Yonder Mountain String Band

INDUCTED: June 16, 2023

When it comes to bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band is simultaneously traditional and progressive.

Bluegrass purists eschew the use of drums, arguing that strings plucked fast and furious provide more than enough rhythm to make the music exciting and danceable — and Yonder has never supplemented its lineup with a player behind a kit.

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But the musicians’ willingness to let their songs evolve and grow organically, rather than keeping things snappy and succinct, has made them a favorite of jam-band fanatics weaned on acts that may visit bluegrass but don’t always live in it. Yonder banjoist/vocalist Dave Johnson and mandolinist/vocalist Jeff Austin moved from Illinois to Colorado in the 1990s and were living in Nederland when they met a pair of Massachusetts expatriates, guitarist/vocalist Adam Aijala and bassist/vocalist Ben Kaufmann.

The connection was immediate even though their musical influences were highly varied.

Among Johnson’s earliest memories was watching his father’s big band rehearse, while Aijala wanted an early music teacher to help him learn to play Black Flag songs. But somehow, all of these disparate elements meshed. Together, they blended bluegrass with rock, alternative, psychedelic and improvisational music to produce a compelling sound all their own.

The four debuted in 1998 at Boulder’s Fox Theatre, another Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee. The next year, they unleashed their first album Elevation on their own independent label, Frog Pad Records, and jam-music aficionados were floored. But just as impactful as this memorable debut was the group’s decision to let concert-goers record shows, since the passing of these audio documents from person to person turned into word-of-mouth acclaim. Suddenly, folks across the country were buzzing about the astonishing instrumental interplay and strong songwriting that could be found in Yonder Mountain.

Within a few short years, the four-piece was making sold-out, multi-night appearances at major venues best known for booking rock and pop acts, including the Fillmores in Denver and San Francisco, and earning headlining or main-stage billing at festivals such as Bonnaroo, High Sierra, Austin City Limits and Jazz Fest. Yonder was also the first bluegrass band to headline at Red Rocks – and that 2007 show was a sell-out, too.

Then there’s the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which booked Yonder 23 times in the band’s first 25 years of existence – an astonishing streak that epitomizes the group’s embrace by initially skeptical bluegrass purists.

The second volume of the band’s Mountain Tracks series of fiery live recordings, released in 2002, became the first Yonder Mountain String Band album to appear on the bluegrass sales chart maintained by Billboard magazine. The next nine Yonder Mountain platters, from 2003’s Old Hands to 2022’s Grammy-nominated Get Outside Yourself, all landed in the top five. Impressively, 2006’s self-titled Yonder Mountain String Band, issued by venerable Vanguard Records, as well as 2008’s Mountain Tracks: Volume 5 and 2009’s The Show, made it to No. 1.

In 2014, after a long period of stability, Yonder Mountain lost a founding member when Austin left to pursue a solo career.

He died unexpectedly in 2019 at age 45. Filling Austin’s spot, fiddler Allie Kral and mandolinist Jacob Joliff joined the band but left after a few years. Mandolinist Nick Piccininni now rounds out the quartet.

Yonder Mountain String Band’s players retained their ability to pay tribute to the trademarks that have always been central to roots music even as their supercharged sound and improvisational bravado made them heroes on the progressive bluegrass and jamgrass scenes. This may seem like a contradiction, but it sure doesn’t sound like one.

By Michael Roberts

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