Yonder Mountain String Band has built a strong following as a bluegrass band with a jamband soul. Adam Aijala (guitar), Jeff Austin (mandolin), Dave Johnston (banjo) and Ben Kaufman (bass) have earned a reputation as an outstanding live band with impressive musical chops, tight vocals, long jams and a wide song repertoire. On the wonderful Old Hands, Yonder teams with Colorado singer-songwriter Benny Galloway to perform 13 original songs by Galloway chronicling the joys and hardships of life in the Old West. The result is an outstanding album where the songs are the stars.

Benny Galloway
There is one word that immediately comes to mind when listening to this album: authentic. Galloway's brilliant songs are so evocative, collectively they paint a sincere portrait of the Old West where the ideals of love, family and hard work were equally valued. Each of the songs (all but one of which are under four minutes - this is not a jam album) adds a piece to the picture, so that by the end of the album, one has a real sense of life in that era. Men were cowboys or miners, living off the land far from home, hoping to get back to their wives or girlfriends, and not always making it.

Adam, Jeff, Dave and Ben all take lead vocal turns on Old Hands, as does Galloway himself. Benny's raspy, easygoing voice captures the era particularly well. It was a simpler time, with simple pleasures being all people needed or wanted. On "Everytime," you can feel his contentment as Galloway sings fondly:

Take that cool evenin' breeze
Too damn hot it ain't rainin'
Cool evenin' breeze anytime
That cool evenin' breeze
Quit my damn complainin'
Cool evenin' breeze anytime

Or on "Big Lights," where a fleeting chance to dance with an upscale girl is all a hard working miner could have hoped for:

Did she just get tired of dancin'
With a boy from the hills
Dirty boots, ain't got no city shoes
No hundred dollar bills
Now I spend my evening
Dreamin' 'bout that big mother lode
Dancin' down this dark mountain road

Running through the songs is an overarching theme of man's place in the world. When you live off the land, you respect and nurture it. On "Sleepy Cowboy," Galloway brings us as close to that life as possible:

Above open range was miles of timber
Fix them fences you remember
Horse and saddle, rope and leather
Ridin' thru the wind and weather
Smell the sage and see forever...
Sleepy cowboy

The album features a number of guest musicians including bluegrass favorites Darol Anger, Jerry Douglas, Tim O'Brien and Sally Van Meter. Each of them adds a distinctive touch to the excellent Yonder performance. Between Galloway's songs and Yonder's musicianship, Old Hands is truly a team effort, with the resulting whole being far more than the sum of its parts. It deserves to be in the collection of everyone who appreciates good songwriting.

John Waldman
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 8/5/03]

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