In the spring of 2014, Jeff Austin parted ways with Colorado’s longstanding jam-grass outfit Yonder Mountain String Band. The change was a shock to many loyal fans, as Austin’s charismatic stage presence and gritty mandolin runs served as the popular group’s energetic core for 16 years. Yonder eventually added two new members, however, and moved forward. Meanwhile, Austin took some time off to enjoy being a new dad before spending the past year and a half diligently touring with his own Jeff Austin Band.
The group features jazz-versed bluegrass players Ross Martin on guitar, Eric Thorin on upright bass and new banjo player Ryan Cavanagh, who replaced Danny Barnes in September. Austin also released a musically divergent solo album this year. Called “The Simple Truth,” it features horns, electric guitars and help from a cast of friends including Todd Snider and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars.
Austin will play two shows at the Boulder Theater during Thanksgiving weekend, opening for Leftover Salmon. With those dates in mind, he took the time to chat with us about his new ventures.
For fans who haven’t checked out your post-Yonder music, how would you describe the difference?
We play as a collective, rather than a group of soloists. We let improvisational portions of the show build around a groove, and it becomes four people locked into one purpose. I recently had a moment in a little tiny club in Columbia, Mo., in front of about a hundred people during an hour-long segue of music where I’ve never felt so free. I was really lit up from it. The biggest difference is that we really allow ourselves to have those moments when the music is open and free, rather than have it be focused on one person.
What has it been like to start fresh after being in a popular and established band for so many years?
It’s a lot of work, and a lot more travel. We’re still building as a band, so there are nights when we’re not getting a ton of people at the shows. Last year when all of the change with Yonder went down, I took the majority of that year off. My daughter was born last January, and I was able to take the opportunity to reflect and reset. I did that because I knew how much work was ahead. It reminds me of the way it felt a long time ago—just spreading the word. There are people who are still learning that I’m doing my own thing now. The best thing is I’m playing with a group of guys that have complete faith in what we’re doing. Ryan has come in and learned so much music so fast. He comes from this intense jazz background and he just finished nine years traveling the world with Bill Evans. The other guys have similar backgrounds. They’ve played in Bebop groups. When I show them one of my songs, they’re able to take them to new places. I’ve been learning a lot.
With “The Simple Truth” was the idea that you were trying to expose a different side of yourself musically?
For me that album was a collection of songs that I meant to be presented as a studio project. I wanted to let the situation serve the music. Some songs needed electric guitars and others needed background vocalists, so that part of the process was really fun. It was cool to make a record in a way where I knew I would never play the songs like that on stage. When I made that record I was still in Yonder Mountain, and I had no thought that was going to change.
You wrote a lot of the songs that defined Yonder’s catalog. What’s your outlook on revisiting them?
When I first came back to playing, my connection to those songs felt strange and different. With the new band I didn’t want to just go out there and be a jukebox. I’ve recently come around and realized I missed those songs, so I started reaching out to fans on social media and have learned that they miss them too. Now we’ve started to play “Snow on the Pines” and “Ten” and this band is completely reinventing them. There’s a familiarity with the old but also an undeniable recognition of the new.
You moved to Nederland in the late 1990s during a heyday for Colorado newgrass, when bands like Leftover Salmon were gaining steam. Do you still find the area inspiring as a musician?
These days, when I’m off the road, I am such a homebody. I like staying home, having dinner, putting my kids to bed and spending time with my wife. But you don’t have to go out and play music in Nederland seven nights a week to find it inspiring. When I go to the grocery store people ask me about the music and we talk about it. There’s a natural pull to the energy up here. I can walk out on my deck, look over the valley and get some ideas. As I’ve gotten older, I need to look in different places for inspiration. That might not be at the Pioneer Inn for the fourth night in a row making up songs and drinking Budweisers.