Jeff Austin knew what his first order of business would be when he set out to become a solo artist. The plan was to disengage — not from music, but from the rigors and rewards of a 16½ -year tenure with the bluegrass-savvy jam troupe Yonder Mountain String Band.
A solo record was already in the works before he parted ways with the group. But the idea of immediately hitting the road again after his split with Yonder in April 2014 was not part of the agenda.
"I took the majority of last year off because it was good for me just to be at home, be a dad, be a husband, garden, grow a beard, all of that," Austin said. "To be able to do that really helped reset my head and say, 'I can't just go out and do the same thing.' I didn't want my next project to be a cookie cutter of what I had been doing. So what was it that I wanted to do? When I asked myself that, the answer was really clear in my head."
That answer was to gather some of the pals he teamed with for his debut solo album The Simple Truth — most notably, banjo innovator Danny Barnes — and tour with the same bluegrass-based instrumentation adopted by Yonder Mountain (mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass) but with a wholly new musical philosophy.
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"The main difference between what I'm doing now and what I did before is we really dig deeply into the lows and the highs. What I mean by that is I've learned as I've grown up and moved on that you don't have to be blasting at full throttle all the time. You can play with tempos and grooves and volume — dynamics, really — of everything rhythmic and sonic. If you play at a 10 at all times, people are going to become numb. The reaction I get out of people now is so different to everything I've known. I say this in full respect to what I've done in the past. It's just different musicians with different thought processes of how to get where you're going."
Barnes departed what became the Jeff Austin Band in August, allowing banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh to join Austin, guitarist Ross Martin and bassist Eric Thorin to explore string music concepts with songs they plan on recording after Thanksgiving for a four-song EP disc and again in February for a full-length album that might surface in stores as early as next summer.
"The group dynamic now, for me, is just a blast," Austin said. "I'm in a band with three guys who are basically college and stage educated in the jazz world. They can improv like nobody's business. It's been really fun. It's been really light-hearted. There is a lot of openness in the music itself. Then there is the connection we have as people and as friends. We take that onstage and it shows."
But what of the split with Yonder Mountain? That, Austin said, is not so easily explained.
"I haven't really talked a lot about this much, but what I will tell you is that there was a real defined two path. There was one way I wanted to go and one way the other guys in the band wanted to go. At the end of the day, the best thing for all of us, whether it was known at the time or not, was to go in different ways.
"The thing is when you're in business with people for 16½ years and it ends, it's not the most fun thing in the world. The decision was made at a very calculated time. Amicable is the best way to put it."
Austin said, however, that a few of his tunes from his Yonder Mountain days, along with songs from The Simple Truth, find their way into his current shows. But his primary focus and greatest sense of artistic excitement come from the new music he is just now tuning audiences into.
"I have everything I could hope for. It's a new business now, so I have all the credit cards and all the bills. That's one side of it. The other side is I'm able to create whatever music that I want with a group of musicians that are so open to contributing to it. I'm very happy with the place I'm able to be in."