by Britt Chester

Yonder Mountain String Band rebuilds with new additions

| @awfullybrittish

Bands often go through members, but rarely does a band make such a drastic change like losing a founding member and survive. Colorado-based Yonder Mountain String Band, formerly a bluegrass quartet founded in 1998, currently a trio, is in the final stages of adding two new members to the band.

“What fits with Yonder Mountain String Band is such a personal thing for the three of us,” said Dave Johnston, banjo player for the bluegrass act. “So it might be too subjective (for us) to make a really clear decision.”

Johnston is referring to the recent changes that YMSB underwent when mandolinist Jeff Austin, one of the founding members of the band, decided to amicably depart.

Since then, YMSB has steadily remained touring and adding other artists to the stage to keep the energy palpable.

“I think everyone in the band right now, and everyone in the band formerly”¦ we are all pretty individual people,” Johnston added. “There will always be chemistry, and when there isn’t or wasn’t, everyone would know that.”

The chemistry that was working for so many years, though, is not the chemistry that is still working. Instead, YMSB has gone through a rebuilding of sorts “” a redefinition of itself “” by using outside artists at the recommendation of peers.

“We kind of had our antennas out there for a bit and wanted to try some different combinations,” Johnston said. “We worked with John Frazier and Sam Bush”¦we had an idea of what we wanted.”

Currently, Allie Kral and Jake Jolliff are sitting in with the band on the tour. As opposed to some previous stops, both artists will be performing in Winston-Salem with the group.

Prior to joining up with YMSB, Kral spent the past ten years playing in the bluegrass band Cornmeal, while also sitting in on musical sets with a host of other headlining acts.

Jolliff, who happened to be the Berklee School of Music’s first full-scholarship mandolin student, also won the National Mandolin Championships in 2012 at the Walnut Valley Festival. He toured with Joy Kills Sorrow, a group formed by himself and other top-notch musicians from Berklee, prior to joining YMSB.

“(Playing with YMSB) is inspiring a lot of growth on my behalf,” Jolliff said. “There are so many factors when playing – new material, in-ear monitors that are super loud, longer solos – there was some adjusting, but it hasn’t been overwhelming.”

Jolliff also talked about the the difference in the style that he is playing regarding solos, saying that it was now “more of a numbers game” in that he was used to playing perhaps five or six solos that were only 30-seconds long, but now playing up to 30 solos that can last as long at 3-minutes each.

“It’s really pushed me to work out new stuff, more so than any other setting I’ve ever been in,” he added.

Johnston did mention that he and the original band members were interested to see what they would sound like as a five piece band.

“I don’t think the chemistry has been broken, but I do think we dropped an electron and gained two neutrons,” Johnston acknowledged. “We need chemistry to happen, and if it isn’t happening, there would be different considerations.”

The most recent iteration is also currently working on a new album, much of which has been written while on the road.

While touring, Johnston said that all the members are always tinkering with sounds, riffs and melodies, but he manages to maintain sanity by listening to music that puts him in a place of studying.

“On the road, I am listening to a lot of Tony Trischka, Hot Rize, the ‘Mikrokosmos’ by Bela Bartok “” maybe more academic, more composer-centric “” music that gets me into the mode to work.”

This seems to fit Yonder Mountain String Band perfectly as they are currently exploring their new sound with new members.

With an album in the works, one that Johnston says, “is pretty much in the can with ten full songs,” he’s excited to showcase what he believes to be the next phase of YMSB.

“(The album) is really beholding to the early YMSB sound, and it feels like the first few albums we made,” he added.

How it will vary from recent works is the noticeable lack of drums and heavy percussion, but the added fiddle from Kral and mandolin of Jolliff will certainly present an updated sound for the act.

Aside from the changes within the band, though, YMSB has just recently wrapped up its annual event, Harvest Music Festival, at Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Ark.

The three-day festival brings a cornucopia of talent from all over the country to play music.

“(Harvest Music Festival) has a good roots, Americana and Midwest kind of musical footprint,” Johnston added. “I’m already looking forward to the next one.”

This year’s event featured fellow bluegrass acts Trampled By Turtles, Railroad Earth and more than 40 other acts over the course of the weekend.

Although YMSB hails from Colorado, Johnston is quick to recognize the imprint that North Carolina has on bluegrass music.

“The banjo tradition in North Carolina is the world standard,” he said. Given that Johnston is the banjo plucker of YMSB, he was quick to say, “North Carolina is always a huge stop for me.” !


Yonder Mountain String Band will play at Ziggy’s with the Larry Keel Experience on Saturday, Nov. 1.Tickets are $25 and the doors open at 7:30 with the show starting at 8:30 p.m.