The qualifiers for progressiveness within bluegrass seem to be difficult to name. There may be no better way to find an answer than to look to a band still making a name for itself even after, well, having made a name for itself: Yonder Mountain String Band.
Born in Nederland, Co. with mid-western roots, YMSB is undergoing transformation; the kind of change where, instead of seeing your ex at a bar with a new flame, you see your ex — and his new band — on the same summer festival lineups. As Yonder tours familiar territory with a new configuration, sights are set on the live show performances. Though, it is perhaps the undercurrents, and the behind-the-scenes notions driving the band to move forward into a realm that surpasses expectations both professionally and personally
YMSB picked up two new players after cutting ties with founding member, Jeff Austin, in 2014.
“It can be nerve wracking… to a certain extent,” commented YMSB’s banjoist Dave Johnston in a recent interview with Miranda Brooks of IndyMojo. “But, I don’t feel preoccupied with frustration. We’ve made a decision, and we’re just letting the chips fall where they may.”
The expanded band is now a five-piece with Allie Kral on fiddle and Jake Jolliff on mando.
“It feels really good and fresh,” Johnston spoke of the band’s current dynamic. “Allie and Jake are talented musicians and quick studies. Plus the ‘hang’ [time] is good, they’re really great people.”
With a sink or swim and trial by fire type of audition, Kral and Jolliff came out being both not drowned and unburnt.
“I think that speaks to their level of creativity and willingness to work,” Johnston said of the newbies’ seamless transition. “It feels like two things are happening at once… it feels like a new band, but an old band, too – maybe something that has existed in a parallel universe somewhere, and now we’ve crossed paths.”
The band has recorded brand-new material set to be released sometime this year.
“The process has changed so much now that you record whenever and wherever you can,” Johnston said of their own operation, which took place in studios across the country from California to Michigan to Virginia.
When asked about the piecemealed technique, he said, “It’s tricky and requires a different kind of psychology, but we take care to make sure it sounds uniform; ultimately the sound ends up being the same because you get to the same musical place regardless [of locale].”
The creative process is still the same for the band, despite the change in lineup.
“We write with the intention of allowing everyone input; crew members and managers even have a hand in the process, making it a group effort.”
Themes and sounds may differ from the past, but the evolution of this family-style dynamic is heart-warming as it steers clear from making music that might be individualistically identified. It’s this type of off-stage improvising that pays off when and where it matter most.
And Johnston’s laid back attitude is focused on just that… the live shows – playing audience favorites from their lengthy catalogue, and having fun with new covers from Neutral Milk Hotel, Urge Overkill, Dusty Springfield, and Chuck Berry.
When asked about the progressiveness of the bluegrass genre as we know it today, Johnston shared this insight:
“Bluegrass is such a malleable and adaptive form; the possibilities for it to thrive and expand and redefine itself are typical of any American art form. It’s a legendary tradition to be a part of, mainly because it’s changing. Any amount of tinkering can be done. Or even if major, massive changes happen… and it still has that drive and feeling that traditional bluegrass givens to you, then I think it’s still pretty much bluegrass. It doesn’t have to be from a rural area, it doesn’t have to mimic or even echo the progenitors of the music… it just has to make you feel like other bluegrass makes you feel.”
The Vogue Theater
Wednesday January 28th