Let’s get one thing immediately straight: Yonder Mountain String Band will not pass muster in places like Harriman, Tennessee or Etowah, Georgia or Galax, Virginia. Those are places where the most raw and traditional forms of bluegrass music germinate. Only rarely has a band of “fer’ners” succeeded in capturing the hillbilly muse — most notably Washington, D.C.’s Country Gentlemen with their spooky cover of “Can’t You Hear Me Callin'” over three decades ago. As a rule you either have it in your blood or you don’t. And when those who lack it venture into the unforgiving territory of traditional ‘grass, it’s a nasty tumble down the mountainside.
It’s not all about musicianship, Earl Scruggs notwithstanding. There’s an elusive quality called “the high lonesome sound”. The best example of that this year has been the song “Windy City” by Hoyt Herbert & the Strings of Five, a howling ballad about a country girl who ditches her lover for the bright lights of Chicago. The lead vocalist on the song sounds like he’s dying. It shivers your timbers. When this feature is missing, a traditional bluegrass song will have no more authenticity than Placido Domingo covering “Man of Constant Sorrow”.
Yonder Mountain String Band hail from Rederland, Colorado. They look like four college psych majors; they claim to play this thing called “jamgrass”. Their press release speaks of the big splash YMSB made at the Fillmore in San Francisco. That shouldn’t be a surprise — for the Fillmore crowd Jerry Garcia probably personified the best of bluegrass. It’s no different from the folks who think Eric Clapton embodies the blues. But the press kit goes on to mention YMSB’s invitation to play the main stage at the Grand Ole Opry. My interest is suddenly piqued.
The first six tracks of Town by Town are so cliched they are utterly forgettable. Here we go again, I thought, another bunch of highly-skilled, smart-aleck musicians who just don’t get it. I can’t tell you much about those six tracks except “Must’ve Had Your Reasons”. After the opening verse my impression was, “Good Lord! Are they trying to sound like John Denver?”
I was nigh unto throwing this disc into the woods when the seventh track “Wildewood Drive” came up. All of a sudden it was as if an entirely different record occupied my CD player. The instrumental track, written by guitarist Adam Aijala, has a quirky but creative quality similar to “What If”-era Dixie Dregs. More importantly, this piece redefines the tenuous role played by lead acoustic guitar in bluegrass music. As a rule, most purists prefer bluegrass guitar as strictly a rhythm instrument. Usually the pace of a song slows and the other instruments are forced mute themselves to accommodate a cumbersome guitar lead. Not so with Aijala. His playing displays not only nimbleness but authoritative amplitude. Furthermore, the other musicians take their leads into unorthodox places.
Bassist Ben Kaufmann is apt to throw some jazz licks into his work. On “New Horizons” he does the unexpected, drawing a bow over his strings in a menacing groove counterpoint to Jeff Austin’s nervous mandolin plucking. In fact, the whole song commits heresy against standard bluegrass conventions, in this case with surprising results. “New Horizons” rambles along like an extended Allman Brothers piece — hence the “jamgrass” concept. The question is, why only two examples of this on Town by Town?
By far the best track on the album is “Hog Potato” featuring the talents of banjo-picker Dave Johnston. The song opens with a marvelous theme based on the deft transition from D major to D7. It’s one of those changes the student of banjo can instantly recognize then struggle for hours to master. Johnston beautifully implements bends and pull-offs, and manages to throw all the tricks you knew were available on the 5-string without sounding gaudy. The song states its parallel ideas then repeats them over five choruses, allowing the YMSB members to elaborate strikingly off-kilter leads.
A song like “Hog Potato” works because it undermines the listener’s expectations and restates conventional ideas with an ironic twist. That is the quality Thelonious Monk brought to jazz piano and, in scattered places, YMSB achieves the same on Town by Town. The band is at its best when it moves away from mainstream bluegrass and pursues its own idiosyncrasies.
I hope that in upcoming projects the members of Yonder Mountain String Band will dispense with trying to summon what they don’t have, and instead expand on the nuance they have uncorked — that good ol’ Rocky Mountain Way.