To say that Yonder Mountain String Band bassist Ben Kaufmann has a lot on his mind of late is perhaps understatement of the year.

As the long-running Colorado progressive bluegrass institution prepares to headline the opening night of Denver Comes Alive 2023 on Friday, January 13th, Live For Live Music contributor Rex Thomson, a.k.a. Rex-A-Vision, caught up with Kaufmann to discuss the group’s recent Grammy Award nomination, navigating changing band lineups, and more. Read a transcript of the conversation below, edited for length and clarity.

Live For Live Music: Yonder Mountain String Band is headlining bluegrass night of Denver Comes Alive at the Mission Ballroom [January 13th–14th, 2023]. When you’re topping the bill at an event like that, does it affect your set-writing or preparations in any way?

Ben Kaufmann: Not really, I’d say we prepare for each show similarly. Right now, we have a rotating fifth member. For the Denver Comes Alive show we’ll be playing with (DCA artist-at-large) Jason Carter, who everybody should know from Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys. He’s arguably the best bluegrass fiddler on the planet, though he’d probably tell you Michael Cleveland is.

We love Jason about as much as we love his fiddle playing. We’ll spend some time, before the show, in the woodshed with him, just getting the repertoire together. We have started to bring back some old Yonder stuff. It’s good for us, as well, because we’re sorta going back to the beginning here—not so much relearning but re-interpreting the spirit of the songs.

Music is so much more than just the notes you’re playing. It’s the energy you put behind it, the spirit, the performance. Jason just has something he brings to the performance that just exists on another level. At this point, he’s one of the most studied fiddle talents. There’s nobody in the younger generation that hasn’t listened to and learned from Jason Carter.

Live For Live Music: Shows like these provide some great opportunities for sit-ins and special guests. Anyone else on this diverse lineup you may be interested in collaborating with?

Ben Kaufmann: Oh yeah, I’m sure! I think so much of that we like to figure out the day of the show. It’s about who you run into as you wander around the venue and check out everyone’s sound checks. The spirit of music has always been, ultimately, collaborative. I have to believe we’ll have someone from The Kitchen Dwellers, at least maybe Torrin [Daniels] on banjo? Their band is very familiar with a good portion of the Yonder repertoire, so I don’t think it’d be too much brain damage to have him sit in. Then, we’ll see who else is down to pick some. It’s always nice to end a big evening and have a big pick, hopefully have a representative from every band out, end the evening in that collaborative spirit.

Live For Live Music: That’s an enticing tease. There’s a pretty powerful ensemble of ladies on the bill in the form of Maggie Rose with her band and the all-star WinterWonderWomen with the likes of
Lindsay Lou, Bridget Law from The Tierro Band and Elephant Revival—who I know you’ve worked with in the past—Mimi Naja from Fruition, and many more. That could be ripe for recruitment.

Ben Kaufmann: Oh, we’ve had Lindsay sit in a double handful of times at this point, she’s great. Mimi, she’s a power unto herself. Emma Rose we just saw at our festival down in Mexico (Strings and Sol) and maybe she’ll wanna come out and do that ‘double bass’ jam that we do sometimes. That could be cool. We’ll definitely recruit one, two, or more of them to come and jam if they want.

L4LM: Yonder recently lost its own “lady-in-residence,” Allie Kral, who recently left the band after eight years to focus on her family and mental health. How are you all handling the hole in the lineup after Jason Carter finishes his little run with Yonder?

Ben Kaufmann: We’re lucky to know so many people in the bluegrass part of the music scene. We’ve basically just been enlisting our friends. We’ve played a ton of shows recently with Jake Simpson from The Lil Smokies. He is just straight fire, that guy. Man, he is incredible. Nick Piccininni can play, like, every instrument, so we’ve even done some shows where he moves over to fiddle position and we bring in guest mandolin players. That’s been interesting, especially for me. The relationship between the bass and the mandolin is, at least for bluegrass, pretty critical. Obviously it’s most critical rhythmically. It was definitely interesting as to how they played their chops next to my downbeat.

We’ve been having a lot of fun with the “Floating fifth member.” Going back to 2012 when we decided Jeff [Austin] wasn’t going to be playing with us anymore, we wanted to figure out who was going to be playing mandolin for us pretty quickly. We didn’t feel like we had a lot of time or space to figure out who was going to be at that position. This time, when Allie decided she couldn’t be on the road anymore, we decided to just take it easy with our plans moving forward.

It’s a little different this time in that Yonder was born as a four-piece and we can easily make music as a four-piece if we wanted to. Speaking generally, the band doesn’t wanna continue playing songs as a four-piece. We like having someone at the fiddle position. Having gone through lineup changes and position changes, we’re just a lot more comfortable with it now. After having gone through such a big change earlier with Jeff, his being such a big personality… it’s like we’ve already been through the fire.

This latest transition hasn’t been stressful at all. Allie got to a point in her life where she needs to be home. Being on the road… it’s hard. I can speak to this as the father of a young son. It keeps you away from your family. That’s just the nature of the beast, especially in a band like ours. If we travel with a tour bus we travel in one tour bus. We’re not like Phish or Dave Matthews Band where everyone has their own tour bus and you can bring your family with you, or hire a nanny and a homeschool teacher.

It’s very hard on me but I freely admit it sure appears to be exponentially more challenging for a mom. In Allie’s case, she was away from her kid really from year one on. It’s pretty hard to square that, just thinking of it from my own perspective as a parent. You’re missing so much of your child’s life. That can even be those critical moments… first words, first steps, first days of school, birthdays…

That can be pretty hard to justify. Yonder Mountain String Band… we’re not millionaires. If we were operating on a different scale, it might be a bit more justifiable, financially… maybe. But we’re very much still just a working-class band. It’s a labor of love. But on the other side of that scale, your family is also a labor of love. For Allie, as we watched her navigate the challenges she faced, it didn’t come as any surprise to us when she said she needed to be home. She had and has our full support in making that transition, and I think she made the right decision.

Live For Live Music: So, no pick for a permanent replacement for her as of yet?

Ben Kaufmann: We’re not even asking ourselves that kind of question yet. We’re having such a good time with the rotating member thing. It creates such a spark of energy at each show, having these new fiddle players. It’s just been too exciting for us that we wanna keep the position open for now. One cool thing: we’re gonna go to the Grammys in February. We got nominated for our first Grammy, for Best Bluegrass Record!

L4LM: Hot diggity! How excited are you for that?

Ben Kaufmann: I think it’s great! We were operating under the assumption that they, The Recording Academy, just couldn’t care less about us or we weren’t even on their radar—in the same way Yonder has always felt like sort of an outsider’s entity. And just the way we work as human beings, the last thing we’re gonna do is stand there knocking on the door of someone having a party, but we weren’t invited. We’re not gonna beg to come in. We just got on doing what we do and I hadn’t thought about it ever.

The day that the nominations came out, I didn’t have any idea the nominations were coming out. I was sitting down at the piano trying to learn a tune my father played back in the day. I’m not the best piano player but I was making progress and I was super focused. Then my phone buzzed ’cause I got a text. I didn’t answer it because I didn’t want an interruption. Then I got another, and another, and at this point I figured it was an emergency, something bad had happened.

When I looked, it was people I text with maybe once a year… random people… and it was all just one or two words. It was like “Congratulations” and “Good Job!” but with no context. And I’m thinking to myself, “What the hell happened?” Then the phone rang and it was our manager and she was like, “You’re not gonna believe this… but we got nominated for a Grammy.” And she was right—I didn’t believe her.

My first reaction was that clearly there has been some sort of mistake. I didn’t think it was real. But then, by god, we went to the website and there we were. I had been having a really bad week and it was just so wonderful. It felt so good, just to be acknowledged. I felt like we made a great record [with Get Yourself Outside] but, like… so what? Nobody really buys records anymore, right? It’s not like making a bluegrass album is a money-making endeavor. It’s something you do because you’ve written songs, you wanna share, you wanna stay relevant.

To get this acknowledgement from this organization that is handling all of these genres of music and re-listening to them critically is wild. It’s like they said, “You know what? You guys did good, you did really good! So much so… we’re gonna nominate it for Bluegrass Record of the Year.”

I’m not particularly attached to the idea of whether or not we win, but I’m definitely gonna go. We’re all gonna go. We’ll be in L.A. in February. In theory, we’ll get to walk the Red Carpet, go through the whole experience. We’re gonna probably sit with The Infamous Stringdusters and the McCourys… they’ve been there before. It’s old hat to them.

But we’re gonna do it right. We’re gonna dress up, look sharp. We’re excited about it. It’s a brand new experience and certainly not something I thought I’d ever get to do. It’s really wonderful and it does feel good, especially considering all the challenges Yonder has navigated over the course of our career. I have this feeling that we must be doing something right!

Catch Ben Kaufmann and the rest of Yonder Mountain String Band at Denver Comes Alive, taking place on Friday, January 13th and Saturday, January 14th at Denver, CO’s Mission Ballroom. On Friday, Yonder will top a bluegrass- and Americana-focused bill featuring Kitchen DwellersMaggie Rose, and WinterWonderWomen. On Saturday, funk and soul styles will lead the way as Lettuce, The Word (featuring Robert Randolph, John Medeski, Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson, and Kevin Lloyd), The Main Squeeze with Pulp FrictionSuper Sonic Shorties, and more take the Denver Comes Alive stage. Check out the full lineup below. Tickets are now on sale here.

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