I’d always loved music, but I was 19 when I came to love a music scene. It was 2008, and Yonder Mountain String Band was a marquee act at festivals around the country, often playing with the same revolving group of musicians at any given event, all riffing on traditional bluegrass in some way. It was in this scene I made some of my closest friends, many of them from Colorado like the artists themselves. Yonder’s mandolin player and vocalist Jeff Austin was the epicenter of it all, the first musician I ever truly loved. I crossed international borders to see him perform. I pursued jobs at Rolling Stone, SPIN, and Relix to write about his music. I moved to Colorado because whenever I came for shows—at the Ogden Theatre, Red Rocks, or Telluride Bluegrass—it felt like home.
I loved almost every band on that festival circuit, but for many years, Yonder was my favorite touring musical act. And Austin was the one who converted me during my first show at the quartet’s Northwest String Summit festival in Oregon. A dynamic musician, Austin could carry any room with his adhoc banter, feverish mandolin, and unbridled showmanship. He once stopped playing a show mid-set because a fan backstage told him a comet was about to go by, and he wanted everyone to watch it together. We did. It was magical.
From his facial expressions while performing to his general, say-anything weirdness, Austin’s theatrics were—and still are—legendary. Sadly, he died in Seattle on June 24, though no cause of death has been released and the circumstances remain unclear. He is survived by his wife and three kids. He was 45.
Austin’s death sent a ripple across the Colorado music community, devastating artists and fans alike. In 1998, when he helped found Yonder, the group was novel, playing bluegrass but incorporating elements of jazz, punk, and jam, taking string music and presenting it as rock and roll. Known more for its live shows than studio albums, the band became incredibly popular, earning a devoted following known as Kinfolk. After he left the group in 2014, he founded the Jeff Austin Band, and until his death, he was a mainstay in the progressive bluegrass scene.
On November 4, a staggering number of musicians, most stalwarts of the scene I came to love through Yonder, will pay tribute to Austin. That list includes but isn’t limited to the Jeff Austin Band, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon, the Infamous Stringdusters, the Travelin’ McCourys, Hot Rize, Keller Williams, Billy Strings, and Yonder Mountain String Band. Each act will perform for 15 minutes with all proceeds benefiting the Jeff Austin Family Fund. Originally slated for the Mission Ballroom (capacity 3,950), the overwhelming interest and support forced a move to the 1stBANK Center in Broomfield (capacity 6,500).
Ahead of the sold-out show, we asked Austin’s friends and fellow Colorado musicians to share a memory.
I played a bunch of shows with Jeff and recorded two records with him. What I really loved was how he was a positive force for music, always wanting to do more all the time—to play more, write more. His forward momentum was contagious in a good way! —Nick Forster, bass guitar, Hot Rize
Jeff Austin played this last New Year’s with us in Chicago, and at the time my partner and I were pregnant with Juniper, my daughter. Jeff, as a father of three, shared some fun fathering advice with me, real Jeff stuff, like, “Don’t forget to look up.” What do you mean ‘look up’? “Your neck is going to be so sore, man.” A week after she was born it was Jeff’s birthday, so I texted him a photo and said, “Oh my god, my neck, you’re so right.” It still makes me laugh when I get a neck sore from staring at my baby. It warms me to think about it. —Paul Hoffman, mandolin and vocals, Greensky Bluegrass
Jeff was one of many of us Midwesterners who found a musical home in the “first mountain to the west,” when he got to Boulder and dove deep into its legendary progressive bluegrass scene. The mark he has left upon it is undeniable. He let us all know it’s alright to make things up, to emote freely, and, above all, to bring joy to the music. —Vince Herman, guitar and vocals, Leftover Salmon
The year is 1999 or 2000, an early year, and the band had just started to find its footing in the ways of jamming. Things were starting to look up—we were selling out tiny venues up and down the West Coast, and we had a gig one night in Portland, Oregon, at the Aladdin Theater. We had started a tune in D, one of the early jammers, and we were moving right along and somehow, without any prompts or cues, we were all playing the theme to the Muppet Show. Jeff knew all the words and his body started flailing around with all this crazy energy, and for a split second he was this cosmic muppet. It was a hilarious risk that brought us into a really great spot that night…That was one of the things with Jeff, he could be intensely theatrical and recognizable as some force everyone could feel. It made sense in the moment, but not logical sense. —Dave Johnston, guitarist, Yonder Mountain String Band
Jeff was a huge supporter of Greensky way back when we were just getting started. He always encouraged us to keep at it. I remember the first time we closed a night at the Northwest String Summit [an Oregon music festival], he came up to me after the set and said, “Dave, that wasn’t just a great set, that was a fucking statement!”
[Another time], we were playing at the stage stop in Rollinsville, Colorado, and he came just to hang and sit in. He served us margaritas on a tray while we were on stage and that just cracked us all up! —Dave Bruzza, guitar and vocals, Greensky Bluegrass
My fondest memories of playing with Jeff were the few Grateful Grass dates that we did with Keller [Williams]. I really admired Jeff’s energy and enthusiasm for the gigs and his dedication to showmanship. When called upon, Jeff would bring the heat! —Keith Moseley, bass guitar, the String Cheese Incident
I really got to know Jeff when the Stringdusters went on tour with YMSB, opening a run of shows and sitting in every night on their set. We were learning a million things a day from the band that built so much of the scene that currently sustains us. Yonder figured so much out with no precedent, and high on that list of lessons was how to connect with a huge room of fans. Jeff Austin was truly a master of that craft. The Dusters have always been so deeply focused on our music and songwriting, but seeing Jeff doing his thing really opened our eyes to crucial aspects of performing. He was deeply present in the moment, immersed in the music and focused on connecting with all that raw energy around him. It really was Jeff’s greatest gift. —Chris Pandolfi, banjo, the Infamous Stringdusters
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