With bluegrass now more than 60 years old, you'd think there'd be nothing new under the sun when it comes to the high lonesome sound that Bill Monroe fashioned in the mid-1940s. The rock-bluegrass hybrid is at least 30 years old itself, tracing its roots back at least to the seminal band Old & In the Way, featuring Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and a handful of other big names. But the Yonder Mountain String Band has managed to teach an old dog a few new tricks.
"When we go and play, I don't think we're playing to a bluegrass audience," says YMSB's bassist, Ben Kaufmann. "I think we're playing to a jam-band audience who, through that music, have found that they really like bluegrass. I can probably count on one hand the number of times we've played to a predominantly bluegrass audience -- over 40, sitting down, scrutinizing every note, but still appreciative."
Jam bands have made forays into bluegrass throughout the history of the genre. But the Yonder Mountain String Band is far more a bluegrass band, far less a noodling rock band. The composition of the group is traditional bluegrass: a guitar, a banjo, a mandolin, and an upright bass. No drums, no electric instruments. And yet, with just a bit of tinkering with the tunes, expanding the solos and taking a page from progressive bluegrass, the band has attracted sizable crowds who would be much more comfortable at a Dead show than the Grand Ole Opry. Kaufmann is at a loss to explain exactly why.
"I think the answer is that bluegrass is awesome," he declares. "And it can speak to people of any walk of life, provided that they hear it and relate to it. But bluegrass is groove music, bluegrass is dance music, bluegrass is full of energy."
The band's latest album, Town by Town, holds to this philosophy. While the entire recording has the central theme of being on the road, as most of the songs were written while on tour, the pace can vary wildly from song to song. Of course, like most groups that pull in the jam-band crowd, the Yonder Mountain String Band is more about the live show than the recording; despite a mere three-year existence, the group has already picked up a slowly increasing, dedicated following.
"That's how you feel really fortunate, when you wake up one day and realize there is an audience out there listening to your stuff," Kaufmann says. "Where did they come from? It almost seems like it happened overnight. You just open your eyes and there they are."
Kaufmann is the first to admit the group has been ridiculously lucky in its brief life, but he says he sees success only growing. "I really think that once you get bit by that bluegrass bug, you're pretty much all done."