Yonder Mountain String Band and its Vision of Sustainable Success
Yonder Mountain String Band, the high country bluegrass quartet from Nederland, Colorado, is changing the face of bluegrass. Adam Aijala (acoustic guitar), Jeff Austin (mandolin), Dave Johnston (banjo) and Ben Kaufmann (upright bass) take a traditional bluegrass sound and combine it with a jamband approach. In the process, they are exposing a whole new generation of fans to bluegrass, the often forgotten sounds and styles originating from America’s South. YMSB can play a three-minute bluegrass traditional with passion and technical skill; it can just as easily jam out an original tune for an hour. Perhaps even more amazing, given the band’s collective youth, is its ability to pen authentic-sounding bluegrass numbers, from touching ballads to fast-paced picking.
“What we’re really interested in is trying to make something distinctly our own,” says Jeff Austin (mandolin). “The four of us and the songwriting aspect that’s where it’s at. You could be an amazing bluegrass band that plays all of the traditionals, but at the end of the day, what have you done that is really your own?”
Typically, the band members utilize life’s experiences as catalysts for crafting the songs that grace their two studio efforts, Elevation (1999), and most recently, Town By Town (2001). All but two of the songs on YMSB’s latest album are based in fact. One of the album’s high points, a timely war ballad entitled “A Father’s Arms,” resonates with truth although the tale is based in fantasy. YMSB is a multidimensional band and its strengths, in part, stem from a decentralized approach.
It has been said that Austin is the de facto leader of group, however, just as strong an argument could be made that this band has no frontman. Across the board, each and every member excels at everything. They all can sing, pick and play with fury. More impressively, they all can write exceptionally genuine music, and they possess the heart and drive to make all of the pieces fit together.
While slide guitarist Sally Van Meter produced Elevation, the band turned to one of its greatest influences, former Hot Rize fiddler Tim O’Brien, to produce its second effort. “We never had any intention of using anyone twice,” explains Adam Aijala (acoustic guitar). O’Brien sits in on a few of the tracks on Town By Town, an album where each band member brings his own flavor to the table.
Dave Johnston (banjo) has no reservations about his unique tendencies as a songwriter. “The music that I write and the music that the other guys write is a little bit different,” says Johnston. “It’s not quite as fast or hyped-up as some of the other tunes that other people put together. I couldn’t write On the Run.’ I almost never hear fast music in my head.”
On stage, Johnson appears more reserved as well, and on more than one occasion, the other members have coaxed him to the mic to bless the crowd with the marriage of his vocals and old-school banjo picking. Johnston appears content to take a spot a step or two outside of the limelight. “It’s weird,” he explains. “You’ve got these three other guys that are very good. A lot of the times, I’m really happy to just complement them the best I can with banjo playing. Good banjo playing behind great vocals is like double coupons.”
Johnson’s dry wit also makes an appearance on stage from time to time. “I’ll make an occasional comment and sometimes it goes horribly awry,” he concedes. “No one understands what I’m talking about.” Despite the occasional joke met with silence, the band thrives on humor, drawing from it to produce crowd-pleasing results on stage. Kaufmann’s ability to make the crowd laugh while plucking away on his upright bass is certainly laudable, and don’t be surprised to see the band take a hiatus in the middle of “If There’s Still Ramblin’ in the Rambler (let him go)” to imbibe in cold shots of Jagermeister.
While the band excels at penning originals, it does not shy away from playing the unexpected cover song in its live performances. YMSB has been known to pay homage to everyone from Peter Tosh (complete with an Austin scat-rap) to The Beatles to Ozzy Osbourne, to name just a few.
“It’s important for us to choose the right cover songs,” says Aijala. “We’re not going to play clichsongs. We’ll pick songs that have never been bluegrassed before or a bluegrass song that nobody knows. You won’t hear us playing Mountain Girls’ or Rocky Top.’ It’s just not going to happen.”
What does happen when YMSB hits the stage? Whether it’s San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium or Colorado’s Boulder Theater, expect a sell-out crowd. “It feels good to be moving up in sizes of venues,” says Austin. “It allows you to project the music in a lot different way because sound reacts a lot differently in a small bar than it does in a big hall.”
Some additional venues afforded the quartet’s presence in 2001? Fans at Grand Ole Opry (Nashville, TN), Somerville Theatre (Somerville, MA), Gargoyle Club (St. Louis, MO), The Vic Theater (Chicago, IL), and New York City’s recently closed Wetlands Preserve all experienced YMSB’s jaw-dropping energy. Nor were fans at Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountain Music Festival disappointed either.
Whether playing a modest venue or rocking one of the many kick-ass festivals where they are bound to perform over the course of a year, the boys love to treat the crowd with the depth and texture of its single-mic style whenever possible. The band also loves to play completely unplugged; its popularity, unfortunately, almost always precludes it from doing so.
“Basically, if drinking is involved, you have to plug in,” says Aijala. “You need to have the volume with the people in the crowd because no one’s gonna be quiet. If we want to do an unplugged show, it has to be a sit-down kind of thing. Sit down and be quiet. It you want to dance, take your shoes off and go in the back and be real quiet.”
Traditionally, bluegrass has been a genre that welcomes the “sit-down” kind of crowd. “Sometimes the bluegrassers will come,” says Ben Kaufmann (bass). “You’ll find that lifelong bluegrass fans people that have been listening to it forever know it’s a listening music. They sit down and they listen to it.” However, given the influence of the jamband genre on the band’s fan base, a “sit down and listen” kind of attitude is unlikely to permeate the crowd anytime soon. “We’re playing to an audience that’s dancing and grooving and shouting and clapping,” continues Kaufmann.
No need to feel guilty if you are at a YMSB show and you do kick off your shoes and start to groove. “When we’re plugged in, that’s what you do,” says Aijala. “The volume is there.” However, that does not discount the band’s desire to one day play for a consistently quiet crowd. “An audience has to be silent to play an acoustic show and that’s part of what we are doing educating audiences slowly about being quiet and listening,” says Kaufmann. During YMSB’s one-mic performances, Austin may ask the crowd for silence, explaining its necessity when instituting the traditional approach.
“If you respect the music for the music, and not necessarily for a scene or something like that, I think (silence) is respect,” Kaufmann continues. “But you earn that respect. Twenty years from now, I bet we could play an acoustic show. You earn the right to do that, and it’s a special thing.”
One of the band’s more immediate goals lies in tackling the business aspects of YMSB. Creative and financial independence remain top priorities. The band has released both studio albums, along with its live release, Mountain Tracks: Volume One, on its own label, Frog Pad Records. “It’s almost just a name Frog Pad Records,” says Aijala. “It’s just that we’re doing it ourselves selling albums online, selling them at shows. We have them at mom-and-pop stores around the country, and we’re trying to get them to as many radio stations as we can.”
“A St. Louis station is playing Town By Town enough that it will actually appear on the Bluegrass Unlimited listings of most played albums,” Austin beams with boyish pride. “You’ve got RCA and Rounder, and then you see us. It’s starting to get to a point of sustaining itself, which is the goal. It’s not like, Let’s make a record and get somebody to help us out with some funding to make it.’ It’s, Let’s make a record, let’s turn to the record company, and there it goes.’”
YMSB has no plans to rest on its laurels. It is clear that, despite its rapid success, YMSB’s visions include larger and longer-term plans. “One of the neat things about developing your own record company,” Kaufmann explains, “is that once it gets established and it starts making money, you have this capital to play with.”
Kaufmann and crew plan to use the capital to expand their role in the music business. “It gives you an opportunity to get into all different aspects of music,” he says, “from producing other artists to making sure that their music can get made and distributed. Ideally, it’s not going to be a record company where you can only get Yonder Mountain stuff.”
YMSB’s success to date has included many a helping hand. In turn, it plans on embracing other bands as it has been embraced. “You’ll be able to get a lot of bands as we find them,” he continues, “and hopefully we can create a situation that benefits those artists too.” YMSB might not be where it is today without the help of Leftover Salmon, the self-described polyethnic Cajun slamgrass sextet. “Leftover gave us lists of places we should play,” says Aijala, “along with phone numbers of venues around the country. They gave us the good word on a lot of places. They helped us get into the High Sierra Music Festival.”
The band’s immediate focus remains on producing the next YMSB album. However, Austin anticipates that within the next year or so that signing another band “would be almost feasible, because,” he says, “by next year we’ll have two full years of albums coming out. Next year alone we’re planning a live release, another studio release, and maybe something else.”
The band plans on releasing many additional volumes of Mountain Tracks as well, following up on its initial Fox Theatre (Boulder, CO) release. YMSB’s first live album allowed it to release original tracks (e.g., “Keep On Going” and “Snow on the Pines”) that the band would not have otherwise recorded in the studio. “We weren’t going to sit down in a studio and record these tunes that were jam numbers,” says Austin. “So we thought, What a different avenue.’”
“Between our (studio) albums and our live shows, it is significantly two different things,” continues Austin. “Town By Town came closer, I think, to getting that live feel than Elevation did, but Elevation was also us going, What is this? How does that work?’ You know just learning.”
Expect the next Mountain Tracks to be a double-disc, culled from the recent Northwest shows. YMSB multi-tracked the entire Northwest run, specifically to retain maximum control over the ultimate product. Multi-tracking allows YMSB to “bring down that one drunk screaming person,” explains Austin. “I love em to death, but god, quit clapping like that.”
To satisfy your immediate craving, head to Mississippi Nights in St. Louis where the band is scheduled to play a two-night run on December 30 and 31 to ring in the New Year. St. Louis might seem like a strange choice of cities in which to spend New Year’s Eve, given that the band’s largest fan bases exist in Colorado, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Minneapolis and Boston. “It’s real centralized,” says Austin. “It’s 16 hours from home, and from Texas it’s 16 hours by car. A lot of places that we have good fan bases in, it’s not too far from. It works out really damn well.”
A two-night pass is available for the exceptionally low price of $25 and can be purchased by logging on to YMSB’s website, where you can also find information on tour dates, purchase albums, review set lists, etc. The band also has a very active and friendly online fan base that can be accessed by joining www.groups.yahoo.com/group/yonder. Make sure you check out Yonder Mountain String Band when it comes to your town and remember, “All who Yonder are not lost!”