At 44, Jeff Austin is best known as the kinetic mandolin player and singer from the well-loved Colorado-based jam-grass group Yonder Mountain String Band. Much to the dismay of fans, Jeff parted ways with that band in 2014 to spend more time with his young family.
Now, with a few years of parenting under his belt, the legendary picker and frontman is returning to the Centennial State for a performance at RockyGrass, at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons, with his own outfit, the Jeff Austin Band. Westword caught up with Austin to get his take on life and music after Yonder.
Westword: Where you are living these days?
Jeff Austin: I'm living in Illinois.
So you're no longer in Colorado?
No. I've been back here for a year and a half now. We actually did a successful extraction from the high country [of Colorado, in December of 2016].
And you have a family now?
Yes. I have three kids. I took a break from touring with Yonder Mountain in 2014 when my daughter was born. You make a lot of wrong decisions and some right ones. And the most right decision I ever made was to stay home with my newly born little girl. I didn't grow up with a father, so I thought I should stay home and be a dad.
This was right around when you parted with Yonder Mountain?
Yeah. A couple months after my daughter was born, the split [with Yonder Mountain String Band] happened. She was only two months old at that point, and I made the selective choice to stay at home with her and my wife. It was amazing. I grew a weird beard and planted vegetables. People were like, "What are you doing? Just rocking out?" And I'd be like, "No. I'm hanging out with my family and growing peppers." [Laughs.]
You had been living in the foothills near Boulder, right?
Yes. We lived just south of Nederland near Rollinsville. For a single guy in your late twenties, living at 9,000 feet in the middle of nowhere is awesome, but when you're a father of three and you're flying home from a tour because of a wildfire alert, it's not super-fun. My wife was seven months pregnant at the time, and I had to hightail it back home from San Francisco. We loved living up there, but that was just a little too much.
When did you move to Colorado?
I moved to Colorado in January of 1998. I think Yonder Mountain String Band played its first official show at the Acoustic Coffee House in Nederland later that year.
Have you always played the mandolin?
No. I started out with voice. I was exposed to a lot of music from a young age. I was born in 1974, and my mom, who was born in the late ’40s, was a baby boomer. We listened to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and all that kind of stuff, as well as Willie, Waylon, Kris Kristofferson and lots of classic country. I grew up just outside of Chicago, and we listened to the radio a lot. Even the TV shows I watched had great music in them. The Electric Company, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers were filled with songs. I was always drawn to vocals and singing, and I got into the idea of playing an instrument because it sounded cool. The first instrument I got my hands on was a guitar. I saw my first concert, by the J. Geils Band, when I was eight years old. There was something about that connection between the audience and the performer that I really dug, even at that age. As I got older, I started seeing bigger concerts like the Grateful Dead, and my mom took me to some big country-music festivals. I was just drawn to it. It wasn't until I heard David Grisman playing on the Grateful Dead's American Beauty album that the sound of the [mandolin] caught my ear. I picked out my first mando [in 1993] right after leaving college, where I spent about a year studying musical theater.
Do you still have that first mandolin?
Yeah, I'm holding it. It's an Oscar Schmidt. It has no bridge on it, but it still has its strings, and it still has a Grateful Dead parking lot sticker on it. I got it after I left the University of Cincinnati. I wound up leaving school after a year because I just wanted to play music. I like to say I left the solid and secure world of musical theater for the even more solid and secure world of starting a band [laughs]. My poor mother. I had put a down payment on that mandolin, and my mom secretly went in and paid the rest of it off for me. I came home from work one day — I was working at a computer store — and she kept asking me if I was thirsty and kept saying that if I wanted something to drink, I should go to the fridge. I was like, "Why does she keep asking me to go to the fridge?" And then I opened up the refrigerator, and she had put the mandolin in it to surprise me [laughs]. I was still kind of drawn toward the guitar, but the mandolin was easier to travel with, and I was going on the occasional Grateful Dead tour and moving around a bit, so that was important to me. Mandolins are more portable than guitars.
You have a more aggressive approach to playing mandolin than the average bluegrass picker. Were you ever a fan of heavier styles of music such as metal or punk?
I was always a fan of heavy metal and still am, but I never really went through a punk phase as a kid. I did hang out with the goths who smoked clove cigarettes and listened to the Cure.
Interestingly, I only first meticulously listened to Led Zeppelin in my twenties. As a teenager, I was so preoccupied with everything else that I was into that I never really went through some of those musical phases, such as being really into the Minutemen and Black Flag or whatever. I'm more appreciative of that kind of music now, though.
And I agree with you: I do play with a sense of aggression. I've been told that the stage is not your therapist, but for me life has all sides, and as therapists might tell you, if you don't acknowledge all of those sides, you might repress something. Life contains points of passion and beauty as well as points of aggression and darkness. They have to exist hand in hand, I think. But, yeah, I prefer attacking a rhythm on the front part of it rather than the back. I don't like to lope; I like to lunge. That's just how I prefer the music. Instead of leaning back, I lean forward. When you're in a crowd and people are really into the music, they lean forward toward the stage. When I see them leaning forward, I can't help but lean toward them and play with a little more passion.
Have I written a song called "Do Not Let the Body Grow Cold?" I have. Have I written a song called "The Boys on the Hill?" about a guy getting dragged from his house and put on a stake on a hill? I have. Have I written some bleak songs in my life? Oh, yeah. This isn't "Let's fake anybody out" here. I try to to acknowledge all sides of life.
Does the Jeff Austin Band have a big catalogue of tunes?
Not really. This is, I think, the third year of the band, but it feels like the first year because it's been kind of a rotating cast of players since it started. The first year was a group of players who I knew would never be a long-term thing, but right now I'm playing with a great group of guys, and it's really jelling, so it kind of feels like the first year of the band. We're getting ready to go in the studio and record some new material in Colorado this fall. We hope to have some stuff tracked and done by next year. I have a son who's about to turn two, so I have to balance it all, but we're gonna be getting into some recording in August. I'm really excited about that.
Do you still do Grateful Grass?
Yeah. That's Keller Williams's project with Keith Moseley [of the String Cheese Incident] on bass. It started as a Rex Foundation fundraising gig that we played at the Fillmore in Denver in 2008, and it turned out people really dug it; it sold out. We've kept it going. Over the last few years, I've done it a few times. I love Keller. He's been so good to me. That band is a treat. It allows me to hang out with some good friends and play the music I grew up with.
So your next gig in Colorado will be at RockyGrass in Lyons. How long has it been since you've played a Planet Bluegrass event?
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This will be the first time I've played a Planet Bluegrass show since I ended with Yonder in 2014. For me, this is a pretty emotional experience. I could not have been more excited when the invite came in from Craig Ferguson, who runs Planet Bluegrass. I remember my agent sent me a text that said, "Are you ready for this?" And I was like, "What?" And he goes, "Do you want to play RockyGrass?" It was truly an emotional moment.
I've been working really hard the last few years to keep my faith in what I'm trying to do and to keep things moving forward. It means a lot. We're gonna show up and work our asses off and do our absolute best. In 1997, when I was first contemplating moving away from Illinois, I went to a thing called the Hoodoo Bash at Planet Bluegrass. Leftover Salmon played, as did the String Cheese Incident and some other great acts. I remember standing in the field at Planet Bluegrass watching Drew Emmitt and Sam Bush have an amazing mandolin duel and thinking to myself, "This is what I want to do. I want to play here, and I want to meet those guys!"
It's almost immeasurable how much that place shaped my life. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to putting my toes in the river, chilling out, having a beer, listening to some music and watching my kids run around the place. People have been coming up to me lately and saying, "I missed you!" To which I say: "I didn't go anywhere. Now that you found me, we can stay right here."
The Jeff Austin Band, Sunday, July 29, RockyGrass, Lyons. Sold Out.