There just aren't many bluegrass bands that can pull more than a thousand people out for a Nashville show — The Ryman's summer bluegrass series frequently puts together two or even three of them in order to get the job done. So you'd think that a band capable of doing that on a regular basis would be an obvious candidate for some recognition, both in the bluegrass world and beyond. When it comes to Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band, though, all bets are off. Arguably one of the most popular bluegrass groups around, their long-form improvisational focus and, more importantly, cultural distance from a semi-rural Southeast that still lays claim to being the "real" bluegrass heartland have made them targets of traditionalist ire and, for a long time, kept them a world away from the mainstream.
Not that any of that matters much to the guys in the band. Indeed, mandolin player Jeff Austin pointed to one particular instance of that estrangement — an icy reception from much of the audience at an IBMA World of Bluegrass show years ago — as a turning point in Yonder's self-conception, the time when they realized that they either needed to suppress their instincts and conform, or else pursue their own path. Still, he did so in the context of giving an interview to the IBMA's International Bluegrass publication just last year, and two of his bandmates, Dave Johnston (banjo) and Ben Kaufmann (bass), did a nifty kind of Q&A keynote to a hefty crowd at the organization's annual business conference shortly thereafter. Plus the quartet has made friends with, and fans of, 'grassers ranging from the coolest traditional singer around (that'd be Del McCoury) to Shawn Camp, who's written and toured with them. So maybe the gap is being bridged, if only one step at a time.
Now, though, there's a tour to kick off at Marathon Music Works with their buds, The Infamous Stringdusters — and if there's one thing Yonder knows, it's how to make sure their fans have a good time, starting with the right kind of venue. "If we're being at all responsible," says Kaufmann, "if we understand our fans, yeah, you can have seats in the place, but you have to be able to stand up. General admission, or at least a general admission area, that's a must. We figured out pretty quick that our fans like to rock."
Even so, don't call the group a jam band. "That sounds like the uncle you don't want to hang out with at Thanksgiving," Austin says. " 'This band jams, let's call them a jam band' — but really, jam bands have existed forever. In terms of a career arc, we follow that model — The Grateful Dead, Phish and so many other bands — but the term itself, that's just a copout."
"We cut our teeth in the Nashville scene," says the Stringdusters' articulate banjo man, Chris Pandolfi, who gave a keynote of his own at the IBMA conference. "But when it comes to learning about the craft of a show, and also the production element — attracting that crowd that loves music, that shares music, that's open-minded — those guys have just mastered the art of connecting with those people. Any group, you're going to learn about yourself through trial and error, but if you want to learn it all, I can't think of a better kind of string band to learn from than Yonder."
"It seems like we're sort of underground enough to where we don't really have to be responsible to or influenced by anyone — not by the press, not by a record label — and so the only requirement for the job is to write music as much as you can," Kaufmann muses. "Try and write good music, try to have something to say with your lyrics. And then we have a beautiful opportunity to just play live, and just play for the next day."
Indeed, as Austin underlines, the group is pretty sure that its only obligation is to its fans, who know what they want to hear, whether it's something brand-new or an old favorite — and there, he notes, they have a pretty exact job to do. "It's funny to think that we have classics," he says, "but we have some. People like the way they sounded on the record in 1999, and we're more than happy to accommodate that. I enjoy doing it. It's funny to find the relevance in a song that you wrote in a completely different mind frame and make it speak to you and the audience in a relevant way now. If we show that we're a bluegrass band in any way, that may be it. Because when you want to hear 'Uncle Pen,' you don't want to hear some crazy reggae version. You want to hear 'Uncle Pen.' "