Jeff Austin, a mandolin player and a founder of the Yonder Mountain String Band, passed away on June 24 in Seattle at age 45, his family confirmed on his Facebook page Tuesday morning.
"It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of a beloved family member, mandolinist, singer, songwriter and founder of The Jeff Austin Band, and Yonder Mountain String Band, Jeff Austin," the family wrote. "Austin passed away June 24, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. He was son of Eileen Austin, husband to Devlyn, and father to Lily Rose (12), Penelope (5), and Jude Patrick (2). He was a dear friend whose music touched the lives of so many, and will be sorely missed. If you would like to make a contribution to help his family, please visit https://sweetrelief.org/jeff-austin-fund/."
Members of the bluegrass scene took to Facebook to express their condolences. Yonder Mountain String Band wrote, "We are saddened to report that we have lost our brother Jeff Austin. Remembering the incredible times and magical moments puts us at a profound loss for words. While we honor his memory, we will continue to pray for his family and for the journey they now face without him."
Fellow bluegrass giants in Leftover Salmon wrote on their Facebook page, "Words cannot express how much Jeff will be missed."
Austin, who had been a longtime Colorado resident, left Yonder Mountain String Band in 2014 to focus on raising his family. Over the next few years, he formed the Jeff Austin Band and began touring in 2018.
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Austin grew up outside Chicago listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, along with outlaw-country legends like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, he told Westword in 2018.
"I was always drawn to vocals and singing, and I got into the idea of playing an instrument because it sounded cool," he said. "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."
Austin attended the University of Cincinnati, where he studied musical theater for a year, before leaving to play music full-time.
"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," he said. "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."
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Austin, who was a lifelong heavy-metal fan, had a more aggressive approach to playing mandolin.
"Life contains points of passion and beauty as well as points of aggression and darkness," he said. "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."
When Westword spoke to Austin, he couldn't wait to play RockyGrass. He remembered back to seeing acts like the String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon at Planet Bluegrass and was ready to reunite with his old fans.
"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," he said. "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.'"