By Timothy Dwenger
Back in April a shockwave ripped through the bluegrass community when Yonder Mountain String Band announced that founding member and, for many, the charismatic core of the band Jeff Austin, was leaving to pursue a solo career. Rumors swirled and statements were issued, but through it all Austin has decided to remain relatively quiet on the issue and when he sat down with The Marquee for a lengthy conversation that covered topics such as his six-month old daughter, his new band and extremely fruitful recording sessions, a vision of a new Austin began to appear.
“When change came upon me there were a couple of schools of thought and my manager gave me some great advice. He said ‘You should really enjoy this time and this silence that you’ve been given and embrace this period of change.’ So I did. I told my agents and I told everybody ‘You know I think I’m just gonna stay home for the summer and really take a few months off.’ It’s been amazing,” Austin said.
For a touring musician, time off the road can be like gold, especially in the height of the beautiful Colorado summer. “I haven’t had a summer off in sixteen years. I woke up this morning with my daughter pulling on my lip and laughing and literally five minutes ago I was watering tomatoes and watching the progress of grass seed. It’s been the summer of George,” he said, referencing the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza is laid off from The Yankees.
While the time off has been welcomed, it’s all about to change as Austin and new bandmates and old friends Ross Martin, Eric Thorin, and Danny Barnes have a record slated to be released in February and are about to hit the road this month for a brief run of shows in the Colorado mountains. Aside from one Nederland appearance though, Front Range fans will need to wait a little while before Austin comes down from the hills. “We are looking at next February for Denver and Boulder dates to coincide with the album release,” Austin revealed. “Sometimes a little separation is a good thing.”
The album, which Austin turned in to his label earlier this summer, is not the straight-ahead bluegrass record that some fans might be expecting from the 20-year veteran of the scene. Instead Austin has decided to take this opportunity to reinvent himself and push the limits of his sound. “I didn’t grow up on bluegrass. I grew up on 80’s pop music and I have a deep love for a hook and a good chorus and musicians playing their ass off on a track,” he said. “My whole intention on this record was to play this group of songs how I heard them. They didn’t have to sound like anything, and didn’t have to follow any structure, they could just be what they are.”
When the recording was done, and there was time to listen back and reflect on the project, Austin admits that there were moments of near panic. “At first I thought ‘Oh crap, we’ve got one song that sounds like a bluegrass song and one that sounds like a 1980’s Miami Vice soundtrack song,’” he said. “‘Are these going together? Is this going to be too disconnected?’” In the end it was his label that reassured him by saying “this is the true realization of these songs. Yes, this one is different from that one, but that’s what it’s supposed to sound like.”
Austin revealed that while there are several “brand, brand new” songs on the album “there are two songs on the record that people will know.” But he cautions that people shouldn’t expect them to sound too familiar because he’s presenting them now in the way that he first heard them and in the way that they were originally written. “To sit there and watch this music get realized was an amazing treat,” he said before slipping in a little teaser when he gushed “There are a couple of tracks on this record that are just funky, dirty business. People are gonna get pregnant.”
The core group of four was augmented in the studio by some pretty impressive names that Austin has had the good fortune to get to know along the way. “Cody Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars played drums on it, and we were really lucky to have a great cast of others involved from Brendan Baylis of Umphrey’s McGee, to Jen Hartswick from Trey Anastasio’s Band, to Sarah Siskind who is an incredible songwriter out of Nashville, to this killer group of horns from Memphis,” Austin said.
All in all, it sounds like Austin is taking a daring step, but it’s one that he seems very confident in taking. “I was so lucky to be part of one conversation for so long and now that I’ve stood up from that table and opened the door to walk into this other room, there’s these guys having this other, crazier conversation and suddenly I happen to know their weird language.”
| Jeff Austin with Grateful Grass |
| Yarmony Grass | August 16
|Jeff Austin Band|
NedFest| August 22|
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