Traditional bluegrass is an enigma in contemporary music. Unlike rock or hip-hop, where growth and innovation help to keep the sound fresh and relevant, bluegrass musicians are steadfast in keeping close to the genre’s origins. To the untrained ear, it sounds like the country cousin of roots Americana, when in fact it’s one of the most complicated sonic hybridizations in American music. Much of it has a tendency to sound the same or predictable, but that hasn’t stopped it from attracting audiences of all ages.
It’s fascinating to see younger music lovers wholeheartedly embracing the sound, which is why the success of Yonder Mountain String Band, the unapologetic champions of the current bluegrass scene, is curious. You won’t hear Yonder Mountain banging from the speakers at a live graffiti-painting event, but you’ve probably swayed to its tunes while molesting the kale at Whole Foods.
According to Dave Johnston, banjo player for the group, it turns out that I’m not the only one who’s amazed.
“Yeah, I think anyone would be surprised,” Johnston says with a slight Jeff Spicoli twang. The Illinois native met his future bandmates at a collective jam session in Boulder, Colo. He, Jeff Austin, Ben Kaufmann and Adam Aijala play a traditional style of bluegrass that endears it to dedicated fans who, by all indications, adore it to death.
“We work pretty hard and we go a lot of places,” Johnston says. “It’s still surprising to know that this is what we do. We’re excited that we receive the reception we do. I think we’re doing a good service to acoustic music and acoustic-related music. We can really put together some rock-type stuff too, but it’s quite surprising that we struck the balance that we did. It’s an amazing thing. We’re almost superstitious about our good luck.”
Luck is only part of the equation. We are in a musical era of flashy lifestyles and images, and four musicians who play stringed instruments with an ancient sound is a hard sell. Johnston’s approach to the banjo, and bluegrass as a whole, was influenced by such disparate sources as the Misfits and Bob Dylan. Noting that both these artists are lyrically top heavy, whereas bluegrass is music-centric, Johnston adds, “There are two camps of people: people who are into the technical side of the music and those who are into the words, which can be just as technical as the music. It’s hard to say which is more important. When I first heard bluegrass it fulfilled what I liked about musical genres all at once, and the banjo encapsulated the sound, the rhythms and the harmonics. It was really brilliant and captivating.”
Part of the band’s success may be attributed to its business savvy. Yonder Mountain is the quintessential indie band. It has toured relentlessly since its founding in 1998 and it has played coveted spots at the Bonnaroo Music Festival and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and also has sold out the more-than-9,000-seat Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, all without significant radio airplay.
The band runs its own record label, Frog Pad Records; has released five hugely successful live albums under a series called Mountain Tracks; and released four equally successful studio albums. It is quite literally in control of its music and, presumably, its destiny.
Its audience is a composite of roots music fans. To put it simply, if you can name any of Trey Anastasio’s solo releases and have an affinity for burning dank and dancing in the mud at music festivals, you’re probably a Yonder Mountain fan.
When we talk about songwriting, Johnston says, rather beatifically, “Somewhere, deep within our radar, we have beacon lights that lead us in different directions. Simple structures and catchiness is something that is easily understood. There are big underground river currents I think we’re tapping into.”
The band is known for its improvisational digressions during its live shows. This may pose a stylistic problem when recording in the studio. “In recording,” Johnston says in a slow philosophical cadence, “it’s down to the original sound of the instruments and the voices. It’s a totally different creature than a live show; it’s a different kind of energy, it’s not so much a conversation, it’s kind of like making a short story or book.”
It’s anyone’s guess how Yonder Mountain has reached such heights. It’s much too reductive to say that it is simply “good” at what it does. My guess is that the conditions for its success, given the current state of music, are ideal. On one side of the equation there is a hemorrhaging music industry pumping over-produced candy pop into the stratosphere; on the other side there is Yonder Mountain, which embraces and thrusts roots folk music into the contemporary world and into the ears of new audiences.
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