As the greater jam and bluegrass communities’ world still spins with the recent passing of Jeff Austin, his former Yonder Mountain String Band bandmate and friend Ben Kaufmann penned a moving tribute, which he shared on his social media pages. Since news of Austin’s passing, many artists have paid tribute to the extraordinary musician that left an indelible mark on so many people’s lives, playing with an unabashed fervor and energy that broke the mold of what bluegrass music can be.
Since parting with Yonder in 2014, the mandolinist toured with his own Jeff Austin Band, electrifying crowds whenever and wherever he stepped on stage. His unfortunate and sudden passing has rocked the music community.
The note from Kaufmann via his Facebook page:
When I sit down to write something “important” I usually feel up to the task. Given enough time, and enough revisions, I can come up with something that hits all the right notes. Except not this time. I simply have no idea where to begin, where to end, or what to put in the middle.
I first met Jeff Austin in Nederland, Colorado in 1998. I had a bluegrass band called Tree Full of Pigs and we were playing at the Acoustic Coffeehouse. At the end of the show, this funny, skinny guy came up to me with his name and number written on a piece of paper. He said his name was Jeff, he’d just moved to town, he had a good friend who played banjo who was moving to Ned soon, and we should get together and pick sometime. And now somehow it’s 21 years later.
It’s been quite literally amazing to read everyone’s tributes and recollections, and to share in the purity of their experiences of Jeff and Yonder. There is a kind of simplicity to the experience. Everything, all the memories and emotions, all the music, is distilled down to what I’m seeing as the essence of what people are trying to express. It can be summed up in a single word: impact. Jeff had an impact on everyone he met. And each of those individual moments, all interconnecting with each other and reinforcing each other, unfolded in a way that had a larger consequence. Jeff changed music. For a lot of people. Certainly for me. Before I met him, I had one idea of what was possible. After I met him, I suppose I just didn’t believe there were any limits to what could be accomplished. I’m finding myself experiencing some healing from the potent simplicity in what people are sharing. Because my experience with Jeff was not simple. It was the most extraordinarily complex relationship I’ve ever had.
The last time I spoke to Jeff was on the phone call when we all decided we weren’t going to play music together anymore. That was 5 years ago. I remember that conversation being really positive, which was surprising given the gravity of what we were talking about and the changes we were making. But we agreed that we weren’t happy anymore and that we all deserved to find happiness in music again. I mean, what’s the point otherwise? I only ever saw him twice in those intervening years. The first time was when his band was playing a club in my hometown of Nevada City, CA. I stood outside the Crazy Horse looking in a window and listening. Just for a minute or two. And I remember thinking “Well, shit… That band is way better than Yonder ever was.” I mean, Ross Martin on guitar, Danny Barnes on banjo, Eric Thorin on bass, Jeff leading the way. It was a supergroup. And I felt really happy for Jeff in that moment. Don’t get me wrong, the experience was still really weird, but I also felt happy because it seemed like Jeff was doing great. The last time I saw Jeff was at a festival in Virginia. It was the only time that his band and Yonder 2.0 were booked on the same day at the same festival. He was just pulling out of the backstage entrance while we were arriving. We saw him thru the windshield. I don’t think he saw us. But in talking to the other musicians that night, they all said how great his band sounded. And that made me happy.
Recently, I had begun thinking about what it might feel like to play music with Jeff again. Not to put the old band back together, not to tour, just to play music for a moment. That’s the amazing thing about time. As it passes, it wears away all the rough edges of experience. It tempers and soothes. I certainly observed that effect in my own experience. When I’d think about the past, it was really only the good moments I found myself recollecting. All the challenges or difficulties just weren’t at the forefront of my mind. They’d been washed downstream, diluted and dispersed. But the good memories were right there and I could reach out and touch them and hold them. I could look at them with what felt like a different perspective. And that made me happy too.
As I witness the extraordinary outpouring of love for Jeff, I find myself wishing that it could have happened before he died. I realize that’s not how these things work but it doesn’t stop me from wishing that he could have experienced it. The truth is, though, I don’t know that it would have had the effect that I would hope for. You see, it’s a funny thing: the people who bring the most happiness to others thru their weird creative processes often find it challenging, if not impossible, to really receive love, appreciation and gratitude. They say “Thanks so much, glad you liked the show, the song, the energy…” But it doesn’t reach the heart in a way where all that love can find fertile soil. In some terribly backwards way, it’s easier to receive a criticism than a kindness. You can rally against a criticism, use it as fuel, indulge in the fantasy of making someone eat their words someday. But to receive love? To truly receive it? No way. Far too uncomfortable. It doesn’t stop me from wishing he could have felt it though.
So now, suddenly, the world is different. And I’m not sure what that means, exactly. I look forward to gathering with other musicians in the near future for a celebration of Jeff’s music and in support of his family. I’ve been listening to a lot of Jeff’s songs and wondering how we might best keep them alive and being shared with the world. But really, I have to admit I’m still just kind of grasping right now, distracting myself in various ways because otherwise it’s just so terribly tragic. We want there to be some positive outcome from a tragedy. Something to make it understandable, something to make it make sense. And maybe someday, with the benefit and relentless passing of time, I’ll figure it out.
All I know right now is that I feel lucky to have been a part of an incredible moment in music. A moment when something happened that had never happened before. And it truly was an amazing ride. I just wish it didn’t cost so goddamn much.
All my love,
Fans of Austin can help support his wife and three children through the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a nonprofit charity that maintains a financial fund from which professional musicians can draw when in need of medical care or financial needs.