The community he left behind rallies for a night of remembrance
1stBank Center | November 4
By Timothy Dwenger
Editor’s Note: On June 24 we all lost a dear friend. The consummate performer Jeff Austin, who we had just featured in our pages in April was gone. He had just spoken with our writer, Timothy Dwenger, so positively about his new material, his emerging role as a mid-life statesman of the scene and the ‘brick-by-brick’ effort he had put into rebuilding himself over the five years since his departure from Yonder Mountain String Band. Not only was Jeff an enormous part of the larger bluegrass community, but he was also a fixture in the closer Marquee family. He did his first interview with The Marquee in 2003, which was included in our very first issue. Since then he was featured more than any other artist in our pages, with eleven feature stories in total for both his solo work and YMSB days. Dwenger interviewed Austin for the majority of those, including a particularly memorable one in 2008 that took place on the porch of the Sundance Café outside of Nederland. In March, the two spent 45 minutes on the phone together as Jeff was always generous with his time, humor and insight.
We were lucky to consider Jeff a friend and, when the news of the What The Night Brings Remembrance was announced, Dwenger immediately set to work to put together this piece that would pay our respects to the man that had touched our lives and so many others over the years. Over the course of 11 separate conversations for this article, Dwenger was a willing ear for his friends and collaborators as they shared intimate accounts of their experiences with Austin on and off stage over the last 23 years.
“There’s always hope. There is. I’ve learned in my life that when things are the absolute darkest — and personally these last couple of years have been really something and recently it’s been a real struggle — there’s always hope. No matter how dark it gets there is somebody that’s going to hold their hand out and walk along with you. I know that may sound kinda corny and cliché, but it’s very, very true and it’s in those times that you need to reach out and take that help.”
Sadly, those words were spoken in September of 2010 by the late Jeff Austin as he laid on the couch watching ESPN in his home outside of Nederland and discussed the devastating Fourmile Canyon Fire and the Fourmile Canyon Revival benefit concert that he was helping to organize.
In a tragic turn of events, this month, the same community that rallied to help the victims of that fire will come together in the same venue to raise money for the family that Austin left behind when he passed away on June 24 just hours after the close of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which he had played 15 times with his former group Yonder Mountain String Band.
For 47 years Telluride Bluegrass has earned a reputation for its joyful celebration of the wonders of acoustic music, but when Saturday morning dawned this year, a dark cloud rolled in as the news of Austin’s “medical emergency” spread like wildfire through the valley. Rumors around Town Park were rampant, but information was scarce until a cryptic post appeared on the Jeff Austin Band Facebook page midday that announced the cancellation of several weeks worth of shows and lent credence to the idea that something was very wrong. This was further cemented when Ben Kaufman took to the mic midway through Yonder’s 20th consecutive mainstage set and dedicated the Austin-penned “Half Moon Rising” to his former bandmate by saying “Twenty years ago me, Dave and Adam and Jeff Austin stood on this stage and we shared our music with you for the first time. We woke up today and the internet was on fire with rumors and speculation about our brother Jeff Austin. And what we can say is that he is still with us. What is appropriate right now? If you’re a prayer, send prayers his way. If you’re a lover, send love his way. If you’re a healer, send energy his way. This is what we’re going to send his way.”
The moment had gravity for many reasons, but one thing that was not lost on many longtime fans was that Yonder had not played a Jeff Austin song without him since they parted ways in 2014. “We had gotten news that there was some pretty big trouble and we were all really worried and thought that maybe if we could go back to the beginning and try to perform one of his songs that we all really loved we could send good vibes his way,” said Yonder Mountain banjo player Dave Johnston during a series of conversations The Marquee had with Austin’s friends and musical collaborators who will be involved with the What The Night Brings tribute and benefit concert. “That version of Yonder Mountain was a very powerful thing for a lot of people. It’s a really great song, it’s fun to play, and the whole emotional nexus of the whole thing was very surreal and strange. He wrote the song and he brought it to us and it’s definitely identifiable as a Jeff song and we wanted to send things back down memory lane.”
Though fans clung to hope for the rest of the weekend, there was little news until Tuesday when the word came down from his camp that Austin had passed away, leaving an enormous hole in the bluegrass community, the music scene as a whole, and most significantly, his family.
“It was very, very difficult to pick through those rumors and sit through the silence of the texting,” said Austin’s Grateful Grass partner, Keller Williams. “As soon as I heard the rumors, I started texting Jeff and of course I didn’t hear back until Devlyn [Jeff’s wife] called me and told me that he would not be texting back.”
Through the fog of grief that enveloped the scene this summer, Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon may have put it best when he said “It’s such a loss and there was so much love left to be given and received for that boy.”
While Austin’s friends painted a picture of a charismatic, energetic, livewire of a guy who was at once funny, creative, and loyal, the conversations also revealed some of his struggles. “I don’t think he even trusted that this kind of support was there,” said his longtime friend and picking partner Nick Forster in reference to how fast What The Night Brings sold-out and Ronnie McCoury echoed that sentiment as he related a conversation he had with Jeff. “About a year ago he told me, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I’m not doing that well and it’s tough to run a band. I’ve been talking to one of my buddies about being a real estate guy. I’ve been talking to another guy who says I should run his restaurant in Chicago.’ And I’m like ‘really?’ I can’t imagine you not doing this, you are too good of an entertainer and a singer’ and I think he needed people to tell him that.”
Don Strasburg, Co-President of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest and a co-founder of The Fox Theatre in Boulder who worked with Jeff for 20 years, acknowledged that life may not have always been easy for him. “I knew Jeff for a long time and I knew him as a person. I know how passionate he was and how hard he worked and how much he cared, but the life of an artist can be a tortured life,” he admitted. “The classic tortured artist is not an unfamiliar paradigm and it saddens me so much because I really think that if Jeff had even a glimpse of the amount of love that is out there for him, then it would have energized him so much.”
“The sad reality is that we really like our artists to be bigger than life, we like our artists to be close to the edge and the difference between close to the edge and over the edge is really small. It’s a fine line,” Forster continued. “It’s a tragedy that has happened many times in the arts and music community and I’m sorry that it happened. I’m just really, really sorry that this happened and I’m sorry that he wasn’t able to trust the support of the community and the affection in the community for him enough to be able to find the strength to plow on through.”
While we will never get to hear Austin sing “Keep On Going,” and “Snow on the Pines” or cover songs he made his own like “No Expectations,” and “My Sisters & Brothers,” there’s no doubt he poured his soul into his music, on stage and off, over the years. His passion and dedication to his craft will not be forgotten and, according to just about everyone, whether he was playing with Yonder Mountain, the Jeff Austin Band, the duo he had with Chris Castino of The Big Wu, or 30dB, Austin had an otherworldly stage presence.
“I played with the Jeff Austin Band for a night in Montana and it was hard to augment Jeff’s band but it was fun and there were always adventures,” said legendary bluegrass musician Sam Bush who Austin referenced as a “father figure” during a March 2019 interview with The Marquee. “I knew Jeff was gonna land that plane, I just didn’t know which route we were taking.”
“The cool thing about Jeff is that he was a great entertainer and he had a real sense for the energy in the room, he had a sense of the audience. Every time I was on stage with him there was a lot of confidence. There was a lot of energy and a lot of forward momentum,” said Forster. “It was comfortable for me to be on stage with him, even when we were just playing the two of us, he could work a crowd and get across no matter the situation.”
“The best thing about it for me was that I didn’t feel pressure ever because I knew he was going to be entertaining, I knew he was going to be funny, and I knew he was going to be good so it kinda made it easy for me. It was way less stressful walking into a gig knowing I didn’t have to do anything and it would be a good show,” said Austin and Forster’s bandmate in 30dB Brendan Bayliss, before commenting on Austin’s legendary banter. “To be honest with you it was a little intimidating sometimes because he was so good and so ‘on’ that you had to be really on your toes because of the stuff that was coming out of his mouth in between songs. He didn’t even have material or anything, it wasn’t like he regurgitated stuff, that was all off the cuff.”
Anyone who knew Austin, or saw him perform, knows what the Umphrey’s frontman is talking about. He held a unique energy that burned strong and he shared that energy far and wide, but Austin was more than an entertainer, he was a family man and a true friend.
“Jeff was a lot of things to me, he was my friend first and always, my musical pal, and certainly my baseball pal. And if you knew Jeff, you knew that if he got into something and he got enthused about something, he was all in. Music, baseball, the Cubs, you name it,” Bush said. “He was a kind person that was giving and loved his family and his friends.”
“My favorite recent memories have been over the last year or so as we were bonding on the father level in a really beautiful way and he was saying all these really sweet things to me,” said Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass. “The day my daughter was born I was texting him some pictures and then we were chatting and he was giving me some fatherly advice and in true Jeff Austin form it was real funny stuff. He told me ‘don’t forget to look up.’ And I was like ‘that must be some metaphor’ and he goes ‘No, your neck is going to be so fucking sore man’ and then a couple of weeks later I texted him and I was like ‘Oh my god, my neck dude, you were so right. In addition to the loss to the artistic community and the loss of a friend, I’m sad to have lost someone who I was excited to make dad jokes with on a human level.”
“We played two nights in St. Louis one time and all of us stayed up really late,” McCoury shared. “The bus stayed at the venue and we all wound up going to bed at the same time, just laying in bunks talking like The Waltons. We all laughed ourselves to sleep and one thing I’ll always remember is that big laugh he had. That’s what I want to remember and that’s how I want to remember him. I’ve thought about that a lot.”
Austin was always filling the room with laughter and quick with a joke, but over the last year or two he was maturing into the mentor of some outstanding young musicians. “He opened up so many doors for me and I could say the same about Kyle Tuttle. He gave us the opportunity to showcase our talents to these audiences,” said guitar prodigy Julian Davis who played in the most recent incarnation of the Jeff Austin Band. “I got to play with my idols, the McCoury’s, but I got sick on that tour and he pretty much took care of me. He told me the secret road dog methods to getting better really fast. He would cut up grapefruit for me and get me water.”
“Jeff was very mother hen to Julian which was nice to see,” McCoury said of watching Austin and Davis on that tour. “It was nice to see that side of him.”
Another young player who shared the stage with Austin from time to time over the last few years was Billy Strings and he had fond memories as well. “Jeff was always giving me praise to other people. I remember one night I sat in with his band at the 8×10 [in Baltimore]and when he introduced me he said something like ‘Isn’t it amazing that we have the next 50 years of Billy Strings to look forward to?’ That meant so much to me, to be accepted by Jeff and to have his blessing in this jamgrass community. It didn’t mean that much to me because of who he was or because of how famous Yonder was or any of that, it meant everything to me because of the musician and performer he was.”
Just a week before he passed, Austin and Bayliss played a 30dB duo gig right before Strings at the Taste of Randolph in Chicago on Father’s Day. After hearing his friend talk about a series of hit or miss shows in May and June, Bayliss admitted that for the first time in their friendship, he was a little nervous about the show. Though he stumbled over a few words and choked up a bit as he spoke, he was very honest about that day. “I was pretty anxious going into that show because I had been talking to him and I knew everything wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get and when I did finally see him he looked tired and he looked kinda weathered and his voice was weak. It was the only time I’ve ever played with him where it seemed like it was effort. He was really having to dig in deep to try and hit the notes or even just kinda be there.”
Despite the challenges associated with that final performance, Bayliss pointed out that there were some bright moments that he’ll treasure including when the pair recognized the holiday by inviting their children to join them on stage for the set-closing “Liar.” “There is a photograph of him holding his daughter Penelope up and he has a really beaming smile on his face,” he recalled.
Austin never hid how he felt about his family and the void left there is something that haunts many of his friends as they remember him. “The one thing that really, really bothers me about all this…I’ve had a lot of really good, close personal talks with him about his upbringing and being fatherless and what he and his mother went through and what his mother went through to raise him and I’m a family man and to leave his kids like that, I just cannot understand that at all,” McCoury said. “His little ones won’t even know him and will know so little about the man – that’s what really bothers me about something like this.”
As a man who is familiar with the artists and their struggles, Strasburg summed it up accurately when he said, “sometimes the moment gets overwhelming and sometimes other things get in the way that clog our thinking.”
Sadly, it’s true that all kinds of things, both internal and external, can clog our thinking, but in the end, Austin left behind a musical legacy that touched fans and influenced a whole generation of musicians. “That guy was a force of nature. He’s one of those guys I’m seriously inspired by when it comes to putting on a show. He knew how to get up there and deliver the goods. I never saw anybody command a room like that and that was really inspiring. He would never go through the motions. It was always 200%,” gushed Strings. “He wasn’t the world’s best mandolin player, but he was the best performer in the whole scene and I think a lot of musicians lack in what Jeff had an immeasurable amount of, which was that magic. He had the fuckin’ magic.”
There’s no doubt that Austin possessed “the magic” and while What The Night Brings will no doubt have magic of its own, it’s important to remember that the event is about much more than the music. “I think Jeff, like all of us, had his demons and they got the best of him in this case. We have to look out for each other and we do, but we can do better. We are part of a community and we can do better, we can be more engaged and we can be more supportive before this kind of thing happens,” Forster said. “So hopefully the lesson is let’s get together as a community, both on stage and off stage, and let’s remember that everybody struggles. I don’t care where you are in your life, everybody struggles and if we can remember that this community is like a family and we can look out for each other a little more proactively, before some tragedy like this happens, that would be a great takeaway, separate and distinct from the incredible evening this is going to be and the incredible benefit that is going to come to Jeff’s family. If that could be the thing that people walk away with, that would be awesome.”
What The Night Brings
featuring Bill Nershi, Billy Strings, Brendan Bayliss, Cody Dickinson, Darol Anger, Greensky Bluegrass, Hot Rize, The Infamous Stringdusters, Keith Moseley, Keller Williams, Leftover Salmon (Acoustic), Members of the Jeff Austin Band: Kyle Tuttle, Jean-Luc Davis, Lindsay Lou, Mimi Naja, Noam Pikelny, Railroad Earth, Sam Bush, The Travelin’ McCourys, Todd Snider, Yonder Mountain String Band and more
1stBank Center | November 4