The Grass Is Greener
Three years after they joined forces in Nederland, life is mighty good for the members of Yonder Mountain String Band. But bassist Ben Kaufmann swears that he 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 does appear to have played a role in the band's career so far. For example, Kaufmann isn't joking about the way the band landed its most high-profile gig yet. Two months ago, YMSB was playing in a parking lot neighboring the new home of the Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, when, Kaufmann recalls, "the guy who books the Opry happened to be walking by. He heard maybe thirty seconds of a song and liked it."
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 sixty-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 Osbourne 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 Osbourne is singing the heck out of this tune.'"
That gig isn't the only proof of YMSB's increasing good fortune. In the past year, the band (which consists of Kaufmann, lead singer and mandolinist Jeff Austin, guitarist Adam Aijala and banjo player Dave Johnston) has played over 160 dates and headlined sold-out shows at some of America's best midsized theaters, including the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco; this summer the group produced and fronted its own music festival in Dexter, Oregon. The players have also performed with a number of new-grass heavies, including Sam Bush, David Grisman, Darol Anger, Kelly Joe Phelps and Colorado's prodigal picking son, Tim O'Brien.
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 the jambands.com Web site. And a trio of shows in Boulder this week are testament to the band's popularity in a town that's practically synonymous with the free-flowing, long-form genre. Yet Yonder Mountain's approach separates it from its peers in Colorado and around the United States: While fellow Colorado-based 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 does not. 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 status 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 on stage, 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, notes Kaufmann, 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."
The band's recorded output reflects that grafting of styles. Elevation, Yonder Mountain's debut, is a collection of Colorado-style bluegrass 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. The group's first live disc, Mountain Tracks: Volume 1, was released last April and builds on these merits. Recorded last year during a two-day stint at the Fox Theatre, it includes three standard-length, expertly played traditional cuts and three extended tracks, one a daunting eighteen minutes long. Such elongated offerings, however, display concise playing and smart segues; even at its jammiest moments, YMSB avoids the excessive noodling that mars much Dead-influenced music. The album also sports welcome hits of humor: Austin's "Keep On Going" morphs into a piece of the Peter Tosh anthem "Legalize It," much to the delight of the Fox 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 its friends and peers in the String Cheese Incident -- has also helped. YMSB now employs seven people as part of its management team in consort with Boulder's Partners in Music; Partners founder Casey Verbeck leads the effort. The team's duties include handling all music and merchandise sales, facilitating the group's tape-trading network and rallying the army of "kinfolk," fans who volunteer to promote YMSB shows around the country.
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."
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 Time is 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.
"Once again," he adds, "for us, it's the timing of it all. If we had started a month later than we did, it wouldn't have worked. This weird timing thing keeps happening with us, and even if we don't think we necessarily deserve it, these opportunities keep showing up."
Kaufmann says he and his mates are thankful for their blessings, even if they've had little time to savor them in the rush to keep up with the demands of their improving status. But when he catches his breath to assess his good fortune, he likes what he sees.
"When I was in high school," Kaufmann says, "I thought I'd like to be in a band for my job. It was an intangible dream. Ten years later, I am in a band, it's supporting me in every way, the musicians I'm playing with are inspiring people, and it's very fulfilling. I guess you can't ask for anything more."
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