By Barry Gilbert
Jeff Austin’s career path was set. He was going to a college conservatory of music, taking acting and dance, and auditioning for shows. Next stop: Broadway. Then, after 100 or so Grateful Dead shows, he decided he’d rather play in a band. Trouble was, he barely played guitar.
That was 21 years ago. Now 39, Austin is an accomplished mandolin player and a founding member of the Yonder Mountain String Band. He is branching out with an upcoming solo project, and he’s bringing a side band, the Here and Now, to the Old Rock House in St. Louis on Sept. 4.
The Here and Now, Austin says, is and will be what its name implies: Jeff Austin and whoever is available and willing to play with him at any particular time. For this tour, his bandmates include banjo magician Danny Barnes, guitarist Larry Keel and bassist Jenny Keel.
Austin’s biography says he had his epiphany about playing in a band at a Dead show, and I told him during a recent phone conversation – coincidentally on the anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death – that I had pictured him in a cloud of smoke, twirling in a circle in front of the stage with long-haired girls in flowing, flowery dresses. Not so, Austin says with a chuckle.
“God’s honest truth: I did 98 Grateful Dead shows from 1987 to 1995, and I was never screwed up at any of them,” he said from a “a parking lot underneath a semicloudy sky in Omaha, Nebraska,” during a Yonder Mountain tour. “That’s because my mom introduced me to them and she said, ‘Make sure you always pay attention to what’s going on and enjoy the moment, because it could be gone.’”
The epiphany happened to the former student cast member of “Carousel” during an extended spring break during his first – and last – year of college at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
“I had a group of friends who were going off to do two weeks of Grateful Dead tour, and I went out and made that run,” Austin says. “Just watching the exchange between a band and a crowd. I couldn’t play an instrument then (other than a few) chords on a guitar. And there was something there that said to me: ‘You’ve got to be honest with yourself, you’ve got to be honest with yourself, because if you don’t do it now, you’re 18 years old, if you don’t do this now, you get a shot, you get one shot at this.”
Austin, who had been aiming for Broadway since beginning high school, says he probably would not have made it through his sophomore year of college because he was auditioning for stage shows that would have taken him out of college anyway. And he credits his mom, Eileen Austin, with supporting his big step.
“My mom said, ‘You gotta be honest with yourself,’” Austin says. “I said, all right. I don’t know how, but I want to be in a band. I know I don’t play anything, and I know I haven’t written any music, but I want to be in a band.
“When I say it out loud as a 39-year-old man now, oh my God, oh my God, my mother must have had a heart attack, as much as she believed in me,” Austin laughs.
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Austin took that step, moving to his home state of Illinois and working at WEFT radio in the Champagne-Urbana area in the late ’90s. There he met future Yonder brother Dave Johnston, who asked Austin to join his band, the Bluegrassholes, and – oh, yeah – learn to play the mandolin. Austin explains:
“I had a very loosely based guitar foundation. I never envisioned myself as a lead player, I liked the idea of chordal accompaniment (behind) a lead player. All those years watching Bob Weir play with Jerry Garcia. My God, the framework that he would give to Garcia and what (Garcia) was able to create off of it. … So I became obsessed with the idea of accompanying a solo artist. Chord variations – I would learn how to make an A chord on the guitar, and I would go OK, well, if I move my finger here, that note works, not knowing that it was a Flat 5 or whatever, not knowing those augmentations. Because even though I came from a musical background, it was not theory-based, it was ear-based. I didn’t learn it by reading the page, I learned it by hearing the notes. …
“I noticed with the mandolin that it was an accompanying instrument. It provides the chop sound, it would provide an open rhythm. … And then, a few years later when I found bluegrass, I went, what in the hell are they doing? Oh, my God.”
Austin cites musical influences including John Hartford, Norman Blake and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But his biggest influence is mandolinist Sam Bush, whose band New Grass Revival expanded the boundaries of bluegrass and acoustic music in the ’70s and ’80s.
“Sam Bush is one of the dearest people in my life, not just on a professional level, but a personal level,” Austin says. “He gives me fatherly advice and brotherly advice. For me, there may be people who technically rate higher, but I would hard-pressed to find a better mandolin player on the planet than Sam Bush.”
Austin says that if New Grass, Hartford, NGDB and Blake “hadn’t had that fortitude to stretch it out, where would we be and how much longer would it have taken for somebody else to come along? (People) say, well somebody else would have come along. I say, yeah, but they didn’t. Without New Grass – such a huge influence. Mandolin solos don’t have to be 35 seconds long. You can play it through distortion and weird effects.”
Austin considers himself an accompanist in the Here and Now, forming the rhythm section with Jenny Keel. The band has released a four-track EP recorded live at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colo. It includes new looks at Yonder Mountain’s “Rag Doll” and “What the Night Brings,” and two Austin solo efforts: “Run Down” and “Fiddlin’ Around,” the latter of which was recorded by country star Dierks Bentley.
Austin first played with Barnes and the husband-and-wife Keels for – what else – a tribute show to the music of the Dead’s Garcia two years ago.
“I was hired at a festival to put on a set of Garcia music, like a tribute set,” he says. “I think the person who hired me was thinking I was going to do all these popular Grateful Dead songs that everybody knows, and I decided to get weird with it and do the songs nobody does, or not many people try to do. And the first people I thought of were (Barnes and the Keels). What fun would it be to pull this off with the three of them? And when we got together and we were rehearsing the material and when we played the set, there was so much genuine energy behind it. It blew my mind, it was such a natural conversation that it was undeniable.”
Barnes first made an impression on Austin when Austin heard Barnes’ band, the Bad Livers, in 1996. He met the Keels about 15 years ago when Yonder Mountain String Band formed.
Barnes is, to put it mildly, a different kind of banjo player, utilizing laptops and electronics during his solo shows and playing atop all of that. Austin says he’ll meet rock ‘n’ rollers at festivals who have never heard of Barnes, but he’ll recommend the banjo whiz and say, “Go home, download as much as you can. I’ll see them a year later and they’ll go, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t stop listening.’ It’s an amazing life that guy has led and how many people he has inspired.
“And Larry Keel is the same thing. That guy’s gonna be at the top (of) bluegrass, acoustic, Americana guitar players and songwriters. His songwriting skills are amazing. And Jenny Keel playing bass – the rhythm section turns out to be me and her. She puts the rhythm right where I love it to be, and it’s really an effortless, open flow between the two of us.
“It’s fun to back them up, too. To play rhythm behind some of the best rhythmic musicians on the planet, I mean they are unbelievable, their timing. It’s a joy in all ways.”