Yonder Mountain String Band, the unassuming Colorado quartet of twenty-something friends, who met in 1998 and put a band together because they wanted to play some bluegrass, is one of the biggest success stories in the history of the genre to date. On August 20 last year, they filled the 9,450-seat Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colo., with the help of special guests Railroad Earth and the Infamous Stringdusters.
The band is obviously doing something right. They sell out top music venues across the country, such as the Fillmore (San Francisco), Pepsi Center (Denver), Best Buy Theater (NYC), Stubb’s (Austin), House Of Blues (Chicago), and draw legions of fans to festivals like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Bonnaroo, Northwest String Summit, DelFest, the Austin City Limits Festival, and Rothbury. And they do it by playing their own rocked-out jazz/jug band/John Hartford-inspired brand of newgrass on a Stealth banjo, a D-18 model Collings guitar, an ’84 Nugget mandolin (nicknamed “Heart Attack” for its punchy tone), and an Eminence bass fiddle.
Mandolin player/front man Jeff Austin has been playing some “Bluegrass Ball” tour dates with the Travelin’ McCourys and the Emmitt-Nershi Band this year. Yonder Mountain tore it up at Telluride again last summer, and also at the Targhee Bluegrass Festival in Alta, Wyo. The band split the bill with Widespread Panic to play large amphitheaters in Tuscaloosa, Memphis, and Biloxi. And all the “kinfolk” (Yonder fans and the name of their street team) gathered at their own Harvest Music Fest on Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Ark., in October.
The lineup at Harvest Fest is a mix of what used to be called “new acoustic” music, young hippie jam bands, and bluegrass-influenced original music from artists like Railroad Earth, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, Peter Rowan, the Travelin’ McCourys, Sara Watkins, the Wilders, the Greencards, David Lindley, Larry Keel & Natural Bridge, Darol Anger, Big Smith, the curiously named Deep Fried Pickle Project, and more.
In 2010, Yonder played for more than 250,000 fans, appeared on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, toured with Dave Matthews, and in 2008 they performed for 75,000 people at Denver’s Mile High Stadium.
Bassist Ben Kaufmann and mandolin player Jeff Austin met in 1998 at a club called The Verve in Nederland, Colo. Austin and banjo player Dave Johnston ended up in Colorado via Urbana, Ill., where they’d previously worked in a band called the Bluegrassholes (except on Sundays, when they were called the Bluegrass Souls.) Jeff is originally from Elk Grove and Dave is from Aurora, Ill. A knee injury caused Adam Aijala, who grew up in Sterling, Mass., to pursue the guitar instead of a career in forestry. Originally from Stow, Mass., Ben Kaufmann left film school at NYU and moved to Boulder, not sure what he wanted to do, but knowing he liked the town.
Kaufmann honed his bluegrass bass chops with a Boulder area cover band called Mountain Standard Time before experimenting with his own band, Tree Full Of Pigs, in 1997. Then he met Austin, Dave, and Adam through Jeff, and the rest is history.
Yonder has influences that range from the Seldom Scene, Jimmy Martin, and Hot Rize, to Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, and, of course, New Grass Revival. Nearly all of their material is original. Perhaps you could say that rather than just play music, they play with their music, exuberantly experimenting with vocal and instrumental patterns and sounds in a musical sandbox. Their sets are very “in the moment” events; each concert is an adventurous wave of imagination on which the audience is invited to ride along.
At the 2011 IBMA Keynote Address in Nashville, Ben Kaufmann said most bands create a beautifully and carefully constructed set of music for their audiences—something like a beautifully decorated cake, displayed elegantly on a dining room table. But with Yonder, Kaufmann says, the audience is in the kitchen with the four bandmembers, slinging flour around and mixing it up. And they haven’t even decided if what they’re making will be a cake at all.
When asked about their secret of marketing to an ever-expanding legion of fans, Jeff Austin says, “One thing we’ve always done, is that we’ve never kept anybody out. Everybody is welcome. If you’re 65 years old and you want to sit at a table in the back, that’s fine. If you’re 17 years old and you snuck in and you want to dance your arse off, that’s fine, too. Hippies are welcome. Traditionalists are welcome. People in the middle are welcome.”
It’s a professionally run business. Everyone on the Yonder team, including the sound guys, the lights tech, and the bus drivers, have guaranteed salaries and health insurance.
They came up with the band name under pressure. “We had a gig and we had no name,” Jeff Austin remembers. “The fellow running the venue called and said, ‘We love you guys. We’re excited you’re coming. But we need to put up a poster!’ I’m a Grateful Dead fan and originally they were calling their band The Warlocks, but Jerry Garcia decided to pick up an Encyclopedia Britannica and just flip through the pages. He hit upon the “grateful dead” and the folklore associated with that, and that was the name of the band. Our banjo player, Dave Johnston had a collection of sheet music from Sing Out! magazine so I thought, ‘We’ll use Sing Out! instead of the Encyclopedia Britannica.’” The first title was rather inappropriate, but on the second flip-through Jeff came to a song called “At The Foot Of Yonder Mountain.” They all said, “Yonder Mountain String Band” and nobody laughed—so it stuck. “It has a real rhythm to it,” Jeff says. “And what the name has allowed us to do [is be flexible]. We can do a single-mic acoustic show and focus on the string band part, or we can freak out with distortion and vocal effects and people go, ‘Yonder Mountain. They’re way out there,’” he laughs. “The name has allowed us to be whatever we want to be.”
In addition to vocals, instrumental work, original material, and personality, the fifth dimension of the Yonder Mountain sound is volume. “We’ve been able to achieve rock-and-roll volume,” Kaufmann says. “Volume affects an audience.” The band views sound engineer Ben Hines as the best in the business and a full member of the band because of his profound influence on their live sound and his ability to make acoustic instruments scream, which, in turn, makes the audience dance and swoop and hula hoop, usually for the entire show.
Yonder Mountain and their audience thrive on the creative challenge and the excitement of never playing a song the same way twice, never playing the same set at the same venue. “I could watch the Del McCoury Band play ‘ Vincent Black Lightin’’ the same way every night,” Austin admits. But for most bluegrass bands, “It makes me wonder what they’re afraid of. They have incredible ears and reaction time. They’re monster players, some of the best musicians and singers in the world. I would love to see the tie loosen up a little bit,” he says.
Rather than playing the same set every night, Austin says he prefers this scenario: “Around the corner, there’s a giant, lurking troll—not a sunny highway! It’s an adventure. That’s my favorite thing about playing with this band. Every night’s a delight of what’s next. We’ve really laid our guts on the line for the audience, and they’ve responded.”
Yonder Mountain is “stylistically diverse, more than even typical progressive bluegrass bands,” comments Pete Wernick, a long-time friend and bluegrass mentor for the band. “They do some bluegrass covers—anything from Flatt & Scruggs to Hot Rize, but some of their material also borrows from jug band music or ragtime or jazz, as well as current pop/rock music. Mostly, they do their own music, which has debts to all of the above.
“The songs are generally longer than bluegrass songs with long instrumental interludes where everyone might take an extended solo, probably based not on the melody of a verse, but on a repeating set of chord changes,” Wernick continues. “Songs might segue into one another without stopping. As one song ends, the band goes right into an instrumental in the same key or a semi-improvised section that joins two numbers together. They might reprise back to something they played earlier in a 20- or 25-minute non-stop song set.”
A common thread woven through the Yonder Mountain success story is respect for their fans. “If these people are going to support us through our experimentation, we play close attention to them,” Austin says. “The audience turns us on as much as we turn them on. It’s a circular thing. We’ve got the best audience in the world,” he states matter-of-factly. “Bobby Hicks or Ricky Skaggs could stand on our stage and the audience would go nuts. When Del comes out with us, they hold up signs and go wild. That kind of stuff makes me really grateful about who we are.”
When bluegrass friends sit in with Yonder Mountain for the first time, “They experience the energy from our audience and they light up in a different way,” Kaufmann says. “They experience rock-and-roll—that huge, powerful energy. People don’t wait until the end of a solo to clap or applaud. We are very lucky to get that kind of reaction and energy every night.”
Like Deadheads, many Yonder Mountain fans follow the band from venue to venue and state to state. Louisville-based Rex Thomason, who describes himself as a hardcore fan as well as a music photographer and journalist, has seen sixty or seventy Yonder shows. From his perspective behind a camera lens, he says, “I see a lot of the same people on the front row at the shows in Oregon and Florida,” he says, noting their dedication. “And the band works the crowd into a frenzy. Their songwriting gets to a lot of folks. When you give an audience something they love for two or three hours, it gets them pretty excited.”
Thomason remembers a show in Covington, Ky., a few months ago. “There was a guy there three hours before the show started, sitting there with a very nicely wrapped gift box because it was Ben Kaufmann’s birthday. He had read online that Ben was looking into this area of philosophy, so he went out and got this book for him. One couple I’ve seen has matching Yonder tattoos on their necks behind the ear. His is behind his left ear and hers is behind her right ear, so they can stand together and ‘duel’ their Yonder logos,” he laughs.
Thomason appreciates the band’s instrumental chops, but he loves the show so much that he has to make up adjectives to try to describe the experience. “Jeff Austin is just visually riveting with his goofballery,” he says. “The rest of the band all have great stage presence, but you can’t get past Jeff Austin’s crazy. He’s so animated and nutballery. Everybody is just freeballing.”
“The band has interesting personalities and a lot of talent,” Wernick agrees. “All four are good songwriters. Jeff Austin is a particularly good front man, at one with the audience and able to magnify the interest level of whatever’s happening on stage. The picking is very good, with Adam Aijala’s agile and tasteful flatpicking a standout.”
Lisa Jacobi, fiddler with the Tennessee-based band Steel String Session, notes, “Music to YMSB is about forging a bond with humanity through lyrics and melody. And the band is honest to this, and that’s why their audiences bond to them. The audience knows that Yonder is authentic to who they are and the music they feel good playing. Yonder Mountain doesn’t have fancy matching suits or white shirt/blue jeans combos, and they certainly don’t subscribe to a locked-in 45-minute set list containing 11 to 12 three-minute songs with the determined verse/chorus instrumental breaks between vocals. Their music is structured in its own way so that it can be as flexible as the unspoken communication between audience and musician waxes, wanes, mutes, and transmutes.”
“It’s about the audience, period,” says J-Rod Payne, banjo player with Steel String Session. “If we could just get mainstream bluegrass musicians and promoters to realize that music is about the audience—Bill Monroe knew this—then people would be flocking to bluegrass music festivals and venues,’ says Pete Dasher, Steel String’s resonator guitarist. There’s no line between band and audience at a Yonder show. “It’s one breathing, energy sharing organism,” Dasher adds.
“They play music to grab the emotions and soul of the people who are standing at the edge of the stage, in the middle of the room, and at the back near the door,” says John Ferguson, guitarist and fiddler with Steel String Session. “A YMSB show is magical and doesn’t feel like it can be put in a jar and sold,” Payne adds. “You know it is not a recipe, and that’s why audiences value the experience so much.”
While most bands in the music industry release an album every year and then tour in support of it, Yonder Mountain takes a different approach. They’re constantly introducing new material on the road, and when they have enough songs they’ll record another album on their own label, Frog Pad Records. The most recent project, The Show, came out in 2009.
“For us, it’s about the live performance,” Ben Kaufmann affirms. “And occasionally we’ll put out a record. The live performance goes on forever, and there’s a flip side of the coin: it’s about keeping together with the people who love and who are going to support you through the ups and the downs. We have four people writing in this band. If I have a writer’s block going on, I can trust that Jeff will have 10 or 12 new ideas. We don’t wait for a new album, if we have something new. I don’t watch commercials. I want to have new, creative stuff happening all the time. Our audience wants new things. They want to say, ‘I was there for the debut performance’ of whatever new song it was. It’s something people will mark on their tickets or posters, and keep them. We do have an audience that’s different.”
One of the greatest things bands like Yonder Mountain do for the bluegrass industry is introduce the genre to new fans. Kaufmann says, “Ultimately, we’ve turned a lot of people on to bluegrass music. They’ll hear us, and then they’ll go listen to more traditional music. I’m proud of that.”
“We have fans that come up to us and say, ‘Man, I had no idea who Roland White even was. Now I can’t stop listening to the Kentucky Colonels or the Nashville Bluegrass Band,’” Jeff Austin adds. “I can’t think of where my life would be if I hadn’t been turned on by people like John Starling and John Duffey. Live At The Cellar Door (Seldom Scene) is my Bible. On my cell phone right now I have the Bad Livers’ Delusions Of Banjer, the Country Gentlemen’s Songs Old And New, Seldom Scene’s Live At The Cellar Door, and Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster…and also some Metallica.”
Much to Austin’s amusement, some fans who discovered traditional bluegrass through Yonder no longer like them because now they think they’re too progressive. “That’s awesome!” Austin laughs. “They say, ‘You used to be our favorite band, but now you’re too far out.’ It’s funny. If we go to a festival like Bonnaroo, we offer acoustic relief from the electric, techno sound of all the other bands. On the other hand, at Grey Fox, we’ll be one of the most far out bands there. People always want to look at something different. We’re the different band at Bonnaroo or Grey Fox.”
Yonder Mountain signed with McLachlan Management in January 2011. D.J. McLachlan also manages Jerry Douglas, and he worked for more than thirty years with Earl and Louise Scruggs. McLachlan is excited about taking the next steps with Yonder to get their music to an even larger audience. “Their appeal seems to be growing,” he notes. “We’re planning a television show based on their performance at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. It’ll be a TV show/DVD with some quality people involved; I can’t discuss the details yet. We hope to expand their career Internationally. Based on the fact that promoters and producers throughout the world know that Red Rocks can hold 9,000 people, they’ll know this band is important enough to be heard anywhere.”
The idea of drawing from musical roots and influences and creating something uniquely your own is nothing new in bluegrass, McLachlan points out. “It’s not unlike Earl Scruggs, who put drums in his band and played with long-haired rockers. Earl Scruggs is one of the people who started bluegrass, but he wanted to look at different parts of the music. Thanks in a large part to his wife, Louise Scruggs, who was totally brilliant, he kept expanding his music. I think that’s a help. I don’t think you should build fences around something that is great. We have no right to say, ‘I’m building a fence around the music. You can’t go beyond this boundary.’ I think it’s good to share.”
The sky appears to be the limit for this band, still gaining momentum after 12 years. “I’ve learned to never set limits on what this band can do,” Austin says. “That got blown out of the water after year three. I was a child of the Grateful Dead. My mom was a fan of them, and my parents always told me there was no limit to what I could accomplish—to go as far as you can and go farther.”
What do the Yonder Mountain guys think bluegrass music as a genre needs to do to grow, thrive, and expand its audience? “Don’t keep anybody out of the club because they scare you or because they may do something differently,” Jeff Austin says simply. “That person may hold the magical key that helps bluegrass grow another fifty or sixty years. It would be a shame to see something so important to American tradition get choked down and die. It’s such a beautiful art form, and there are so many great voices. [Bands like ours] don’t want to destroy bluegrass. They just want to play and jam and hang out.”
There are an impressive number of young, new bands currently playing old-time stringband music, traditional bluegrass, and also jam bands inspired by groups like Yonder Mountain and the Dead. “I’m looking for music that speaks to my heart,” Ben Kaufmann says. “Although I like a good fireworks show as much as anybody,” he grins, in reference to technically amazing, nearly otherworldly level instrumentalists.
“Without hearing the Kentucky Colonels and the Country Gentlemen, my life would be completely different,” Jeff Austin says. “This sounds like a stuffy, dumb thing to say, but because of bluegrass music, my path is completely different. I’d probably be off Broadway, figuring out how to get into the chorus line of the next production of Man Of La Mancha. I cannot say how dear I hold this music to my heart. The last think I want to do is damage or destroy it. I just want to jam and play with my brothers from Yonder Mountain String Band for thousands of people every night.”
“A jam band theme is respect for pioneering artists and using them as guests on tours or individual shows, partly to expose the arts and the audience to each other and partly for the thrill and mentoring from association with the guest,” Pete Wernick observes. “Yonder has brought in guests like Sam Bush, Darol Anger, Bela Fleck, myself, and Tim O’Brien.”
Kaufmann says, “Tell the bluegrass world that we love them, and they are hugely responsible for who we are now. When we speak and share these ideas, they’re said with the deepest appreciation of people who have come before us. We are different, but we have the deepest love and respect for these musicians and the style they’re playing.”
Super fan Rex Thomason says, “Don’t be scared off by Yonder’s non-traditionality. They might not play a standard like you’ve heard a hundred times before, but don’t ignore that passion, because that’s what Yonder is going to bring. I’ve seen some bluegrass crowds not groove on that, and it makes me sad. Give it a chance. They’re definitely amplified and they might throw in a three-minute psychedelic jam break, but these guys are incredible!”