Colorado’s Bluegrass Heroes
by Jonathan Stumpf | JamBase Rocky Mountain Correspondent
Sitting on the front porch of the Acoustic Coffeehouse during a mid-August afternoon, Dave Johnston, for the moment, is at rest. He takes a puff off a Marlboro Red cigarette between gulps of his coffee drink, gazing into the overcast skies above the small mountain town of Nederland. As the banjo player of the still very adolescent Yonder Mountain String Band, Johnston possesses a contemplative look of a road weary veteran. His guise on this particular afternoon reflects the rigorous summer tour that has just included thousands of miles, numerous festivals, and one of his personal highlights, an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
“That was about as close to going to church as I get,” he says. “It ended up being a very gratifying experience for us. It was good to please the folks at Nashville, you know, to let them know that maybe more high quality music is coming.”
At 27 years-old, the past three years of his life have been dedicated to setting a new standard for bluegrass. With the momentous growth of his Nederland based band and the very discernible accomplishments they have made from local pickers to nationally renown bluegrass musicians, the sky’s the limit.
Timing has played a crucial a role in their furious growth. With the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack reaching platinum status, Nickel Creek taking home a Grammy and country music stars like Patty Loveless, Dolly Parton and Alan Jackson trading in country croons for bluegrass breaks, bluegrass is now everywhere. However, Johnston and his bandmates—Jeff Austin, Ben Kaufmann and Adam Aijala— have played a role of their own in the band’s success and the rebirth of bluegrass.
Inside the cozy confines of the Acoustic Coffeehouse, or according to Austin as “the greatest living room in the world” at a performance here last February, Johnston considers the biggest question regarding their growth: How?
“I think our live shows have a lot of energy,” he says. “And it is sincere energy. It certainly isn’t what I would call technically precise all the time. We have moments of perfection, but we are getting more and more of those moments as we grow and you temper that with playing emotionally. But we have a lot of work to do about solidifying our musical identity.” Comparing the challenges of being in a band to maintaining a relationship, he explains where some of their energy stems from. “You get to constantly challenge yourself and find ways to work through problems and stuff like that. It is a great learning experience.” With a wistful smile, he admits, “I like being a rock star.”
Continuing on, Johnston articulates an explanation of why bluegrass is experiencing a sort of renaissance. “Bluegrass is a traditional thing, an older thing,” he relates. “I think people really like the acousticity of it all. It has been a largely ignored musical form for the last twenty years. People are rediscovering it, because it is almost like a reaction against what they hear or what is commercialized or is popularized or mass-cultured.”
Days earlier, Yonder Mountain’s mandolinist Jeff Austin was ironically enough soaking up the same mass-cultured commercialized music that Johnston speaks of. Calling from his mother’s house in Mt Prospect, Illinois, an unusually indolent Austin shares his views on Yonder Mountain’s success while Britney Spears and Jenny Jones flash across the television. “I have definitely been getting my TV viewing in this week,” admits Austin. “Actually I have taken the past couple of days off,” he says referring to his instrument. “I really like to take a couple of days off. It really gives me a neat perspective when I pick it back up and when I pick it back up I go at it for twelve hours that next day.”
This personalized commitment from each band member translates into the energetic live shows and draws adulation from growing audiences. “I would agree with the thing that people always tell me, ‘that there is something about our energy’ that people find addictive,” says Austin. “We are not the superstars of instruments and the legends of our instruments but we have the energy and the heart that is not going to let anything stop us from realizing our dreams and realizing what we want to do. I think the heart and the drive has a lot to do with it.”
And of course, he too acknowledges timing as they approach the limelight. “You get beautiful little blessings like O Brother, Where Art Thou? You can say what you want, but that thing has fucking made bluegrass huge. Kind of like the reprise of the “Ballad of Jed Clampett.” It’s brought people on a worldwide basis an awareness of this music.”
For bassist Ben Kaufmann, not only has their success thus far hinged on timing, the actual fact Yonder Mountain exists is purely surrounded by circumstance. “The thing that I have been thinking about lately,” he says in a rather pensive voice during a call from home in Nederland, “is the sense of timing that has surrounded this band from the beginning. We are perpetually in the right place at the right time for these opportunities to happen. I am amazed that we have done as well as we have. It started in this community and in this short amount of time I just can’t believe how many people have rallied behind us and like what we do. To even get started was totally timing. And then we had these big breaks all around the place. And that Opry thing was kind of like the icing on the cake. It really proved a point. I think we are on to something here. I don’t know exactly what it is but it has been a heck of a ride.”
Many bluegrass traditionalists agree with Kaufmann. However, why Yonder Mountain has augmented both a local and national appreciation for this niche market is somewhat perplexing. Pete Wernick, former member of the now defunct but still influential Colorado progressive bluegrass quartet Hot Rize, was once in the same position as the boys of Yonder Mountain. He has a few presuppositions to their phenomenal growth.
“They are obviously talented guys that have a real nice performing style that a lot of people like,” says the 55-year-old picker revered as ‘Dr. Banjo’ from his home in Niwot. “Their original material sets them apart from a lot of bands. I guess the best answer is that they are both bluegrass and young with a hip contemporary flavor. They fit into stuff that is already fashionable to some degree but then they are very different by being truly bluegrass. And I think it really helps that they themselves are the same age group as their audience.”
One of the high profile events Yonder Mountain played this summer was the highly regarded Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Slated as the final act to perform on Saturday, Yonder Mountain was in a crucial position. “I put them on at the almost impossible spot of following Sam Bush and they did just better than I could have ever hoped,” says the festival’s promoter Craig Ferguson. He made this audacious move because he recognizes innovation in Yonder Mountain’s music similar to that exhibited by Sam Bush in the very progressive Newgrass Revival that he founded back in 1972. “I think they are the freshest thing to happen to bluegrass music since Newgrass Revival,” Ferguson says rather laudably. “That is about as honest as a testament as I can give them.” And for a concert promoter, he too is unsure about what is so disparate about Yonder Mountain’s escalation into the bluegrass scene.
“As to what the formula is—they are just great kids,” he adds. “They are not incredible musicians. They are playing incredible music but they got some fresh approach to bluegrass music that transcends something. I have seen a ton of great bluegrass bands and I can’t tell you I think they are any better than any of them. They are just great guys who are totally in it for the music. Not to be rock stars or to be famous. And in some ways that desire may limit them as the days go on. It doesn’t seem to be a problem for them yet.” However, with their progression into the national spotlight, Yonder Mountain has many experiences that will take them into the mountains and valleys of success.
Wernick, who has an ardent interest in Yonder Mountain, prefigures a band in such early stages will encounter many maladies along the way. “What I always counsel as you are riding the wave of fame,” he says with the mentoring wisdom of a veteran, “is that it changes your relationships with a lot of things in your life. For one thing, just being gone a lot. It has plenty of stress associated with it even if you enjoy it. It is up to the band to stay real with each other and be good people with each other and take the fame as a wonderful tool to help them meet their musical goals, but also take it with a grain of salt as something that’s fleeting and based on not necessarily the highest parts of the human experience, you might say.” He adds, “Fame can be very shallow.”
Johnston shares his observations about some of the challenges he has encountered with fame. “The biggest disappoint is the challenge and the stress it puts on your relationships,” he states poignantly. “It shouldn’t have to do that but it just inherently does. It’s disappointing because you get to meet tons of people, but you don’t really get to know them. They know you better than you know them because they listen to you play your guts out every night.
“Sometimes people come up to you and are like ‘Hi Dave!’ And you’re like ‘Sorry, I don’t remember your name.’ They get mad at you, like ‘I can’t believe you don’t remember my name.’ It hasn’t been quite that bad, but there has definitely been that attitude. Well you know what, I work as much as a professional ballplayer and am in a different city every night, so could you just lay off?”
His frustration doesn’t end with the road. “Even like living in Nederland, I love it dearly, but I have had people make remarks about ‘Oh, the rock star gets first in line’ and stuff like that. I don’t know what you are thinking because the rock star has to walk to town because the rock star doesn’t have a car,” he says with a touch of frustration.
While Johnston’s view offers more candors at the challenges, Kaufmann on the other hand has a more scintillating analysis. “All these experiences have come so fast and so great I have never really had time to think about it,” he says. “As I have been thinking about it, it has just kind of dawned on me that this is a pretty incredible thing to be a part of. It is so enjoyable and perfect in everyway. To be able to do this—have the freedom to write and to bring in music that you are going to attempt. So there is a sense that this is really working. And once it dawned on me, I really approached it kind of differently.”
Austin feels that a musically accurate and emotive depiction of Yonder Mountain thus far is best represented by their latest release, Town By Town. “You could say it is kind of a concept album,” he says. “This album is full of songs that have been affected by us being in the band and us being on the road. I have heard some people say that it is a sad album because the songs are really about enduring on the road and missing the ones you love and longing to come home. The difference with this album is that these songs were all written while we were all in the band.”
Johnston agrees. “This album has more of a continuity to it because we have more in common as people now because of what we decided to do. The themes are like travel, heartbreak and it all comes together. It is a pretty traditional record and I think it is a really good record.”
For Kaufmann, having one of their musical idols, former Hot Rize member Tim O’Brien, at the production helm solidified the album. “He was a great producer—not really intrusive, he was just steering the ship,” says Kaufmann with a sum of gratitude. “He let it go where it was going to go and just kind of made it better by doing his thing. What we got out of the studio was—I don’t think could be any better. It is a perfect example of what we were doing at the time.”
Perhaps the band’s satisfaction with album has to do with it’s truthfulness. Austin shares his views on the new material. “There are two songs on the album that are kind of what I like call fantasy tales. “New Horizons,” where it takes place a long time ago and “Father’s Arms” dealing with a son going to war after his father’s gone and ends up meeting the same fate as his father. Not the most light of tunes. They kind of have a dark edge to them.” Fitting, because the road is not the lightest of places.
“The road life is hard. You long for home, you long for the ones you love. You long to just have a minute to sit down and rest your bones that get banged around while you are out there. But then you can’t resist but go out there because you see a lot of people that you care about and you get to have adventures and you get to spread the word that you are spreading to people.” With substantial belief he adds, “That is what it is all about.” And after taking some punches—and throwing a few themselves—Yonder Mountain is stepping up for another round but this time with some experience under their belt.
"This woman got half her face bitten off by a dog!” exclaims Austin, seemingly still getting used to the usual malarkey on television. But still on this rare day off he’s still happy to tear himself away from the tube and talk about his band, which will be out on the road the majority of the Fall. “It’s fucking cool man, a dream coming true. The dream has so many facets and it seems like it could come true for a hell of a long time.”
JamBase Rocky Mountain Correspondent
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