The (Original) Yonder Mountain String Band // Photo Credit Unknown
It?s difficult for me to describe how much Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB), their former frontman Jeff Austin, and the wider bluegrass community mean to me. I first discovered this beautiful world in 2007 when I was a freshman at UVM. My older cousin gave me a ring and said, ?Do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to Yonder. They?re playing next week in Burlington. You won?t regret it!? I took his advice on a whim and went into the show blind. Long story short, that night blew my mind. I had experienced something so special and unique, exhilarating and rich, it resulted in an insatiable urge to to dig deeper.
Stemming from that experience I immersed myself in the bluegrass scene ? I met local bands, attended every show that came through town, researched the history and lineage of the music, went to several bluegrass festivals each summer, taught myself banjo and guitar, hunted down the most obscure albums ? this world has helped me feel grounded, and sharing this passion is a way I?m able to express myself. However beyond serving as my introduction to this world, the meaning of YMSB to me goes way beyond that with respect to both the music itself as well as the community surrounding it.
Let?s start with the music. While Bluegrass has been around since the early days of Bill Monroe (1940s), with several generations of evolution, the guys in Yonder are pioneers in the progressive bluegrass sound. Along with Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, they undoubtably carried the torch from one generation of fans to another while reinventing the sound to stay modern and as exciting as ever. In addition to Bluegrass, YMSB also exposed me to so many amazing artists that I hadn?t heard of, or hadn?t yet fully appreciated. Just in that first time seeing them, the two night run in Vermont 2007, they covered Frank Zappa, John Hartford, The Allman Brothers, The Beatles, Willie Nelson, The Misfits, Danny Barnes, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and more. That?s in addition to their many amazing originals. I?ll spare you from listing out the dozens of other diverse artists they cover, as well as many more they may not cover directly, but have provided visibility to in other ways. They are true stewards of a wide spectrum of the musical art form and they are a big influence of my passion for and appreciation of music.
Beyond the music is the thriving community within which they exist. YMSB was my introduction to this crazy Bluegrass / Newgrass / Jamgrass movement and community that I am still deeply connected to today 12+ years later. This community includes so many musicians, artists, fans, enthusiasts, dancers, and more? across generations. Perhaps the biggest thing that sets it apart is how many fans play the music themselves. It?s a way of life more so than an occasional concert. To experience this if you?re not familiar, make your way to a bluegrass festival sometime and walk around the campgrounds. You?d be amazed to see that you can?t walk 50 feet without passing a group of friends picking some tunes at their campsite, or kids busking for change, or complete strangers trading licks around a fire at 2am flocked by a whole dance party? moonshine flowing ?.
I?ve become more connected to this community as I get older. I have met so many friends because of it. I?ve grown closer to family because of it. I have Memorial Day pre-booked in perpetuity for DelFest, my favorite event of the year which Jeff and YMSB were always a part of. I also have the third weekend in July booked in perpetuity for GreyFox, my other favorite event which I spend with a growing group of family which includes my cousin who called me on that fateful day in 2007. Saying that Jeff Austin and YMSB have simply influenced me would be an understatement. The energy that this movement emits has become a major part of my identity and influences both my day to day as well as my broader goals and aspirations.
A great picture of Jeff doing what he loved // Photo James DeWalt Photography
Well, now the sad part. Over this past summer our lovely community took a big, unexpected hit. On June 24 2019, Jeff Austin, former frontman of YMSB, a legend in his own time, and one of my biggest musical heroes, passed away tragically as a result of depression which led to an alleged suicide. He was 45 years old and left behind a wife and three young kids. In what was already a difficult year for me for other reasons the news left me kind of numb, especially the circumstances surrounding his death. The thing is, I can relate to the negative feelings people go through ? misalignment, fear, anxiety, depression, isolation, loneliness, etc ? and I personally have spent much of the last 12 months addressing the shame and denial commonly associated with this state of mind in order to figure out how to heal. I?ve been focused on taking responsibility for my own happiness, and taking control of my future. It?s been a transformative process to say the least? acknowledging, letting go, and redefining how I operate in a way that is more in alignment with my true self ? what makes me feel happy.
Through this process the most critical takeaway for me has been the realization that everyone is on their own journey, inevitably filled with high highs and low lows. One can either get swept away by it or take the reins and own it. Even people who seem untouchable and radically successful have their demons. We?re all humans with vulnerabilities. There?s no room for judgement. I?ve come to understand the importance of self acceptance and self care, and taking seriously the fact that life is short and personal happiness is a variable within your control, but requires real effort. Effort may include changing your eating or exercise habits, tweaking your outward identity, saying no when you used to say yes, and/or even more significant life changes.
Unfortunately, some people reach the point where they are unable to see this perspective on their own. Their brain tricks them into thinking it?s easier to be complacent in suffering, to try and take shortcuts, or to find an easy out rather than take a big risk (of relationships, career, finances, ego, identity, sobriety, etc) for the potential of long term happiness. At this point it requires outside help, or a major life event to trigger the willingness to change. I don?t want to speculate, but I suspect Jeff was in this type of situation. He needed help and it didn?t come in time. I view his unfortunate passing as a sad lesson that you can?t ignore these thought patterns forever because they will inevitably spiral beyond your control.
I know this is heavy, but it?s so important to talk about. I felt compelled to write and share my thoughts for two main reasons. First, I wanted to acknowledge and memorialize the life of one of my largest influences who died too young. It?s been difficult for me to write or post anything about this because I?ve been unsure of what I actually have to say on the matter, and what my point is beyond an expression of grief. I?m just starting to find clarity here, which leads to my second reason for writing this: I want people to learn from the situation and understand that mental health is the same thing as physical health. Your brain is part of your body. If you consistently struggle to feel happy, or have a positive outlook, or to feel in control, that?s something that needs to be addressed and there are many simple ways to make incremental positive improvements that can lead to profound leaps in self-esteem and more generally quality of life.
There is a lot of unwarranted stigma around mental health and I hope people begin to keep a more open mind around it, leaning in when they see a friend struggle instead of becoming distant. So many people around us, across all walks of life, suffer from issues related to anxiety, depression, identity, substance abuse, burn out, and more. Often these issues are completely invisible, but my hope is that as mental health awareness increases people will feel more comfortable reaching out for help, and their friends and family will feel more comfortable and empathetic in support.
We can all take lessons from this tragedy and apply them to our own community, however you define your community. If you are struggling inside, just know there are a lot of people that can relate and it is so important to (1) take care of and prioritize your Self, (2) find a person or community to confide in (a family member, a friend, a therapist, an online support group, etc), and (3) visualize a brighter tomorrow. The goal is acceptance and peace of mind, which I think is a prerequisite to a happy, healthy, ?successful? life. It?s possible to get there with patience and trust in your path forward. You got this! ?
I was in Denver last week attending a Jeff Austin Memorial Benefit to honor his legacy and raise money for his family. 7,000 people showed up as well as 50+ artists to perform. Damn. Nearly every bluegrass hero of mine, minus Jeff, sharing a stage and donating their time and talent for the greater good. It was so moving, and reinforced the sense of family and community so present in the Bluegrass scene that I am proud to be a small part of.
Encore of ?What The Night Brings ? A Tribute to Jeff Austin? | Denver Colorado | November 4, 2019
The picture above is of the encore of the main event at 1st Bank Arena where every musician participating did one final song together to honor Jeff. The musical equivalent of a 21 gun salute, so to speak. All my heroes in one place, to see our friend JA through to the other side. I?ve never experienced anything like this. Moving beyond words.
RIP Jeff Austin ?. Thank you for exposing me to this community and thank you for sharing these lessons with all of us. #KeepOnGoing