Yonder Mountain String Band at 12: Not "The Same Old Bluegrass Story"

By Nancy Cardwell

Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, invited listeners to “Come Hither to Go Yonder” in the title of one of his memorable tunes. The members of the Colorado- based Yonder Mountain String Band have done exactly that.  They came together as hardcore bluegrass fans to form a band 12 years ago, and then they made the decision to “go yonder” down the path their inspiration has led them.

“Yonder,” as they’re known to hundreds of thousands of faithful fans, is currently touring secondary markets across the U.S. in March and April, while working on new original material for their next album, to be released on their own label, Frog Pad Records.  It’s been quite a year for the band, with performances for more than 250,000 fans in 2010.  They appeared on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, toured with Dave Matthews, and in 2008 they even opened up for President Obama at the Democratic National Convention, performing for 75,000 people at Denver’s Mile High Stadium.

In addition to the new album in 2011, they’ll be doing a television special and continuing to tour the U.S. and Europe.

The band is obviously doing something right. They sell out top music venues across the country like The Fillmore (San Francisco), Red Rocks Amphitheater (Denver), Pepsi Center (Denver), Best Buy Theater (NYC), Stubb’s (Austin), House of Blues (Chicago), as well as draw legions of fans to festivals like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Bonnaroo, Northwest String Summit, DelFest, the Austin City Limits Festival and Rothbury. And they do it by playing their own original brand of newgrass/rock/jazz-influenced music, on a banjo, guitar, mandolin and a bass fiddle—admittedly, cranked up to 11.

When asked about the secret of their success, Yonder Mountain mandolinist Jeff Austin says, “One thing we’ve always done, is that we’ve never kept anybody out. Everybody is welcome—if you’re 65 years old and you want to sit at a table in the back, that’s fine. If you’re 17 years old and you snuck in and you want to dance your arse off, that’s fine too.  Hippies are welcome.  Traditionalists are welcome.  People in the middle are welcome.”

“When you’re starting out and 22, you don’t care about marketing plans,” bass player Ben Kaufmann admits.  “All I cared about was, ‘Do we have a next show?’  The rest of it was initially handled by fans. They spread the word.  They spread recordings of the show, and they used the internet to connect with each other.  It was word of mouth.  It didn’t have anything to do with us. We were just playing shows.  It’s become more professional through the years. Now we have tremendous management—one of the best agents in the country, and we’ve also got a great publicist, Jesse Cutler. As much as we’ve accomplished—which is more than I thought we ever would---we are still not satisfied.  My plans and designs for what we can do and what we want to do have grown, along with the band. You have to have a strong team behind you to propel you to the next level, to the new venues. You do need to have the business people behind you, and the infrastructure has grown along with us.  As some point you have to pick the right people. And that’s been a result of experimentation, as much as anything.”

It’s a professionally run business.  Everyone on the Yonder team—including the sound guys, the lights tech and the bus drivers, have guaranteed salaries and health insurance.

Although it wasn’t the Monroe mandolin tune, the band’s name did come from a song title. “We had a gig and we had no name,” Jeff  Austin remembers.  “The fellow running the venue called and said, ‘We love you guys. We’re excited you’re coming.  But we need to put up a poster!’  I’m a Grateful Dead fan and originally they thought about calling their band ‘The Warlocks,’ but Jerry Garcia decided to pick up an Encyclopedia Britannica and just flip through the pages. He hit upon ‘the grateful dead’ and the folklore associated with that, and that was the name of the band. Our banjo player, Dave Johnston had a collection of sheet music from Sing Out! magazine so I thought, ‘We’ll use Sing Out! instead of the Encyclopedia Britannica.'"  On the second flip-through Jeff came to song called “At the Foot of Yonder Mountain.”  They all said, “Yonder Mountain String Band” and nobody laughed—so it stuck. 

They liked the trochee metric pattern in the name (one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable: YONder MOUNTain STRING band). “It has a real rhythm to it,” Jeff says, “and what the name has allowed us to do [is be flexible].  We can do a single mic acoustic show and focus on the ‘string band’ part, or we can freak out with distortion and vocal effects and people go, ‘Yonder Mountain—they’re way out there,’” he laughs.  “The name has allowed us to be whatever we want to be.”

Stylistically, Ben says, “When we started, we were just going to try to play bluegrass and we were writing newgrass—New Grass Revival is who we were listening to. Over the course of our experience on the road and meeting people who took us under their wings who weren’t associated in any way with bluegrass, we sort of got a chance to let things grow without being attached to one thing or another.  Other influences are allowed to come out.   One thing is volume,” he emphasizes.  “We’ve been able to achieve rock & roll volume. Volume affects an audience.”

The guys credit their sound engineer, Ben Hines, as “the best in the business.” They consider him the fifth member of the band because of his profound influence on their live sound and his ability to make acoustic instruments scream. Which in turn, makes the audience dance—usually for the entire show.   

“One band and a genre have also manifested an influence,” Ben continues: “The Grateful Dead and jazz—specifically small group ensembles. What they have in common is that the solo sections or improvisation becomes open.  In jazz bands, you solo over chord progressions as long as you feel it; then you hand it off to someone else.  The Grateful Dead did that as well. A lot of bands do that in rock and roll as well as jazz.  That model is something we embrace. It’s very natural to us.  It’s what we were listening to growing up.  Realizing that was something we liked was another step in the direction we took. These elements in our live show are so different from what you’d expect from a traditional bluegrass band,” Kaufmann notes.  “We began to take a song and extend it, and then transition to another song.  We’re very ‘in the moment.’  Great performances have to be very in the moment. When you’re improvising, you have to be in the moment.  Of course, there’s ‘innovation’ verses ‘train wreck,’” he laughs.  “The excitement of it is that razor’s edge—something that’s profoundly creative and new, that we’ve never done before and can’t produce again.”

Jeff Austin explains, “We’re the remote control generation. ‘What’s next?  I’m bored with this.  Click, click.  What’s on this channel? Oh, cool!  A cartoon!  Oh, here’s some sports!” he smiles, mimicking a bored TV viewer clicking through the channels. Yonder Mountain—and their audience—thrive on the creative challenge and the excitement of never playing a song the same way twice, never playing the same set at the same venue.  “I could watch The Del McCoury Band play ‘Vincent Black Lighting’ the same way every night,” Austin admits, but for most bluegrass bands, “it makes me wonder what they’re afraid of.  They have incredible ears and reaction time. They’re monster players—some of the best musicians and singers in the world. I would love to see the [neck]tie loosen up a little bit,” he says.

Rather than playing the same set every night, Austin says he prefers this scenario: “Around the corner there’s a giant, lurking troll—not a sunny highway!  It’s an adventure.  That’s my favorite thing about playing with this band. Every night’s a delight, of what’s next. We’ve really laid our guts on the line for the audience, and they’ve responded.”

A common thread woven through the Yonder Mountain story is respect for their fans.  “If these people are going to support us through our experimentation, we play close attention to them,” Austin says.  “The audience turns us on as much as we turn them on.  It’s a circular thing. We’ve always honored our audience—and now, more than ever.  It comes with time and life experiences and making mistakes and picking yourself up, and brotherly love.  We’ve got the best audience in the world,” he states matter-of-factly.  “Bobby Hicks or Ricky Skaggs could stand on our stage and the audience would go nuts. When Del [McCoury] comes out with us, they hold up signs and go wild. That kind of stuff makes me really grateful about who we are.”

When bluegrass friends sit in with Yonder Mountain for the first time, “they experience the energy from our audience and they light up in a different way,” Kaufmann says.  “They experience rock & roll—that huge, powerful energy.  People don’t wait until the end of a solo to clap or applaud.  We are very lucky to get that kind of reaction and energy every night.”

Although the band tried a record deal at one point in their career, they have since returned to their own t label, Frog Pad Records.  “We came back home because it’s a lot softer and nice,” Austin says.  “It allows us freedom.”

“Big labels are dying,” Kaufmann elaborates, “and because they’re dying they don’t have the resources to take chances. They have to stick to models that have been successful.  Now there are a couple of new acoustic bands with banjos—The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons, who are having great radio success.  That opens the minds of radio programmers and people who work at labels, to see this alternative thing start to happen.  Although we’ve been around for 12 years, we can reap the rewards that these younger bands are achieving.  So that opens a lot of possibility. I’m not sure we’ll ever have a #1 hit.  I don’t have an opinion on that. I don’t really care because I’m not relying on the pay check from the next hit in order to survive. That’s part of the reason we have our own label.  If something hits, it hits. If something sticks, it sticks.”

Austin and Kaufmann have never forgotten the night several years ago when they played IBMA’s Bluegrass Fan Fest, back when World of Bluegrass was hosted in Louisville, Ky. “Pete Wernick introduced us, we started playing, and then 95% of the audience stood up and walked out,” Jeff Austin recalls. “If that night had never happened, I would be an extremely different person.  When we finished, I had an amazing conversation with Bob Carlin, who played a lot with John Hartford, and with Pete Wernick.  We talked for a couple of hours.”  The upshot was that the band decided, “We’re sticking to our guns. We are who we are, and we’re going to do what we’re going to do,” Jeff continues.  “Even where we are now, I still look at that night and it gave me such a resolve, that we were doing the right thing.”

While most bands in the music industry release an album every year and then tour in support of it, Yonder Mountain takes a different approach.  Where their music lives and breathes and exists is at their live shows. They’re constantly introducing new material on the road, and when they have enough songs they’ll record another album. The last project, entitled appropriately The Show, came out in 2009.

“For us, it’s about the live performance,” Ben Kaufmann says, “and occasionally we’ll put out a record. The live performance goes on forever, and there’s a flip side of the coin: it’s about keeping together with the people who love you and who are going to support you through the up’s and the down’s.  We have four people writing in this band.  If I have a writer’s block going on, I can trust that Jeff will have 10 or 12 new ideas.  We don’t wait for a new album, if we have something new. I don’t watch commercials. I want to have new, creative stuff happening all the time.  Our audience wants new things.  They want to say, ‘I was there for the debut performance’ of whatever new song it was.   It’s something people will mark on their tickets or posters, and keep them. We do have an audience that’s different.”

One of the greatest things bands like Yonder Mountain do for the bluegrass industry is introduce the genre to fans who otherwise might never hear it.  

“When we found out that we were going to do this interview we were pretty tickled about that because the musicians within the bluegrass community are some of our best friends, but it seems like the ‘Bluegrass Community’ with a capital “C” never got what where we are going,” Ben Kaufmann says. “Ultimately, we’ve turned a lot of people on to bluegrass music…. They’ll hear us, and then they’ll go listen to more traditional music. I’m proud of that.  And at the same time we do it our way.”

“We have fans that come up to us and say, ‘Man, I had no idea who Roland White even was. Now I can’t stop listening to the Kentucky Colonels' or 'The Nashville Bluegrass Band,'" Jeff Austin adds.  “I can’t think of where my life would be if I hadn’t been turned on by people like John Starling and John Duffey.  Live at the Cellar Door (by The Seldom Scene) is my Bible.  On my cell phone right now I have The Bad Livers’ Delusions of Banjer; The Country Gentlemen, Songs Old and New; The Seldom Scene Cellar; and Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster. And also some Metallica.”

Much to Austin’s amusement, some fans who discovered traditional bluegrass through them no longer like them because now they think they’re “too progressive.”  “That’s awesome!” Austin laughs. “They say, ‘You used to be our favorite band, but now you’re too far out.’  It’s funny,” he continues.  “If we go to a festival like Bonnaroo, we offer acoustic relief from the electric, techno sound of all the other bands.  On the other hand at Grey Fox, we’ll be one of the most far out bands there. People always want to look at something different. We’re the ‘different’ band at Bonnaroo or Grey Fox.”

Yonder Mountain signed with McLachlan Management in January 2011. DJ McLachlan also manages Jerry Douglas, and he worked for more than 30 years with Earl and Louise Scruggs. McLachlan is excited about taking the next steps with Yonder to get their music to an even larger audience. “Their appeal seems to be growing,” he notes.  “We’re planning a television show based on their performance at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. It’ll be a TV show/DVD with some quality people involved; I can’t discuss the details yet.  We hope to expand their career internationally.  Based on the fact that promoters and producers throughout the world know that Red Rocks can hold 9,000 people, they’ll know this band is important enough to be heard anywhere.”

The band has just under 100,000 friends on Facebook, and they continue to bring in new fans every time they tour. “There’s a certain excitement about them,” McLachlan says. “I love the fact that their fans are so loyal and they follow them around. I flew down to Asheville (North Carolina) recently to see them play, and I bumped into a guy and his wife who have been to 107 shows.  There are many people who have been to more.  I think they’re taking their feelings about bluegrass and rock and pop and folk, and are taking it to the masses.”

The idea of drawing from musical roots and influences and creating something uniquely your own is nothing new in bluegrass, McLachlan points out.  “It’s not unlike Earl Scruggs, who put drums in his band, and played with long-haired rockers. Earl Scruggs is one of the people who started bluegrass, but he wanted to look at different parts of the music.  Thanks in a large part to his wife, Louise Scruggs, who was totally brilliant, he kept expanding his music. I think that’s a help.  I don’t think you should build fences around something that is great.  We have no right to say, ‘I’m building a fence around the music.  You can’t go beyond this boundary.’ I think it’s good to share.

“If you see a concert with this band, you will get totally excited,” McLachlan promises.  “Even if you hate this kind of music, you will love it after you see this band play live.  They can sell bluegrass-flavored music to anyone. Every year they build a new audience of college students—new ones keep coming in.  I think if you play the same songs, act the same, and have the same attitude year after year, your audience will eventually die out. It happens all the time.”

“We’re not going to keep going the way we’ve been going,” Jeff Austin says. “We have more goals, more limitless options, more trust and joy and revelry for who we are.  What you’ve accomplished so far is only as good as what you accomplish tomorrow.  I want to see this band keep blowing people’s minds in arenas that seat 10,000…. I’ve learned to never set limits on what this band can do. That got blown out of the water after year three. I was a child of the Grateful Dead. My mom was a fan of theirs, and my parents always told me there was no limit to what I could accomplish—to go as far as you can, and go farther.”

From their cross-genre perspective, what do the Yonder Mountain guys think bluegrass music as a genre needs to do to grow, thrive and expand its audience?  “Don’t keep anybody out of the club because they scare you, or because they may do something differently,” Jeff Austin says simply.  “That person may hold the magical key that helps bluegrass grow another 50 or 60 years.  It would be a shame to see something so important to American tradition get chocked down (and die). It’s such a beautiful art form, and there are so many great voices.  [Bands like ours] don’t want to destroy bluegrass. They just want to play and jam and hang out.”

There are an increasing number of new “jam bands” inspired by groups like Yonder Mountain and the Dead, and there are also still dozens of new bands that chose to play more traditional forms of bluegrass. “I’m looking for music that speaks to my heart,” Ben Kaufmann says, “although I like a good fireworks show as much as anybody,” he smiles, in reference to technically amazing level instrumentalists.    

“Bluegrass music changed my entire life,” Jeff Austin credits.  “Without hearing the Kentucky Colonels and the Country Gentlemen, my life would be completely different.  This sounds like a stuffy, dumb thing to say, but because of bluegrass music my path is completely different.  I’d probably be off Broadway, figuring out how to get into the chorus line of the next production of Man of La Mancha.  I cannot say how dear I hold this music to my heart. The last think I want to do is damage or destroy it. I just want to jam and play with my brothers from Yonder Mountain String Band for thousands of people every night. And I would genuinely like to thank the people who stood up and walked out and left our show at Fan Fest,” he smiles.  “Without that catalyst, I might have been content felling afraid. I decided I had to go with my gut; Yonder Mountain is who we are, and I’m pretty grateful.”

The one thing Ben Kaufmann would like to share is an idea that he picked up from multi-instrumentalist Darol Anger. “In order to survive, you have to have an ‘open’ musical system, as opposed to a closed musical system.  The only influences a closed system is ready to accept come from within the system---who is faster, who has the best licks, who is the next Chris Thile….  I think bluegrass would benefit from a more open musical system where you at least examine what’s going on outside the door, and across the street. They’re still your neighbors, even though they’re influenced from radically different forms. Unless we let some of that energy in, we may not survive. Bluegrass speaks from a specific place and time. The audience listening to that and the musicians who made that music are getting older and they’re not touring anymore, or they have passed away. Do you want to just replace Ralph Stanley or Earl Scruggs with someone younger, doing the same thing?  I’ve always been worried that the nature of a closed system will keep people out. You have to be very careful and try to be creative, or your audience will get older and die.  I don’t want to see that happen.  A flame will never die, no matter how many people are warmed by it.”

In closing, Kaufman says, “Tell the bluegrass world that we love them, and they are hugely responsible for who we are now. When we speak and share these ideas, they’re said with the deepest appreciation of people who have come before us. We are different, but we have the deepest love and respect for these musicians and they style they’re playing.”

McLachlan echoes a similar sentiment. “There’s no limit to where this corner of bluegrass that Yonder lives on, can go. In the past people have developed their careers and set limits.  I think you’ve got to keep your mind open and show respect, and think, ‘How can I take this great gift from the pioneers, and give it to the most people?’  As a musician, you have to live your own life. There’s already an Earl Scruggs.  What’s wrong with building something and making it your own?”