By: Sarah Hagerman
In the warm, dusty light of the Stubb's BBQ dressing room, Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals) is perched cross-legged on a rickety-looking chair, recounting the tale of the one and only time Yonder Mountain String Band played the International Bluegrass Music Awards. It was about five years into their career and Kaufmann says, "Pete Wernick [Hot Rize] was the president of the IBMA's at that time. He announced us to the crowd, and I can't remember exactly what he said. It wasn't even like a statement of pride or even, 'Look at this young Colorado band I know.' He just referenced the ticket sales and the audiences we were playing to, how we went from playing small bars to The Fillmore Auditorium in Denver. He said, 'Maybe you guys don't want to admit it,' speaking to all the conservatives and straights out there, 'but this the fastest growing bluegrass band that's ever been.'"
"We're standing on stage like, 'Huh?' And then the exodus began. We started playing and that fucking audience stood up and walked out. We played to maybe 50 to 100 people at the end in a 3000 seat ballroom," chimes in Jeff Austin (mandolin, vocals) from behind his massive prescription sunglasses.
"One of the great banjo players of all time, in one of the most revolutionary bluegrass bands of all time, dropping something like that right before we got to play and that [happens]," Kaufmann continues. "I remember there was a moment that changed my understanding of what it was that we were doing without knowing it, what we could do. I realized at that point that there's not really a limit."
Yonder Mountain String Band has been writing their story for ten years now, transcending the limits of how a bluegrass band should sound. Like any art worth investigating, they inspire strong, divisive opinions. From a fiercely devoted fan base to the snubs and grunts of what Austin refers to as the "Nashville slick scene," the peaks and valleys of their trajectory over the past decade have drawn a unique musical geography. Indeed, there is a rawness, and at times a fearless messiness, to the band's music that may be slightly off-putting to the bluegrass police and sheriffs of genre purity that like their songs nice 'n' traditional.
"When we were first starting out, we had a year or two courting that traditional scene. We were the young band that everyone was looking at," Kaufmann explains. "We never really connected. We were never really embraced by them. It didn't quite mesh and it left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I wonder if I ever had a period of time when I said, 'Those guys don't seem to care about us too much. I think we're good but they don't. Maybe we should succeed just to...'"
Jeff Austin in 2004 by A. George
"Spite them," Austin cuts in, laughing.
Kaufmann continues, "Let's see if we can be bigger than anything they give us credit for. Just to make them eat crow. But that's not like me. That can't be all of the reason why we do this."
Austin goes on, "There's that point now where people come up to us and speak through gritted teeth. 'You sold out Red Rocks what the hell?'"
"'We pegged you guys for failures'," Kaufmann finishes the thought, not completely able to hide the satisfied grin on his face.
But, they done pegged wrong. There is an undeniably contagious energy at a Yonder show. It's a zeal that buries itself deep inside you, a sly anarchy that steals you to the dance floor, runs you around in circles and stubbornly refuses to let go. An inviting warmth emanates from that stage as the foursome tears it up each night with fast picking and sonic trail blazing. Sincerity is inherent in the experimentation, in the skillfully executed traditionals that sidle up between "Girlfriend Is Better" (Talking Heads) and "Ooo La La" (the Faces), and in the sometimes hilarious, always uncensored stage banter - banjoist Dave Johnston's dryly-delivered asides, guitarist Adam Aijala's oasis of calm (I challenge anyone to watch Aijala's zen-like fingers for the duration of a show and not become crossed-eyed), Austin's disarmingly manic magnetism and Kaufmann's thoughtful yarns. There isn't a fourth wall. When you are in the thick of the crowd it's easy to forget that their uncanny gusto comes from four guys who have scaled the cliff and still balance on an uncertain precipice.
"What did Hunter Thompson say about the music industry?" Johnston ponders at one point in our interview, coffee mug in hand. "'The music business is a long dark hallway, where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. The trench is always there. You can always go back to the trenches."
Different roads led the respective members of YMSB to Colorado by way of Illinois college towns, Massachusetts's forests and the dense concrete of New York City. Austin and Johnston left Urbana, Illinois after the Bluegrassholes disbanded, Kaufmann quit NYU's film program and Aijala sustained a knee injury that ended his career in forestry. All were driven by the same call - the gut-wrenching desire to pursue a musical dream and hone their bluegrass picking skills. Although raised on a steady diet of rock, their newfound love for bluegrass would intersect in perfect time. Nestled up close to the Rocky Mountains, the Boulder area in 1998 pulsated with musical energy, a smorgasbord of bluegrass, newgrass and (dare we say it) jam band influences intermingling among the flatirons and resounding off the peaks. Leftover Salmon was casting a mighty long shadow but The String Cheese Incident was racing to catch up. Meanwhile, bars across the Front Range were hosting nightly laidback acoustic picking sessions filled with musicians looking towards bands like Hot Rize for inspiration.
YMSB circa 2003
"Up in the mountains there were so many amateur musicians," Kaufmann recalls. "You could go to any bar and there would be twenty people playing."
"Seven nights a week," Austin adds.
"A big part of those jams too was that there was free food and beer," Johnston continues. "Which was good because we didn't have any money for food or beer."
It was a scene that was receptive to young musicians looking to gain some level of exposure. Austin says, "It was good timing for us to get together and play music. There were a lot of places you could go and cut your teeth, and a lot of places you could go and actually get a gig."
In the midst of this harmonic terrain, the four found in each other like-minded co-conspirators, collectively picking together for the first time at the Verve in Nederland. "We had Ben and Adam show up on the same night that Dave and I were throwing this open pick, and I remember we sang 'Ruby' and 'Pig in a Pen.' I thought that this is kind of what I was thinking it might sound like, really aggressive. It was pretty quick for myself to realize there might be something to this," Austin recalls.
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