The bluegrass world lost a big figure on Monday, when word came down that former Yonder Mountain String Band frontman and founder Jeff Austin had passed away in a Seattle hospital.
The news came just days after a Facebook announcement that cited a “medical emergency” as reason why Jeff would be unable to play his upcoming sets.
At the age of 45, in a genre that cares little about age, Jeff was in a great position to be able to make music for a long time. I think of the tragic loss, and what Jeff’s musical career and life could have been. And I think about his family and his three kids, and it’s hard not to be crushed by this news.
I got to know Jeff a little when he stopped by the Colorado Daily’s Second Story Garage studio to record some songs. Search for his name along with “Second Story Garage” on YouTube and you will find them. He did a pair of great songs for us, and he recorded an interview with the Daily Camera’s Quentin Young, flanked by Lyons-based bassist Eric Thorin.
I was a fan of Jeff because of his intelligence and his serious can-do attitude. He was your classic autodidact, teaching himself how to play mandolin for goodness’ sake, and assuming the role of crowd manipulator with ease and aplomb. His 110% on-stage effort and his wild-eyed, emphatic delivery were calculated necessities for that human-to-human interaction he would speak about.
The story behind his mandolin chops (or rather the lack thereof) when he started to play professionally is one I really enjoy. I can only imagine that banjo player Dave Johnston saw the same gleeful music rage within Jeff that I did in our studio recordings years later, because way back in the day, he made Jeff the singer and mando player of his new band The Bluegrassholes. Great name.
According to lore, Jeff started as a singer and told Dave that he owned a mandolin, but he didn’t really know how to play it. Dave said to just show up and “play anything, just play fast and loud.”
Years later when he stopped by our studio in 2014, he went into more detail about his playing. He said he was almost completely self-taught, even to that day, and said that for most of his career with Yonder, he played by ear and memory, as he would for our set. That is doing it the hard way, my friends, but he could pull it off.
I was working at Denver’s Rocky Mountain News in 2008 when the Democratic National Convention was in town to promote Obama as the chosen presidential candidate. Party staffers, looking for an energetic Colorado-based group to fire up the base, smartly tapped YMSB to be the musical headliner at the nomination acceptance party. It’s easy to make the argument that Jeff’s energy greatly helped bring that to fruition.
And again, I marvel at the spirit of a man that largely had placed himself upon that stage that night, with his self-made skills illuminated in front of the world. That’s how I remember Jeff Austin, because for me, that’s the real story.
If you’d like to contribute and help Jeff’s family with medical expenses and more, please head to sweetrelief.org/jeff-austin-fund.