing is always gonna go back to the roots, but I’m fairly progressive,” Thorn says. “Even back then, people in North Carolina thought I played too much ‘hoolyhoo.’ This great banjo player said, ‘Man, you like that hoolyhoo.’”
Raised in a bluegrass-loving family, he started taking piano lessons in elementary school, began “messing around with the guitar maybe around 10,” and picked up a banjo on a whim at age 12.
“I just sort of ended up with this instrument because it was $50 at my neighbor’s yard sale, and [was] fascinated with it because it seemed really unique and fun,” Thorn says. “It was something I messed with at home, but by the time I was in high school I had a little band with my friends. Suddenly, after O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the banjo was cool.”
Picking up his first banjo at that yard sale was Thorn’s gateway to most of the music he loves today — including Béla Fleck,Tony Trischka and his hero Doc Watson, whom he calls “the greatest singer-guitar player ever.” But before long, he also began to gravitate toward the “hoolyhoo” coming from bands like The String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon, two jammy bluegrass-inspired outfits based in Colorado that often toured through North Carolina — including a stop at Watson’s MerleFest that wound up being a turning point for Thorn.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is what I’d love to do. This is bluegrass but mixed with some improv and they’re having fun; they’re not wearing suits; they’re smiling and having a great time,’” he says. “I knew they were from Colorado, so I was, like, ‘I’ve gotta get out to Colorado and see what’s going on with the music scene.’”
‘What does the fox say?’
Thorn visited Colorado in high school, hiking 14ers and camping. On a ski trip in 2003, he met Anders Beck, later of Greensky Bluegrass, and the two started jamming together. Thorn ended up spending a summer in Durango, and even winning the banjo contest at the RockyGrass festival in Lyons. After two years touring in Larry Keel’s band, Thorn finally drove to the Centennial State in his station wagon, this time to stay, taking a job in the Emmitt-Nershi Band.
“It was pretty obvious growing up in North Carolina that everybody knows the roots there. I think [a lot of people] take that a little bit too far,” Thorn says. “In Colorado, it was sort of the opposite end of the spectrum. Between those two cultures, I’ve figured out how to keep the roots alive while jamming.”
After original Leftover Salmon banjo player Mark Vann died in 2002, there was a void in the band, and Thorn eventually stepped in, bringing a youthful energy and a musical style built on creativity, levity and tradition.
“It already felt incredible to be with Drew and Bill Nershi, because I grew up a big fan of Leftover and String Cheese. Joining Leftover was just a whole other level of excitement, especially because we were already starting to do some really big stuff,” he says.
Not only has Thorn found a home in Leftover Salmon, but his literal home in the Boulder foothills has been an unexpectedly productive creative site for his emerging solo career — thanks in part to the local fauna. The property attracted a wild fox (named Foxy by his family) who has inspired multiple solo albums, most recently the instrumental Songs of the Sunrise Fox (2022).
His latest LP follows a widely shared video of Thorn playing a then-unreleased tune (“Aesop Mountain”) to Foxy, who appears to groove with the music against the beautiful Boulder Valley backdrop. The footage went viral, and people all over the world started asking what the song was. He recorded it, along with other open-tuning improvisations, and soon learned something interesting about what his listeners wanted.
“When I started to take videos and post them online, [I noticed] that the fans out there really liked the clawhammer stuff,” Thorn says, referring to the traditional style of downward strumming using the nails of the index and middle fingers, rather than plucking strings individually. “I’d spend all this time practicing this fancy piece with the three-finger banjo, but then some little thing I would make up that was clawhammer would get more reaction. I noticed people really dug it. It’s lyrical and it’s simple.”
Foxy felt the same way. And for Thorn, a musician who has always lived with a foot in different worlds — roots versus radical, tradition versus “holyhoo” — the feedback from his four-legged friend was just as instructive.
“He did not like it when I was playing the louder, faster three-finger style,“ he says. “But we noticed he likes the clawhammer.”
ON THE BILL: Andy Thorn with Adam Aijala and Ben Kaufman of Yonder Mountain String Band (Future Arts Foundation benefit show). 6 p.m. Thursday, April 27, Rayback Collective, 2775 Valmont Road, Boulder. Sold out.