The Grass Is Greener

While stretching the boundaries of old-timey bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band has reached a peak

Nearly four years after they joined forces in the tiny mountain community of Nederland, Colorado, life is mighty good for the members of Yonder Mountain String Band. But bassist Ben Kaufmann and his mates can't take all the credit for their rapid rise in the jam-band universe.

"There's always been this sense of timing in all that we've done; we're always in the right place at the right time," he says. "We'll be playing some stupid gig in some stupid place, and then somebody comes up and says, Why don't you come and play at the Grand Ole Opry?'"

Serendipity has played a role in the band's career so far. For example, Kaufmann isn't joking about the way the band landed its highest-profile gig yet. Last summer, YMSB was playing in a parking lot neighboring the new home of the Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, when, as Kaufmann recalls, "The guy who books the Opry happened to be walking by. He heard maybe 30 seconds of a song and liked it."

Roots music: The men from over Yonder remain rooted in bluegrass and folk, using rock and jazz only as accents to their hippied Americana.
Michael Weintrob
Roots music: The men from over Yonder remain rooted in bluegrass and folk, using rock and jazz only as accents to their hippied Americana.
Keep on the grass: The Yonder Mountain String Band sparks some kind jams, brah.
Michael Weintrob
Keep on the grass: The Yonder Mountain String Band sparks some kind jams, brah.

One of the acts scheduled to take the Opry stage the following night had canceled its appearance, so the scout invited YMSB to fill the vacancy and perform during America's most-famous country-music program. According to Kaufmann, the Opry crowd enjoyed his group's cameo so much that Yonder Mountain — a band that has perfected the art of the 60-minute acoustic number — was invited back to perform a second tune later that same evening.

"The cool part was, we were standing on the side of the Opry stage while the Osborne Brothers were playing Rocky Top,'" he says. "We had tears glistening in our eyes, thinking, My God, we just played on the same stage where Bobby Osborne is singing the heck out of this tune.'"

That gig isn't the only proof of YMSB's increasing good fortune. For the past two years, the band (which consists of Kaufmann, lead singer and mandolinist Jeff Austin, guitarist Adam Aijala and banjo player Dave Johnston) has played more than 160 dates annually and headlined sold-out shows at some of America's best midsize theaters. The players also have performed with a number of new-grass heavies, including Sam Bush, David Grisman, Darol Anger and Kelly Joe Phelps.

YMSB's penchant for stretching out bluegrass numbers earned it the 2001 "New Groove of the Year" Jammy Award, an honor bestowed on the nation's best new act by jambands.com. At home, the band's headlining appearances are always sold-out. Yet Yonder Mountain's approach separates it from its peers in Colorado and around the United States: While acts such as Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident use bluegrass as one of many launching pads into extended rock and jazz songs, YMSB doesn't. The men from over Yonder remain rooted in bluegrass and folk, using rock and jazz only as accents to their hippied Americana. They also eschew the use of effects and electronics to make their musical points, and their staunch drum-free stance is a risky move in a genre that relies on deep, danceable grooves.

According to Kaufmann, YMSB counts on something far more organic to hold its audience.

"We get onstage, it's a given that we can't play tunes as precisely as any other bluegrass band. There's not a virtuoso in the band, and we've gotten by on playing faster than we should. But what we have is a sort of virtuoso energy. And Jeff is an incredible frontman and entertainer with great charisma and his finger on the pulse of the audience." Those gifts are bolstered by a fresh take on roots music: "We've come at bluegrass backwards. Bluegrass is the tree, and there's all kinds of things coming off this foundation," Kaufmann adds.

The band's recorded output reflects that grafting of styles. Elevation, Yonder Mountain's debut, is highlighted by tasty acoustic playing and Austin's clear, twang-free singing. The songs fall mostly in the three- to four-minute range and are split between traditional tunes and more contemporary-sounding cuts peppered with folk-jazz chord changes and melodies. Town by Town (released in November 2001), focuses on short songs and a live-in-the-studio sound. The recording crackles with keen playing (particularly by Austin and Aijala) and tunes that exemplify the group's blend of acoustic tradition, New Age ethos and spirited style.

The group's first live disc, Mountain Tracks: Volume 1, was released last April and builds on these merits; the follow-up, Mountain Tracks: Volume II, was released this summer. The companion discs include plenty of expertly played traditional cuts as well as extended tracks, one a daunting 18 minutes long. Such elongated offerings, however, feature concise playing and smart segues; even at its jammiest moments, YMSB avoids the excessive noodling that mars so much Dead-influenced music. The albums also sport welcome bits of humor: On Volume I, Austin's "Keep on Going" morphs into a piece of the Peter Tosh anthem "Legalize It," much to the delight of the live audience. "The last thing we can afford to do is take ourselves too seriously," Kaufmann says.

The band does take its career seriously, however. Yonder Mountain's work ethic has played a key role in its rise, along with a selective touring itinerary that has put the players in front of the nation's improv-minded masses. The group's indie business approach — patterned after the highly successful model of friends and peers the String Cheese Incident — also has helped.

But the ability to sell itself to jam fans and audiences at the Opry sets YMSB apart from like-minded acts. Granted, to bluegrass and country purists, a jam-grass act playing the same stage as the Osbornes is as sinful as Garth and Shania stealing time from Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. But such thinking sells the band a little short. Sure, YMSB turns dusty acoustic numbers into lengthy set pieces embellished by rock, reggae and other non-grass touches. But the group bears a strong allegiance to its cornerstone forms and a back-porch vibe that often involves playing old-school style, gathered around a single microphone — a technique that endeared it to the Opry audience.

By contrast, Kaufmann says, "We plug in and are able to get loud. And we're younger and dress like we want to dress, like every other kid in Boulder, and we go to the same parties.

"I would like nothing more than to be a bridge band from the jam-band scene back to bluegrass," he adds. "If we can be that bridge, then we will have done something valid for bluegrass. And that's important to us."

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