It's hard to believe, but the Yonder Mountain String Band is about to celebrate their 16th year in existence. A little over a decade and a half ago Ben Kaufman, Dave Johnston, Adam Aijala and Jeff Austin migrated to Colorado from other places, found each other, and then formed a band that worked hard to gain an impressive fan base.
These days, Yonder Mountain has continued to build an impressive following, and they have consolidated the overall family aspect of the group with a business plan and a bit of a baby boom. Aijala has been a stepfather to his wife's kids for many years. But in recent times Kaufman, Johnston and Austin have become new fathers with Austin's first baby being born a couple of months ago.
"Absolutely," says Aijala, when asked if the band sat down and worked out a business plan. "We've always been really smart about our touring schedule. We've been a band for 16 years as of July of this year, but we've been touring for almost 15 years as of March. Our first tour, one where we left Colorado, was in March of 1999 after we began to play shows in September of 1998. I exceeded my expectations of what I thought this band could accomplish in the first three years. I was already like, 'Wow, this is great.' We all decided that we were in it for the long haul, and we're all on the same page now, I assume. It seems like we are. No one ever says otherwise. There is no shortage of ideas and new songs. One of the reasons, I think, that we have been able to stay together this long is because we pay attention to the business end."
A big part of that business plan was the decision to tour sensibly. One aspect of that notion is to not play the same set list every night, so that fans that go to multiple shows will get their money's worth. Another part of the plan is to not spend too much time on the road without a break, which keeps the band from getting burned out, stale or irritable.
"It's not just about the economics of it, but about the health of the band as in, 'Hey, you know what? Six weeks on the road is too long,'" says Aijala. "We're making sure that we don't do too many shows in a row. Little things like that. If you do 10 shows in a row, that can burn you out over the years. So, we say that we're not doing more than five shows in a row, period. It doesn't matter. After that, we need a few days off. Don't care, that's how we're going to do it. An ideal tour would be four weekends, five shows, two days off, five shows, two days off, five shows, and then home. The most that we are out is less than a month, or just shy of a month. That is our limit. We used to do six weeks, but we started to want to kill each other by the end of it. I say that figuratively, as in, 'I need to get the hell home.' Now, with kids in the picture, it has become more important. We also looked at it from the perspective of, 'If we are going to do this for the long haul, we need to think about retirement accounts and such.' Yonder Mountain doesn't have a pension plan, so we have to think about the future as well."
This month's Jam Stories centers on the fun collaborations that Yonder Mountain has been a part of over the years, especially after they established themselves as a band and top musicians began to take notice.
"The last time that I said to myself, 'That could have arguably have been the most fun I've had picking,' in recent memory, would have to be two or three Delfests ago," said Aijala, about Del McCoury's annual festival held every year in May in Maryland. "There was a late night pick at the Late Night Tent and all of the guys were going to go over there. I think Jeff was going to sit in. I believe it was also Greensky Bluegrass and Railroad Earth, I'm not really sure. Brittany Haas and Darol Anger were hanging on the bus and then everybody else left and I said, 'I'll meet you guys over there. I'm going to pick a couple.' The three of us picked. Well, they fiddled and I picked, and we never went to the jam. We were like, 'Do you guys want to go over there?' I know a lot of the same stuff that they know, and we just started playing. Brittany is obviously one of the best old time fiddlers around. She is unbelievable. Her and Bruce Molsky are amazing.
"We started playing songs and I was like, 'I'm not going anywhere. There is no other place that I'd rather be right now,'" continues Aijala. "We played song after song with very little singing. Here and there I'd sing one or something. But, we were basically just playing fiddle tunes. You know how you go to a show and, say, how John Hartford would make you feel engaged and a part of the show if you saw him live? That was how I felt. I felt like I was a part of it. I mean, I took solos. I wasn't just playing rhythm. But, we were playing so well together, and to be a part of it felt so good. It was so awesome."
There are few things more magical than when a group of musicians connect, and this was one of those special nights for Aijala.
"I have played with those guys many times, but it was just surreal," says Aijala. "It was just the three of us. The bus was empty except for a friend of ours that was hanging out, drinking beers, and we were having beers. That was, still to this day, one of the most fun picks that I've ever been a part of. We were in a triangle, so I had the stereo of two fiddles right there. And they are such good people, too. We were playing old time fiddle tunes and current fiddle tunes, and we even picked some flatpick guitar fiddle tunes. There was even stuff that was the One (chord) and the Five (chord) in A, and I didn't even know the song, kind of a Celtic feel, and I'd just play rhythm along with it and let them go. I felt so satisfied, during and after. Everybody came back to the bus and that is when we stopped, when everybody got back from the late night thing. Everybody was like, 'You guys didn't come by.' We're like, 'Naw, we were just chilling.'[laughs] It was great."
Aijala first came to notice the banjo, his first instrument of choice before taking up the guitar, by listening to the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia, which led him to Garcia's legendary Old and In The Way band. That came full circle for Aijala when Yonder Mountain got to jam with the Dead's bass player Phil Lesh.
"We played with Phil Lesh when we played at Terrapin Crossroads," remembers Aijala. "That was pretty awesome. Just seeing his handwriting as he charted out a song that me and the other guys wrote. He took the time to chart out songs before we got together. Playing all of our originals with him on bass, and having him in my monitor mix when we were playing a song and hearing that familiar bass line that I heard on all of those numerous bootlegs that I used to have, that same bass tone and that same guy playing the bass was playing in my ears. Ben played along with him and it was awesome. Phil told me, and he didn't tell Ben, I got to tell Ben later and he was super psyched, but Phil told me, 'I will admit that I don't do it very often, but that was arguably the most fun I've ever had with another bass player.' I got to tell Ben that and he was beaming."
Another wonderful night happened a few months ago when Yonder Mountain was able to saw some strings with a future hall of fame artist.
"Last December 28th was the most fun I've had playing a Yonder show in the longest memory that I can have, and that was with Jerry Douglas," Aijala tells The Sitch. "The whole night was with Jerry onstage. It was because he is so great offstage, too, but also because he is so freaking good. And, he brings it, he brings an energy. He probably learned maybe five percent of our music before we went up onstage. I mean, he didn't know anything, and he flippin' killed it. I got to stand next to him the whole night and he has such a great energy coming off of him. He is a big dude. He's kind of tall and I'm kind of short, but he just has this presence and he's such a nice guy. My wife is really tight with Jerry and his wife Jill, so I've known him for a long time. But, we've never played a whole show together."
It is a tremendous thing when a renowned musician lives up to their billing. Playing … and clicking … with Douglas is something that the guys in Yonder Mountain will never forget.
"We know he is great, and we know a lot of really good Dobro players, but to stand next to him and play a whole show is pretty mind-blowing," says Aijala. "I had two people that came up to me that had seen over 150 Yonder shows and they both said that was their favorite show they had ever seen. I don't know if it was, because it is all subjective. For me, it was definitely one of the most fun shows I've played. It was so fun, hearing him solo over all of our songs. He was like, 'Man, I've wanted to play with you guys for a long time.' He was almost apologetic. I'm like, 'Dude, whatever. You're one of the busiest guys I know. You're always doing shows.' I even said to him after the show, 'Please be honest, and I won't be hurt at all, because I know we're cool no matter what. But, would you want to do something like this again? We had a blast.' He said, 'I definitely would.'"
Image Courtesy of Dorothy St. Claire Photography / Yonder Mountain String Band