Yonder Mountain: How Did a Little String Band Get So Big? (Relix Revisited)
Tickets go on sale today for the 6th annual Yonder Harvest Music Fest, so we thought it fitting to revisit this piece on Yonder Mountain String Band from October 2009
The early evening glow falls upon Horning’s Hideout, a sanctuary located 20 miles west of Portland, Ore., where the pines reach for the skies, the peacocks squawk, and this weekend, a music festival makes its annual return. Parents lead kids by the hand, navigating precariously down the hill and through hula hoopers and hippies to “the bowl,” an area in front of the stage. Older couples lounge on blankets in the shade, while assorted freaks and bluegrass geeks gather in clusters—old and new friends greet each other. Yonder Mountain String Band’s eighth annual Northwest String Summit is about to kick off.
“Imagine being a kid and this is your weekend,” mandolin player Jeff Austin muses from an RV nestled backstage, picking through a carton of raspberries. “You may go to camp or be a Boy Scout or Girl Scout. But then you get to come to something like this.” Horning’s Hideout, it seems, brings out everyone’s inner child. When Austin first arrives at the grounds, “I run around the pond and look at all the newts,” he says. “That’s what I do when I get here. I’m like four years old. Give me a pail and a little moss and I’m going to catch this little fucker and I’m going to name him and I’m going to keep him!”
That joyful spirit is infectious for bassist Ben Kaufmann. One year, he came across a group of kids at the pond and a boy decided to share what he caught. “He puts [a newt] in my hand and I say, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’” recalls Kaufmann. “And he says, ‘You know they’re poisonous, right?’ I drop it and kind of freak. And he says, ‘I’m just kidding!’ I totally got busted by a nine-year-old!”
This sense of youthful community is valuable, Austin says. “My mom let me go to Grateful Dead shows when I was 12 or 13 years old. The things that taught me. And I think about these kids—it’s like a sense of community, a different sense of giving and caring—we’re all here together. If you create something, you’ll have this beautiful bubble that will occur.”
Bassist Ben Kaufmann asks rhetorically, “Remember naked dude?” The memory in question is about a fan, out of sorts and out of clothes, who launched himself onstage three years ago, eventually leaping off of the stage and running through the crowd up the hill.
But as Austin tells it that’s not the whole story: “For the negative things that he was going through, the community stepped up and embraced him—literally embraced him—got him somewhere and said, ‘No matter where you’re at, you’re in a safe spot.’ And that guy, he’s still here. He hangs out. What a great thing.”
Austin’s assessment offers perspective not only on the environment of the String Summit, but also on the fan base that reunites annually to make the experience what it is. As Kaufmann describes, “It’s real family. Not like Rainbow Gathering family.” One year, a baby fell asleep on the stage. She’s now seven and is one of many kids that the band has watched grow up in the audience. Austin mentions a couple that he met last year while signing autographs who figured out that they conceived their son at the festival. (“We’re making babies, here at String Summit! The love is happening.”)
Fans have gotten married on these grounds. People have mourned the loss of loved ones. Austin also mentions Stella Fleming, the recent widow of Sandy Alexander, a much loved taper who was instrumental in spreading Yonder’s music in its early days. “She lost someone amazing, but she’s here and this is all going to go right into her,” Austin says. This weekend, with Alexander’s loss weighing on many hearts, the feeling of a community pulling together as one is especially apparent. Kaufmann’s father is also buried here.
Walking through the campgrounds at Horning’s and fanning out into the woods beyond the amphitheatre area, you run into folks that you talked to for only five minutes the year before. They remember you. It’s just that kind of festival.
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Here’s another song from Crystal Bowersox’s new record All That For This, live at Relix.
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In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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