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Published: 2009/10/14
by Brian Robbins

Jeff Austin: Not All Show

You’d almost think that Jeff Austin had never been complimented on his playing before, he sounds so sincere. The truth is, although he wasn’t exactly a child prodigy (he first tackled the mandolin at 20), he has a distinctive, powerful style (and stage presence) that is one of the keys to the Yonder sound. “I love your leads,” I tell him, “but even more than that, your rhythm is just fierce at times … you go beyond the standard stuff.”

“Thanks, man – I appreciate that,” he replies. “I have my favorite mando players – especially rhythm players that I admire – and I’ve tried to take all the different ideas I’ve gotten from them and turn it into this one hybridized kind of thing. Sometimes the music needs to be driven … and sometimes it’s a matter of space. Like when Adam is soloing on the guitar, you have a bigger space to fill than just chopping along; that’s when you work in all those little pull-offs and things – to fill that space and make it interesting.”

Austin has a number of mandolin heroes, among them Sam Bush (“gutsy and adventurous, but also has the technical chops; the perfect mandolin player”) and Roland White (“I listened to a lot of Roland White and the Kentucky Colonels when I first got into bluegrass). But it’s when he mentions the late John Duffey (founder of The Country Gentlemen and The Seldom Scene) that I really get a grip on what Jeff Austin’s all about.

“John Duffey was another gutsy player – tons of heart, tons of soul – I loved the way he just attacked a solo. At times, someone might say, ‘Well, that was a little behind the beat’ or ‘That was kind of sloppy’, but I’d say to them, ‘Who cares? What’s sloppy? What’s too far behind the beat? It’s got guts; it’s got … it’s got heart.’”

At that moment, I realize that in talking about one of his heroes, Jeff Austin has just summarized his own style in a nutshell.

“I’d take heart over technique any day,” I say.

There’s a pause, then a chuckle on the other end of the phone. “Oh … I’m with you, man. There are a lot of great mandolin players, but some of them are hard to watch, ‘cause it’s kind of like watching a machine. I’ll take the guy that’s relaying a lot of heart through his playing … that’s what I like.”

For a moment, Jeff’s excitement about playing the mandolin is so infectious, I lose my focus on the rapidly-ticking clock and lurch off the main highway of the interview onto the graveled side road of mando stuff. We talk briefly about his instrument of choice (a Nugget) and picks (“Golden Gates – with the rounded edge. The big fat pick and the big fat strings kind of all go together … it’s the sound I’m looking for”).

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