INTERVIEW: Yonder Mountain String Band

Veteran band keeps bringing own brand of bluegrass to a growing fan base

If you are a fan of music festivals, bluegrass, alt-country or jambands, you have probably seen a Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB to a lot of their fans) show recently.

If you haven’t caught them yet, put them on your short list (you won’t be disappointed). You can expect a high-energy jamgrass show that will get you up on your feet.

The 15-year-old Colorado band has been a fixture on the festival circuit for years and this year will be no different as the band will be actively traveling the country to major music festivals including Wakarusa Music Festival, All Good Music Festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Floyd Fest, Strings & Sol and their own party -- the Northwest String Summit.

We spoke with bassist Ben Kaufmann and banjo-guru Dave Johnston to talk about the festival season, the road, new music and their rise to fame.

Active Dayton: You guys are on tour right now … what do you love about being on the road?

Dave Johnston: Well, I would say my favorite part is that there is a lot of down time. It gives you a lot of opportunity to do anything … or nothing. You have time to read a book you are interested in, AND there is this great camaraderie with the guys while traveling on the bus and yelling at the at the same sports team on the TV.

And what is your least favorite part?

DJ: My least favorite part is probably that there is a lot of downtime. Spending a lot of time traveling on the bus and yelling at the at the same sports team with all the guys.  In all seriousness, some of the worst parts happened a little while back when our bus broke down and we had to live in mini-vans. It was a stark reminder of our past.

Ben Kaufmann: First world problems, you know?

How has travel changed over the years?

BK: We’ve been lucky to have experienced slow and steady growth for almost 15 years. We started in an RV and saw sketchy, terrifying things. We were young and brave. We graduated to mini-vans and then vans and to buses now. We have grown from playing bars to bigger clubs to festivals and sometimes we get to play Red Rocks (Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado). 

Personally, I have seen about 20 shows over the years, and I always have thought you guys look like you are having the best time on stage. How do you bring the joy day-in and day-out?

DJ: I try to really remind myself how lucky I am to get to play with such great musicians day-in and day-out. I feel really lucky to get a chance to connect with people, and that they appreciate our music.

You have been together for more than 14 years and probably know a lot about each other … so other than Jeff (Austin) … have any of you perfected what I like to call the “Faces of Jeff?”

DJ: It cannot be perfected. It can only be experienced.

BK: I used to notice it more, but Jeff just really gets into the moment.

Well the fans definitely love it!

Rumor has it you have a new album in the works. True?

BK: Yeah, we are working on it soon in Chicago. We try to work on it on our days off. We work on our days off. (laughs)

As you are on the road most of year, how do you find the time to write new material?

DJ: We have kids now. We used to have down time to pursue writing at home more. Lately, I have to make time and make it an obligation every day to write and work on it each day. No matter how I am feeling, I always try to fulfill my obligation to write. Even if it means just staring at a blank page. I make it a point … like keeping an appointment. It is something that is important.

It seems you have a short break coming up after your west coast tour … how will you recharge your batteries before an aggressive festival season?

BK: I go home and enter a world that is so different than life on the road. I have the family experience with a 14-month-old boy. My sleep schedule flips from late nights to early mornings (and sometimes late nights, too). After a day or two to readjust, I settle in to the most rewarding time. I recently got to watch my son take his first steps. If that doesn’t fill you up and rejuvenate you, I don’t know what would.

Speaking of music festivals … I have to say that I thought your set at All Good last year was one of the highlights of the entire weekend. What is it about All Good that makes you want to come back year after year?

DJ: You would be hard-pressed to find a better person than Tim Walther (All Good Music Festival founder). Tim has always been a great proponent of the band.

BK: Tim is definitely one of the good ones. All Good has always had a great vibe and something really pleasant about it. It is not too intense and really feels like home. Playing music with great friends ... It is just a great time and I hope I can play it for as many years as I can.

You also used to hold a festival at Mulberry Mountain (and are playing Wakarusa this year) … what is your favorite part of playing that venue or that festival?

DJ: Yeah the Harvest Fest. It is definitely the same site, but different scenes. It has been almost 10 years since we have played Wakarusa. And here is another example of a quality individual in Brett (Brett Mosiman) putting together a great festival and lineup.

BK: I am really looking forward to coming back. The festival is 10 years old and I am really looking forward to seeing how it as changed over the years.

While doing these festivals, do you guys get to see a lot of the other acts?

DJ: It really varies by band member. Sometimes I make it a point to check out some music, other times it depends on how I am feeling and what our schedule is like. Jeff and Ben oftentimes do see some more music. Adam (Aijala) seldomly does.

BK: It really varies from festival to festival. At Harvest and Telluride, I often check out a lot of music depending on the vibe. But at a lot of the bluegrass festivals you may seem the same bands playing the exact same set from last year. That’s so foreign to me, and I don’t generally watch because I have seen it already. Usually, I will look at the schedule to see if there is someone I want to catch.

Oftentimes you bring guests onstage to play with you? Who are some of your favorites from the past? And who do you hope to collaborate with this summer?

DJ: I obviously really like the banjoists – someone like Danny Barnes. But I haven’t really checked out this year’s festival lineups to know who we might collaborate with.

BK: I really enjoyed playing with Victor Wooten and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. We did a show where we transitioned each band member one-by-one until the entire band had swapped out. It was remarkable playing with Victor who told us beforehand that he didn’t really play upright bass. Then he comes out on stage and he is all kinds of great. Guest sit-ins are always a surprise, but generally anyone can sit in with us. There are no limitations as to who qualifies. That’s such a wonderful thing. Really in the moment improv stuff. It is a great thing about being in this band.

You also play host to your own festival? How did you go from playing festivals to hosting your own? How involved are you in band selection and logistics?

DJ: Yeah the Northwest String Summit. It kind of just happened. I don’t want to say it fell into our laps, but we were playing Dexter Lake and we got the opportunity to throw our own party. It is fun to try to manage to get who we want there. We have a broad sense of input to suggest bands. There are a great group of guys that help us run it and they help us coordinate and make it successful.


To see Yonder Mountain String Band this summer, be sure to check out on one of the following festivals.

 At Legend Valley (formerly Buckeye Lake Music Center) near Columbus:

All Good Music Festival:

 Take a road trip:

Wakarusa Music Festival:

Northwest String Summit:

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