Ponder the Yonder
Yonder Mountain String Band returns to Durango

Yonder Mountain String Band, from left, Adam Aijala, Dave Johnston, Jeff Austin and Ben Kaufmann, will be playing at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College on Tuesday April 6./Courtesy Photo

One of Colorado’s brightest rising stars is coming to Durango – the Yonder Mountain String Band will play the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College on April 6.

While touring, the Nederland-based band (Adam Aijala, acoustic guitar, vocals; Jeff Austin, mandolin, vocals; Dave Johnston, banjo, vocals; and Ben Kaufmann, upright bass, vocals) will be promoting its latest album, “Old Hands,” which reached No. 5 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart. This achievement is particularly noteworthy because the lyrics to all 13 songs were written by Durango local Benny “Burle” Galloway, who also performs on several tracks. The album features traditional bluegrass music, a departure from the band’s usual high-energy, improvisational jamgrass.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had making a record,” said bassist Ben Kaufmann in a phone interview. “You’ve got Benny Galloway down there now – you’ve got a hidden treasure there for sure.”

Kaufmann said that the album’s traditional style does not signal a directional shift in the band’s sound; rather, the band wrote the music to highlight Galloway’s “high-caliber” lyrics.

“You really have to pay attention to the songs,” Kaufmann said. “To kind of jam out on any of those songs felt inappropriate.

“The live performances are like a separate animal,” he added.

And live performances with lightning-fast picking and tight improvisation are a key to Yonder Mountain’s rapid success since starting just five years ago.

“We’ve been together for five years, and although that sounds like a long time, it can feel like the blink of an eye,” Kaufmann said. “On the other hand, we tour – we’re away from our homes 250 days a year. You do that for five years, well, that’s a lot of miles.”

In a way, Kaufmann said, the spirit of Yonder – “having fun, high-energy stuff” – started when Austin (mando) and Johnston (banjo) played in a band called the Bluegrassholes.

“I am an honorary member of the Bluegrassholes – and on Sundays that’s ‘Bluegrass Souls,’” Kaufmann laughed. “What was their slogan? A drinking band with a bluegrass problem? It’s not quite the same vibe, but that spirit got carried into Yonder.”

When the young foursome decided to form Yonder Mountain String Band, their parents were supportive but not without concerns about where the boys would actually earn money.

“You tell your family, ‘I’m gonna drop out of school, and I’m going to join a bluegrass band’ – which is what I did,” Kaufmann said, adding, “I’d been in college at that point for 6 BD years, and even if I did graduate it would have been with a degree in film, which is about as useful as a degree in bluegrass.”

Yonder Mountain String Band’s latest album, “Old Hands,” features 13 songs
written by Durango local Benny “Burle” Galloway./Courtesy Photo

But fairly soon it became apparent that being a band member of Yonder Mountain would be a viable career. Different events marked that moment for different parents. For Dave Johnston’s mother, it was when he called her to say if she turned on the radio later that day, she’d hear Yonder Mountain String Band on the Grand Ole Opry. For Kaufmann’s parents, it was when they saw the band play at the Northwest String Summit, a music festival in Oregon.

But Kaufmann’s father was particularly supportive, being a musician himself.

“As soon as I was learning to read English, I was learning to read music, just because that was such a big part of my father’s life,” he said. “I played all the instruments he didn’t play – I was the rhythm section, and he was the woodwind.”

His father even turned him on to bluegrass by giving him BE9la Fleck albums to listen to “when I was ready” on the way to college. He did and was hooked.

“Once that bluegrass bug gets you, you’re pretty much a goner,” he said.

Band members had the support not only of their families, but also of festival planners (particularly the folks at Planet Bluegrass), fellow musicians and fans. Kaufmann said the band has been incredibly lucky in that regard. Leftover Salmon, another Colorado-based jamgrass band, became a mentor early on.

“We owe a lot to them for so many reasons,” Kaufmann said. “Not only the work they did 4 over the last 20 years establishing bluegrass jam music in the Front Range, but also calling festivals and saying, ‘I think it would be a good idea if you let Yonder Mountain play.’ The word of Vince Herman in Leftover Salmon goes a long way.”

Word of mouth from fans also helped the group’s popularity. In fact, Yonder has a grassroots marketing team of volunteers called “Kinfolk” who put up posters and distribute flyers in their hometowns in exchange for free concert tickets and special recordings.

“It helps to keep everyone feeling like we are a part of a larger family, and it’s important for us to maintain that kind of connection with the people who are helping us and have helped us along the way,” Kaufmann said. “If it was just about the band, it would be four people onstage playing to an empty room, and that would be no fun for anybody.”

Kaufmann said it also helped to be playing music in a state with “people who like acoustic music.”

“Colorado has contributed significantly to modern day bluegrass,” he said, noting Hot Rize, Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident. “If you think about the time involved in this, it’s almost three decades of progressive bluegrass and bluegrass-related music happening in Colorado, and I can’t think of any other place in this country where that’s happened.”

The band has flourished in this environment, and members have become as close as brothers, Kaufmann said.

“I feel very fortunate to be in a band with people that I respect, and who I think are wonderful songwriters,” he said. “And everyone has a desire to get better and to learn, and that’s what kind of keeps it alive.”

Although Yonder Mountain is a fiddle-player shy of the customary bluegrass band make-up, Kaufmann said it’s become an asset “because we’re allowed to kind of have a floating fifth member.

“Wherever we show up, the space is there to have a special guest, or people can come out and sit in,” he said.

There will be plenty of special guests on the spring tour, which has three stops before coming to Durango. The tour will reunite Kaufmann with his bandmates, after he temporarily removed himself “from bass duty” when his father died suddenly of brain cancer earlier this year.

“There are very few experiences in life that alter you fundamentally, and losing a parent – especially someone as young as he was – it changes you,” Kaufmann said. “I play music these days from a different place, and definitely in loving memory of my father. He gave me the gift of music.”

Kaufmann said he is eager to get back on the road and play music, particularly in Durango.

“Lookin’ forward to gettin’ back to Durangy – it’s definitely been really kind to us over the years,” he said. “Can’t wait to come – we’ll see all our friends from down there!”







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