"I don't feel at all that we have made it in the bluegrass world. We exist on the fringe at best," Yonder Mountain String Band bassist Ben Kaufmann lamented back in 2003. "The bluegrass music we are writing is different than the other bluegrass music that is out there. I think it is going to take people a long time to realize that we are interested in bluegrass and respected."
A lot has changed in 10 years. Today, YMSB is one of the most respected names in bluegrass, and alt-bluegrass in particular, a genre that includes artists such as Split Lip Rayfield and Trampled by Turtles.
"When we started [out] and no one was there, we thought, 'Man, this sucks,'" Kaufmann recalls. "But we just kept going because what hell else were we going to do?"
Yonder got its start playing small bars in Boulder and the nearby mountain communities to small but enthusiastic audiences who found something more than bluegrass within this bluegrass band. Audiences discovered a sound that draws on musical influences as diverse as hard rock, punk, metal, and jazz in shaping a sound, though bluegrass-based, that is progressive in direction and scope and not bound by staunch traditional formulas. The band is just as likely to draw off Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, or Ozzy Osbourne as they are Bill Monroe or David Grisman.
"We have that responsibility to ourselves to play what we want to play and write the way we write, but do it from the heart," he adds. "All of that has to come out in the music that we make if it is going to be honest music."
Such genre-blending lures fans of the jam-band scene -- people looking for inspiration in improvisation and unexplored musical avenues, as well as highly danceable music. This juxtaposition, however, can create some uncomfortable encounters for audiences used to more traditional bluegrass outfits.
"What does a regular bluegrass band do?" Kaufmann ponders.
"You go out and play the songs, probably the same songs every night. Audiences are very quiet, respectful and after a solo they clap and then clap again at the end of the song. We don't do it like that. We prefer a much more interactive musical experience and have attracted people who are looking for that. We try to keep it fresh and new from night to night. It is a fundamentally different approach from what a lot of bluegrass bands are doing."
Yonder Mountain String Band is scheduled to perform Sunday, March 24, at McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Margret T. Hance Park.
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