Meet the current kings of progressive bluegrass: Yonder Mountain String Band, who push the boundaries of the timeless genre while staying largely true to it’s roots.
By Steve Houk
Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin had dropped out of a musical conservatory in Ohio in the mid 90′s in search of a life in music. Maybe Broadway, musical theater, maybe even rock and roll, he wasn’t sure what the next step would be. But he knew it would be music.
“I was looking for any kind of live musical experience I could get. Me and Greg Garrison, who currently plays bass for (well-known jam band) Leftover Salmon and who I went to junior high with, would sit and play Grateful Dead and Phish tunes just hanging out, and people would come and sit around and drink beer and watch us play. Then people would say we should play this or that party, and it was like all of a sudden, there was this audience sitting around and digging what you’re doing. I liked that. It felt good.”
Then fate stepped in, in the form of an offer from new buddy and future-fellow-YMSB-member Dave Johnston: pick up that ol’ mandolin you’ve never played before and come join his band called The Bluegrassholes. It was there when Austin took an unforeseen hard left down Bluegrass Road, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Lucky for him, his choice seems to have really paid off.
If you’ve looked at what bands are hot out on the festival and jam band circuit the last few years, Yonder Mountain String Band are right near the top. Cooking up a musical stew infused with mainly bluegrass but also routinely mixed with country rock and other rootsy ingredients, YSMB has enamored both twirly jammers and devout bluegrassers by the thousands, rising to the top of the U.S. bluegrass charts, playing in front of wildly enthusiastic fans at shows all over the country, and heck, they even “warmed up” then-Presidential hopeful Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic Convention. Oh, and this past summer, they actually went down the Golden Road of Unlimited Devotion by jamming with former Grateful Dead percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, as well as members of Phish. YMSB plays the 9:30 Club in DC this Saturday night.
Did Austin have any idea that bluegrass would be his calling? Not at all, but it was clear there was a passion for music burning inside him and something was going to come, it was just a matter of what.
“I didn’t know it would be bluegrass, but I had hoped it would be something,” Austin told me by phone from a small town in Pennsylvania where the band would be playing next. “I really believed in the passion that I had and the work I was willing to put in. It’s one thing to believe in yourself, and it’s another thing to really be willing to do the work, to make these things happen, to make them come to fruition. And I knew I was willing to do the work to make that happen. I didn’t grow up on bluegrass, I grew up on rock, 80′s rock and late 70′s rock, you know, Huey Lewis and The News, even Toto. I mean, I didn’t grow up around Ralph Stanley, I spent more time with (prog rock supergroup) Asia.”
But as Austin and his YMSB bandmates Johnston, Ben Kaufman and Adam Aijala began to gel, the endless musical possibilities that bluegrass can present became clear, and that has evolved into an eclectic four-piece dynamo that has it’s heart in the stringed instruments that typify the genre – guitar, banjo and mandolin – but which also freely dabbles in other areas as well.
“Bluegrass is a canvas that allows itself a lot of possibilities. It’s really a blank slate playing with Yonder, we can be a bluegrass band one song, we can be a heavier kind of band the next song, we can bring in any number of killer drummers who we love playing with and become a rock band. We can be a very string oriented kind group. You know, for the times where I thought, ‘God, why am I in a bluegrass band? What the hell am I doing, I want to be in a rock band, I want to do this, I wanna do that’, every time that those thoughts have ever entered, I think of the incredible freedom that I have when I play with Yonder Mountain. You’re not gonna find that anywhere else. If some other bands try do something out of their zone, people may go absolutely apeshit and think ‘what the hell is goin’ on?’ But if we decide to throw a drummer in the mix and play something heavy and kind of proggy, it’s just Yonder bein’ Yonder. It’s just us doin’ what we do. And the fact that we have that kind of freedom, and we have the fan base who’s willing to come and listen, whether they love it or hate it, that they’re willing to even come and listen, that’s where you start heading into rare territory with what we’re able to do, and I recognize that, completely.”
Amidst the occasional bluegrass snobbery the band inevitably faces for stretching the boundaries of the genre, Yonder Mountain String Band has been lucky enough to be accepted by bluegrass royalty like the legendary Del McCoury and mandoliner extraordinaire and “Newgrass” proponent Sam Bush. In fact, Austin says he has forged an unexpectedly deep bond with both men that goes beyond just music, one that has been very important to him as the band has grown and prospered.
“Del is such a huge inspiration to me, not only musically, but whenever I get a chance to be around him, especially over the last couple of years, we talk about life, and about ‘how ya doin’ and ‘what’s happenin’ with you’ and what’s happening with life, and I’ll ask him about his wife and his family outside of music, and that friendship that’s kind of formed there has blown my mind. He’s such an open, nice guy, and I felt that I’m gonna put myself out there to get to know him, and it’s really started to happen, it’s really amazing. I look up to him like a hero, and he’s curious about my life like a Dad would be or a Granddad, it’s an amazing bond.”
“Same thing with Sam Bush, I mean, I can’t believe the friendship I‘ve formed with both of them, and everything they have to say is always so incredibly positive. Never a lot of negative that sometimes we can get from the bluegrass community. That never comes out. They’ve really imbued themselves to me as people. I mean, when Sam and I get together, we don’t talk about music, we talk about baseball.”
So what do Jeff Austin and his bandmates view as success? Speaking only for himself, Austin feels it’s really all about never settling, never standing still, always moving towards the next thing, the next groove.
“I definitely don’t take anything for granted. I’m grateful for it every second,, but I don’t think I view it as success, because I don’t want to become complacent. I don’t want to…feel safe, you know? I view success at the end of your days, I don’t view something as really successful when I’m 36 years old. You can take time (to stop and smell the roses), but don’t become complacent and don’t stop too long, because you never what’s sitting in that rose waiting to sting you in the face.”
Vist the YMSB website here.
Steve Houk is a freelance music writer who lives in Annandale VA with his beautiful blended family. He is also living a midlife rocker’s dream as lead singer of Northern Virginia classic and modern rock cover band Second Wind. Check out Second Wind here, as well as Steve’s blog.