PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
June 7, 2005

Bluegrass From Yonder Mountain

by Jim Newsom

“That’s one of the great things about life and music---whenever you get bit by whatever bug it is, it can still be legit.”

Ben Kaufmann was talking to me on his cellphone from Los Angeles, where he and his partners in the Yonder Mountain String Band have been working on their next CD. They’ll be at the Norva Tuesday night, opening for Government Mule.

The bug that bit bassist Kaufmann and his three bandmates was the bluegrass bug. He’d been a rocker through his college days, mandolin man Jeff Austin had studied musical theater and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Adam Aijala had been thoroughly ensconced in punk and heavy metal until he got an acoustic guitar and discovered the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Only banjo picker Dave Johnston began his musical pursuits in the non-electric realm with bands at the University of Illinois called Giblet Gravy and The Bluegrassholes. They found each other in Boulder, Colorado, two guys from Illinois and two from Massachusetts who discovered a common bond in music born in the hills and hollers of Kentucky.

“It’s kind of a strange thing,” Kaufmann said. “The Midwest vibe has got a lot of country in it. For me and Adam, being from Massachusetts, there’s not a lot of country, it’s not the same kind of country. Even though we both grew up in very small towns with a few thousand people, in New England it’s a little bit different.

“I moved to Colorado for school. I was in New York City [at NYU] and did not like it there at all. Right from the start, I just didn’t fit in there, and instead of going to the best school for what I wanted to learn, I decided to go to the place where I wanted to hang out. It’s the best decision I ever made.

“Adam had been working for the forest service and hurt his knee; he was on worker’s comp. Dave and Jeff both moved out specifically with music in mind. They had been playing a lot of bluegrass prior to me meeting them. But none of us grew up listening to bluegrass at all. At best, we were listening to some folk. I was trying to put together rock-and-roll bands until I answered an ad: ‘Do you have an upright bass? Come join a bluegrass band.’ That was a different band, a really traditional band, but I wanted to work, I wanted to gig and get paid for playing music. That’s how I learned about bluegrass, from playing bass in a band with guys who had been doing it for twenty years.”

The foursome met at jam sessions in 1998 and quickly coalesced into a band. By the next year, they’d recorded the first of six CDs they’ve put out on their own Frog Pad Records and had begun playing the jam band circuit, standing out from the usual mix of Grateful Dead wannabes and Phish clones.

“It wasn’t a conscious thing,” he said of the jam band connection. “We just needed to get gigs. I think because we were coming from a sort of rock-n-roll ethic, it made a lot of sense to go to the bars and play for drunk people initially. The only times I ever saw folk or bluegrass growing up was in the basement of the Presbyterian Church or the Unitarian Church or a coffeehouse.

“We were just trying to get gigs and maybe write a few songs that were good and entertain people for two sets.”

Besides the heavy metal music he heard on radio and MTV growing up, Kaufmann had another major musical influence in his life---his father:

“Dad grew up playing big band music back in the day when they would fund music programs in school, even grade school. He had been playing saxophone and being educated about jazz by real players. I’ve got records of him in his junior high school band playing really complicated Count Basie charts. It’s such a shame that people aren’t learning more about music these days.

“He had a big band in Boston that was working for twenty years that was a really good band. They were using Count Basie charts and Woody Herman charts. So that’s what I grew up listening to…no matter what I was experimenting with, I knew what real music was.

“Now the only time you can see this music is if you go to the amphitheaters at amusement parks. I saw the Basie big band playing in the ‘80s, my dad took me to see them, and it was a great band, really captured the sound of it. In my opinion these people should be playing for thousands of people, not just a bunch of people on their lunch break from the roller coaster.”

The Yonder Mountain String Band combines the improvisatory force of jazz with the acoustic instrumentation of their bluegrass heroes and the youthful spirit of rock-n-roll to create one of the freshest sounds happening today. They’ve staked out their own space and, in the process, are turning on a new generation to the joys of bluegrass while expanding the boundaries of the genre. Their live sets mix slightly off-center originals with songs by Bill Monroe, John Hartford, Frank Zappa and The Beatles.

“Even though we weren’t born into the music,” Kaufmann explained, “when we heard it, we got very deep into the tradition of it. Though we were influenced by our neighbors---Leftover Salmon, Hot Rize, these bands that were cutting edge---we spent a lot of time with Monroe’s music, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, really listening to all of that stuff that we could and trying to absorb it and understand, in our own way, why that’s the best. It’s hard to improve on Jimmy Martin; it’s hard to improve on Flatt & Scruggs. Only after really appreciating that music can you do something that deviates from it and be successful. You have to be aware of what it is that you’re betraying!”

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