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The Grass Is Greener

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

But the ability to sell itself to jam fans and audiences at the Opry sets YMSB apart from other like-minded acts. Granted, to bluegrass and country purists, a jam-grass act playing the same stage as the Osbournes 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, it turns dusty acoustic numbers into lengthy set pieces embellished by rock, reggae and other non-grass touches. But YMSB bears a strong allegiance to its cornerstone forms and a back-porch vibe that often involves playing in old-school style, gathered around a single microphone -- a technique that endeared it to the Opry audience.

Kaufmann also expresses some surprise that YMSB has won over the tie-dyed audience, a crowd usually unable to stomach acoustic music in its countrified forms. He says he rarely sees his fans attending his favorite Americana-style shows in the Boulder area, a fact that also puzzles him. "Open Road," Kaufmann says, referencing the state's most gutsy, rustic bluegrass act. "When we sit and listen to music, that's the stuff we listen to. Brad Folk -- the voice on that guy and that whole band, they're so amazing. But they don't so good in Boulder." One reason for this apparent double standard could be that YMSB's largely college-aged crowd has trouble relating to older, salt-of-the-earth acts with more traditional stage personas.

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."

The Yonder Mountain String Band is sittin' on top of the world.
The Yonder Mountain String Band is sittin' on top of the world.

Details

With Kinfolk Celebration
8 p.m. Thursday, September 27
$15, 303-443-3399

9 p.m. Friday, September 28, and Saturday, September 29
Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder
$14, 303-786-7030

Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder

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Yonder Mountain's newest effort, Town by Town (released this month), focuses on short songs and a live-in-the-studio sound. Kaufmann credits producer Tim O'Brien with the all-natural feel of the disc, which was recorded over the course of ten days at Colorado Sound in Westminster. Kaufmann says O'Brien's Real Timeis one of the band's favorites, in part because of its organic production values. O'Brien -- who also plays on Town-- made sure he captured Yonder Mountain in an equally honest light. The recording crackles with keen playing by the band (particularly Austin and Aijala) and tunes that exemplify the group's blend of acoustic tradition, new-age ethos and spirited playing.

Some of the disc's cuts ("Easy as Pie," "Loved You Enough" and the haunting "Check Out Time") will thrill fans of traditional bluegrass. Others ("Rambler's Anthem," "Wildwood Drive" and "New Horizon") are more apt to tickle new-grassers and high-altitude hillbillies. A few tunes ("Idaho," "Must Have Had Your Reasons") call to mind the nature-loving, sentimental folk of John Denver. Austin's singing and the group's harmonies -- more Boulder County than Boone -- add to the Rocky Mountain vibe and keep the band from chasing off those who cringe at the ache of an Appalachian drawl. All told, Town oozes a warm, friendly feel and astounding picking, and enough of an honest, All-Americana vibe to win over many lovers of trad-grass.

Not that the members of YMSB would ever put themselves in that camp. "We don't think we're a bluegrass band," Kaufmann says, "and certainly Leftover Salmon and String Cheese aren't bluegrass bands. But a lot of people will say to me, 'You're my second favorite bluegrass band after String Cheese.' That's funny."

What's not funny, Kaufmann says, is the state of affairs in much of contemporary bluegrass. "I see bluegrass music as developing out of dance music," he says. "But somehow it got turned into this almost classical art form, where people are seated and so quiet. And that's great that people can be so respectful. But at what point did it become that?" Kaufmann feels that many current bluegrass acts have lost sight of the music's essence. "There's this technical one-upmanship kind of thing, and the heart of the music is gone or threatened. They're paying so much attention to technique that they're not caring anymore if the music has any soul to it or speaks to you in any way.

"For my money," Kaufmann adds, "bluegrass needs a shot in the arm. Hopefully we can provide that."

Working to do just that, YMSB is fleshing out its jam-circuit shows with more traditionally themed gigs. But these events, Kaufmann says, will surely put the band before folks who don't see YMSB as a healthy injection into the nation's mountain-music culture. "Oh yeah, I anticipate a pretty big backlash if we play Merlefest or Walnut Valley," he says. "There will be a lot of fans made at those festivals and a lot of people who will not like us. But that's fine, and I'm prepared. Maybe some of those folks will come around. I would like nothing more than to be a bridge band from the jam-band scene back to bluegrass. If we can be that bridge, then we will have done something valid for bluegrass. And that's important to us."

Kaufmann does not really expect his band's growth to help peers at home, however. While some locals might think a Boulder act is guaranteed success if it mixes its Americana with Rit, reefer and patchouli, Kaufmann says that's not the case. "I don't think it's likely that we'll see another bluegrass-type jam-grass band come out of Boulder," he says. "I've seen a handful of bands working really hard, and it's not happening. It's not working.

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