It’s no secret the bluegrass world holds fast to its time-honored traditions. Songs played and sung in the key of G. I-IV-V chord progressions. Acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, and dobro, strictly unamplified and preferably unmiked. A straight line drawn from the 1940s works of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe to those resolutely following in his footsteps today.
It’s also no secret that plenty of modern bluegrass aficionados have embraced the past while branching off into their own version of the present. Locally, you don’t have to look much beyond Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, a trio that puts a dark, metal-and murder-ballad-influenced spin on Appalachia’s most enduring form of old-timey music.
But nationally, no one embodies the adventurous yet positive progressive bluegrass scene more than Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band. Formed in 1998, YMSB — or, to longtime fans, simply “Yonder” — have performed hardcore bluegrass heresy from the start. They originally rose from the ashes of Dave Johnston’s Urbana, Illinois, group The Bluegrassholes. No one in the band discovered bluegrass until they were in their 20s. Founding mandolinist Jeff Austin didn’t even know how to play his instrument when Johnston first recruited him.
Shortly after decamping to Boulder and the Rocky Mountain town of Nederland, however, YMSB started wowing crowds at local clubs and regional festivals. Rolling Stone praised their ability to “liberate bluegrass’ hot-shit riffing and blue-sky harmonies from its hidebound formalism.” That experimental, improvisational quality immediately endeared Yonder to the Dead- and Phish-loving jam band scene, which wrapped Yonder members Johnston, Austin, Ben Kaufmann, and Adam Aijala in its patchouli-scented embrace. “We tried in earnest to be the best little bluegrass band that we could be,” Austin told The Boston Globe in 2013. “It just became fairly apparent that we were drawn to a different thing. And, luckily, we didn’t fight it. We let ourselves go there.”
For the next 15 years, Yonder wore its nü-grass royalty cloak proudly. They headlined esteemed venues like The Fillmore and Red Rocks Amphitheatre. They performed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. They hosted their own Harvest Festival, headlined by fellow bluegrass heroes like Bela Fleck, at Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Arkansas, famous for the annual Wakarusa gathering. And even after accruing all that stardom, they managed to maintain a palpable sense of DIY purity, thanks to having the sense to release each of their 11 albums on their own Frog Pad Records label.
In 2014, though, YMSB underwent an unthinkable evolution: Mandolin maestro Austin, whose frenetic riffs and magnetic stage presence made him the group’s de facto frontman, opted to strike out on his own. In a heart-wrenching interview with JamBands.com, Kaufmann and Johnston talked at length about the soul searching that went into such a monumental decision: “The last 16 years [were] extremely exciting and we achieved no end of firsts for a bluegrass band,” Kaufmann said, “[but] as it went along, the sacredness of the experience became less and less and less … It seemed like the heart of the whole thing had become compromised. We were in it for different reasons, wanting different things out of it, and I felt like there was a terrible compromise.”
Johnston added, “One of Yonder Mountain’s strong suits is that we evoke a very real sense of camaraderie … Between the four of us, it began as genuine but I think that sense of camaraderie and collaboration [bred] a sort of power or self-importance that [we] got swept up in … Now, going into the next phase with an open mind and an open heart, we’re going to find the right octane to our gasoline that’s going to keep burning us down the road.”
And, boy, did Yonder Mountain String Band pull that off with panache. For 2016, they’ve upgraded from many of their longtime venues, including here in Northeast Florida — after more than a decade of performing at Freebird Live every winter, they’ve moved this year to Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. And internally, they’re firing on more cylinders than ever before — 2015 album Black Sheep was recorded with new band members Allie Kral (vocals, violin) and Jake Joliff (mandolin, vocals), marking the first time the group has ever leaned on bluegrass’ conventional five-piece formation.
In another first, Aijala handled this album’s production, stamping it with Yonder’s signature blend of starry-eyed liveliness and jaw-dropping technical skills from beginning to end. “Everything Yonder has ever tried to do, we’re doing in this record,” Kaufmann said in a promotion presser. “It’s gonna take some time for fans to get acquainted with the new Yonder. When you make a big change like we did, it’s a huge thing. But the band is a force, and the album is such a perfect example of our new direction.”