Yonder Mountain String Band: This Is (Almost) 40
Photo by Dave Vann
The moment I mention the inescapable topic of the “new resurgence of Americana music,” Austin tenses up some and lights a cigarette. “Do interviewers in every interview over the last two years mention Mumford & Sons in the fucking interview?” he asks, almost irritated but ever gracious with a healthy undertone of humor. “No, it never comes up. I can’t imagine why you’d mention it. I’m going to go stab myself in the eyes for about an hour now.”
He takes another drag and nods to a passerby. “It comes up all the time,” he levels. “Not in our discussions, but when we’re talked to, sure.”
Earlier in the conversation, Austin had started humming Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” to demonstrate a point. Naturally, I recognized that tune as easily as the Stones numbers and just as instantly. “Three-quarters of the people in the world know that,” he says. “It’s two notes. It’s effective. You think of a lot of The Beatles’ hooks—those are cycles around a certain thing that grab a hold of you. If I’m trying to do anything nowadays, then it’s write something with a simple, revolving hook that sinks deep and it’s repeated. There’s no sitting around and saying, ‘How can we be as big as this band?’ That never happens. It’s, ‘How can we be truer to ourselves?’”
And the answer tends to point further and further outside the lines that Yonder drew for themselves when they first formed as a band. “I think Yonder is growing up in a way, threatening maturity,” Kaufmann writes in an email to me after flying home from Strings & Sol. “We’ll see. I certainly have been in a place of reexamination.” The only member of Yonder who doesn’t live in Colorado anymore, Kaufmann moved to California a little over a year ago because he couldn’t take any more winters at high altitude.
“For the longest time, I thought we could only be entertaining or compelling if the tempos of the songs were fast,” he says. “And I mean Yonder-fast. That’s even faster than you think it is. But I just don’t buy that anymore. Personally, I am writing less and less bluegrass-style music. It’s hard to express certain ideas in a satisfying way if they have to be set to a bluegrass beat. The issues and things that are interesting to me—that I want to write about, that I want to sing about—don’t have that bluegrass vibe as much as they used to.”
Yonder is a bluegrass band with four musicians who hesitate to call it that and who are less concerned with the label than they are with the music itself. The thing is, there wouldn’t be such a premium placed on definition—nor such a scrutiny with it—if we were talking about a rock band. If a particular rock band had, say, a tuba player, nobody would argue that they weren’t a proper rock band. Of course, they’d still be a rock band.
But Yonder is not a rock band. They’re a bluegrass band that rocks out. And, again, we’re talking about a bluegrass band that covers Phish, the Grateful Dead and The Beatles. But, we’re still talking about a bluegrass band. That said, there isn’t any guarantee that they’ll stay that way. As Kaufmann points out, as they get older and their creative drives evolve, their songwriting does too.
All four members of Yonder are songwriters, and the band is supportive of each other’s efforts and insistent on having all four voices heard. When discussing their recent developments, directions and interests as songwriters, they’re all quick to point out that they only speak for themselves, individually. “I can’t speak about how the band is changing because I can’t see the whole picture,” Johnston says. “I can only answer that with regard to myself.”
Yet, when talking about their own piece of the puzzle, all four members tell me similar things. While they may not see eye-to-eye on everything and don’t hang out together much outside the band, as musicians, as songwriters and as performers, they’re all behaving more professionally.
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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Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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