Yonder Mountain String Band pushes the boundaries of what bluegrass can be. Critics have dubbed the eighteen-year-old band’s sound “progressive bluegrass,” a genre that singer and banjo player Dave Johnston embraces.
“It appeals to my vanity when people say I’m progressive,” says Johnston. “I think what people mean when they use that term is bluegrass that isn’t totally beholden to its rural beginnings or its rural themes. I know people who say that bluegrass is only the music of Bill Munroe. Bluegrass, in itself, even Bill Munroe’s music, is a fusion of the music playing around it. It’s a nexus music and inherently malleable, and inherently adaptable to anything. That’s the wonderful part of it, I think. It’s what code writers would call ‘open source.’”
The band’s unconventional approach to bluegrass is an extension of Johnston’s early experience with the banjo. A college friend left a banjo lying around Johnston’s house, and one day Johnston picked it up and started to play.
“I liked that it was in an open tuning and it was easy to make music right away with it,” he says.
After finishing college in Urbana, Illinois, Johnston moved to Seattle. As a Midwestern hippie, he figured the West Coast was where his people actually lived. But his friend, Jeff Austin, who eventually became a bandmate, had moved to Boulder and persuaded Johnston that Colorado was a better place to play bluegrass than the Emerald City.
Johnston was unfamiliar with Swallow Hill and other iconic Denver folk institutions before moving here, but he had heard of the annual RockyGrass festival in Lyons. Upon arriving and exploring nearby Nederland, he found the kind of welcoming musical community that would help him nurture his bluegrass aspirations.
“The summer after I moved here, I remember working at the kitchen over at the Verve, which is now Black Forest Restaurant, and Vince Herman coming down for one of our picks,” says Johnston of one of the loosely organized jam sessions common in the bluegrass and folk world. “That was a big deal. Then I realized it was maybe more the norm rather than the exception, and that’s when you knew [you’re] in the right place. There’s a great music community and a sense of neighborliness with the musicians and bar owners. For as harsh as the outer elements [may be], there is a very nurturing and welcoming vibe once you get inside.”
The fledgling Yonder Mountain String Band blew away local audiences, and two years later the group was touring nationally.
From the beginning, the band ran its own Frog Pad Records imprint, which has issued all of Yonder Mountain’s records except for its 2006 self-titled album on Vanguard, the lone experiment in collaborating with a commercial label with industry clout.
“Vanguard was a great experience, and we made a lot of great relationships out of that,” says Johnston. “But in the end, we decided it wasn’t really for us. It was a great learning experience, and I’m glad we got to do it. But record production anymore, really high-end production, is now commonplace with the right software.”
In late spring of 2017, Yonder Mountain will release its next record, tentatively titled Love. Ain’t Love. The record was engineered and produced with producer John McVey and will be self-released through Frog Pad.
Before that happens, Yonder Mountain will play two shows at the Boulder Theater. On December 30, the band will share the evening with the Railsplitters, the Boulder-based Americana band. On New Year’s Eve, the group will take to the stage for the entire evening and, rather than pay tribute to decades of other people’s music, will play cuts from its long career.
Yonder Mountain isn’t always conventional in its choice of covers. On record and live, it has performed songs by the Minutemen, Talking Heads and Buzzcocks — all picks influenced by Johnston’s childhood spent soaking in MTV’s 120 Minutes.
“It’s written for harmony and has a lot of parts you can fill out,” says Johnston of Buzzcocks. “We don’t really go around looking for punk-rock bands with a lot of possibilities to fill out the music. It’s just something we hear and think it would be cool to try out. I have always loved the Minutemen, and I like that they write songs that don’t rhyme and they’re a-melodic. I think that’s sometimes necessary.”
Yonder Mountain String Band
8 p.m. Friday, December 30, and 9 p.m. Saturday, December 31, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, 303-786-7030, bouldertheater.com.