High On A Hilltop: Yonder Mountain String Band to headline Canton Labor Day

Where to from here?

It’s the lingering question within bluegrass and string circles nowadays. Amid the traditional pickers and grinners, there is an urgency arising in recent years, one that wonders just what will happen to the beloved, deeply held music once the last of the elder statesmen vanish.

In my travels, I’m usually one of the few folks under the age of 50 at a lot of these traditional bluegrass and string music festivals, where the audience is a sea of white hair and walking canes. It’s not to say the music is old and out-of-touch — far from — but what remains is the question of who will carry the torch that keeps finding its way into my ears from someone’s grandparent or an old-time picker, all just as curious as I am as to what the future holds for the fate of the music. 

And yet, I can respond with confidence to these queries. I know where those younger folks are, and I know damn well how much they adore that high, lonesome sound. Head out the door for a Steep Canyon Rangers or Greensky Bluegrass performance — they’re all there. And at the beginning of this 21st century revival was Yonder Mountain String Band, an ensemble that continues to be at the forefront of the modern evolution of a genre as much a moving target as a staple of this country’s identity.

Formed in Colorado in 1998, Yonder Mountain overtook the Rocky Mountains and the festival circuit with their own unique tone, one seamlessly blending bluegrass, string and Americana. They hit the road, and hit it hard, a place they’ve called home for the better part of two decades. For them, it’s about the live experience, where you connect into a feeling of something bigger than yourself, that idea of community and camaraderie — trademarks of the string music circles, and also the Grateful Dead, which the band points to as another paint stroke of influence on their improvisational capabilities. 

At the center of Yonder Mountain is founder and banjoist Dave Johnston. Checking in from Colorado before the quintet heads for the 110th Canton Labor Day Festival on Sept. 4, Johnston spoke of how the Yonder Mountain has been able to gracefully straddle modern and traditional string circles, how the band is shifting its focus since co-founder Jeff Austin departed, and why Miles Davis is the perfect example of where bluegrass is headed in the 21st century. 

Smoky Mountain News: You know, in the entire time Yonder Mountain has been together, we’ve seen the high water mark and total collapse of the music industry, in terms of record sales and marketing power. How were you able to find footing through all of that?

Dave Johnston: That’s a great question and a really good observation. I don’t have a solid answer on that. But, if you look at it from a marketing perspective, you make things you hope that people will buy. We’ve never been that band. We’ve mostly been a band that follows our influences. In terms of being involved with our music on other levels, like marketability and “how this will go over, does it sound enough like Band X but just a little different of a sound to carve our niche?” Well, we’ve never been like that or tried to do that. The only way to really find solid footing is to keep your ears to the ground and keep listening to the music you like listening to. Pay attention to the things in that music that makes you feel good, and find out why it makes you feel good. Be involved in what you’re listening to, this listening with your whole heart type of thing. You need to make something good enough to steal. Something you’ll be listening to and your buddy will want to take it because they want to listen to it, too. 

SMN: And with bands like Steep Canyon Rangers, Greensky Bluegrass or Yonder Mountain, I see this disconnect from the old school, where the younger crowds are at your shows, but perhaps the older folks aren’t on board with it. So, a gap kind of occurs when there needs to be a bridge, which is what those three bands do provide. 

DJ: Yeah, absolutely. We did a whole panel about that at the IBMAs (International Bluegrass Music Association awards). “How did you manage to do this?” they’d ask. And there is a sort of disconnect. It’s the older crowd versus the younger crowd. And they each have different expectations when going to the show. I think younger people like a rowdier, louder atmosphere, where they might be a little less beholden to accuracy and precision and more about the feeling of what is happening. There’s definitely room for both sides, I think any band that has a banjo in it who loves Earl Scruggs is going to at least try to sound as clean as Earl or Bela Fleck, or any of the greats, because they paved the way. Even if you’re a young player in a jam-grass band, you’re not going to go up there to sound bad. It’s definitely a “here it all is” kind of idea. 

SMN: I remember when I asked Graham Sharp (Steep Canyon Rangers) similar questions, he pointed to Miles Davis, saying if you played Miles to someone from the 1920s they’d say that wasn’t jazz, and yet if you played Miles to someone today they’d say he is the backbone of jazz. 

DJ: It’s totally spot on. You know, Miles Davis is such an interesting example. Before him, it was Dizzy Gillespie. And you had to play like Dizzy to be considered bebop. If you can’t play “Salt Peanuts” then what’s the big deal? The truth is because Miles Davis decided not to play “Salt Peanuts” that we get “Bitches Brew.” You know, the evolution happens as much from your limitations as your talents. And there’s a sort of thing going on with the traditional bluegrass world where they don’t want it to really be altered that much. 

SMN: How has Yonder Mountain changed since Jeff left? 

DJ: I think we’ve evolved more into a traditional sector. We definitely are playing more towards a traditional ensemble sound with a five-piece band than with the four-piece. That said, we still stretch out into that jam territory. We can take that five-person set and make it into a full jam sound, something we’d like to happen as a feeling within our sound rather than an actual intent. Learning to trust in your sound and let it go into those jam dimensions — it’s definitely something that I think about.

SMN: What has a life being in music taught you about what it means to be a human being?

DJ: The banjo will always be compelling to me, it’ll always be in my head that I want to get better at it. I feel I can still listen to Earl Scruggs and it’s still mind blowing. I’m wonderfully fortunate and grateful to be able to play music everyday. The poet T.S. Eliot once said, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire, is the wisdom of humility — humility is endless.” You’re not in the world for careerism or perfectionism or to be upwardly mobile, you’re here to share and enjoy, and hopefully with that in mind, you can lift someone up, including yourself. It’s that opportunity to be part of something around you, which is an important part of consciousness. And I think music has helped point me in the direction of thinking about the day-to-day, those benchmarks and signposts. We’re really in the business of helping people find better times — good poetry does that, good music does that. It’s totally available and yet I think it escapes people — it even escapes me sometimes, too.



Want to go?

The 110th Canton Labor Day Festival will be held Sept. 4-5 in downtown. The weekend event will host a wide range of live music, family activities, food vendors, and more. 

Sunday, Sept. 4 at Sorrells Street Park 

• 1 p.m. — Grey Wolfe

• 2 p.m. — Running Wolfe & Renegades 

• 3 p.m. — Cold Mountain Bluegrass

• 4 p.m. — Mile High

• 6 p.m. — Lyric

• 7:30 p.m. — Joe Lasher Jr. 

• 9 p.m. — Yonder Mountain String Band

Sunday, Sept. 4 at The Colonial Theatre

• The “Mountain Gospel Experience” from noon to 5 p.m. featuring Ila Knight, The Reggie Saddler Family and The Purpose Quartet.

Monday, Sept. 5 at Sorrells Street Park

• Noon — Vintage County and Clogging

• 3 p.m. — Matthew Curry

• 6 p.m. — Mountain Faith

• 8 p.m. — Balsam Range

All events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.cantonlaborday.com

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