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On The String: Yonder’s View From The Jamgrass Mountain

Yonder Mountain

Episode 202 of The String sets the scene in the magnificent, mellow beauty of Nederland, CO, a town of about 1,500 people at 8,236 feet above sea level. Amid that Rocky Mountain high, a music scene blossomed in the 1990s that took the Colorado bluegrass heritage of Hot Rize to trippy new places, through countless bar jams and early performances by area bands Leftover Salmon, Runaway Truck Ramp and String Cheese Incident. The swirl and scene drew newcomers seeking something fresh and acoustic, among them Illinois natives Jeff Austin (mandolin) and Dave Johnson (banjo) and Massachusetts Bay Staters Adam Aijala (guitar) and Ben Kaufman (bass).

They mingled and picked at bars and coffee houses, sharing their growing love of bluegrass music and their long standing passion for Phish and the Grateful Dead. One night and another picking hang, Aijala says he turned around after ordering a Guinness at one of their haunts to find Austin and Johnson up in his face with the scheme mostly formed. “Want to be in a band?” they said.

“Before it even happened, before we played our first real gig, I knew that it could be something,” Aijala says in our conversation - a three-way with myself and Kaufman from three different homes. “Just because I was like, no one's doing this right now. And Colorado was the perfect place to do it. Because I think they're just a bit more forgiving, and they didn't have as many expectations. They just wanted to have a good time.”

The inevitability of it all seemed to manifest at Yonder Mountain String Band’s first official gig, an opening slot for a sold-out Runaway Truck Ramp show at the Boulder Theater. It went well, and they never really struggled to land the next engagement on their way to gigantic crowds for bluegrass-related music. “We just found ourselves on this incredibly fertile ground,” Kaufman says. “When we formed, we kind of had a built-in audience already. And there was never any pressure internally or externally to get a drummer or go electric so that you can accomplish or achieve success. We just did it that way from the beginning and never had a reason to do it otherwise.”

The only doubts came from the institutionalized community around traditional bluegrass music, from the southeastern booking agents and the conventioneers at the International Bluegrass Music Association. A noticeable number of folks walked out of a high-profile Yonder showcase at the big World of Bluegrass gathering in Nashville.

Yonder Mountain

Some bluegrass stalwarts argued that Yonder’s musicianship wasn’t up to par, that they were the vanguard of a movement that would cheapen the tradition, with its dancing crowds and overlong instrumental solos. Yet those naysayers were overwhelmed. Hot Rize banjo player and Hall of Famer Pete Wernick championed the quartet. Nashville’s newgrass legends Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and others joyfully sat in with Yonder at festivals. West Coast fiddler Darol Anger, a certified master musician, became a virtual fifth member of YMSB for a while. The great Del McCoury and his sons, a key influence on the entire jamgrass movement, were more than supportive. The quartet built a mighty fan army and inspired new bands that brought further renewal to the bluegrass idea.

“At this point, they have to acknowledge what Yonder did,” Kaufman says. “They might not have to like it. But there's no denying that we did a thing.”

As they ventured beyond Colorado, savvy use of early social media and the network of show tapers and traders from Phish and the Dead’s culture helped Yonder fill rooms in cities where they’d never been in some cases. Aijala says they weren’t hesitant to work with those bands’ playbook. “You know, you could go to multiple nights of the Grateful Dead, and you could go to a week of shows and see no repeats (of songs). So that was one thing we took from that,” he says. “I think the ebb and flow of their music as well. That's kind of what we've been doing the whole time and taking that directly from the Grateful Dead. At least that’s how I think about it.”

Today’s Yonder looks a bit different than the quartet that toured hard from 1998 to 2014. That’s when Jeff Austin stepped away from the group to pursue a solo career, an event that was rather seismic in the jamband world, not to mention for Yonder itself. They invited young mandolin phenom Jacob Jolliff in to replace Austin, consciously going for a very different style of persona and player. After a few years, much more recently, multi-instrumentalist Nick Piccininni took over the spot, bringing some new versatility to the band. Arguably the bigger change came in 2014 when Yonder added its first-ever fiddle player and first-ever female voice Allie Kral to the lineup.

That quintet’s first full album together is the new Get Yourself Outside, which arrived Feb. 25. It has more vocal variety than ever (they let Dave sing, inside joke) and songs that came from all the members of the band, worked out via shared video and audio tracks they circulated during the Covid touring moratorium. We talk about the new project and the journey that’s led Yonder to almost 25 years in progressive bluegrass. Because they definitely did a thing.

Yonder Mountain String Band - "Into the Fire" [Official Music Video]

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.