It’s with a heavy heart that we report that beloved mandolin firebrand Jeff Austin passed away on Monday. He was 45 years old. Details are still forthcoming, but news of Austin’s passing has shaken the bluegrass community to its core. His manic personality and frenetic playing won him legions of fans during the sixteen years he served as a member of pioneering jamgrass outfit Yonder Mountain String Band. Following in the footsteps of artists and bands like John Hartford and the New Grass Revival, Yonder took the concept of fusing rock and bluegrass sensibilities beyond previously imagined limits.
Though Yonder bassist Ben Kaufmann, guitarist Adam Aijala and banjo picker Dave Johnston all contributed heavily to the success of the band, Austin served as a focal point for their shows with his lanky dance moves and wild stage presence. Austin and Yonder’s list of achievements is mind-boggling when taken as a whole. Over 1500 shows as a unit, performing for presidential candidates, headlining multiple festivals including the Northwest String Summit and Mulberry Mountain Harvest Fest. A true touring machine, Yonder gave many up-and-coming bands, now headliners, their first big breaks by bringing them on the road.
I feel I must to stray from the dispassionate third-person voice to speak from the heart. I had the pleasure of watching Jeff Austin and Yonder for longer than I care to admit, and never once did I leave disappointed. One of the earliest times I can remember seeing them was at a show for the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards in Louisville, Kentucky. The staid, old school fans booed and threw pennies at this wild young band of unshaven and casually-dressed upstarts, but it was clear the band wasn’t going to let anything stop them. And for sixteen more years after that day, nothing did.
Over the last twenty-something years, I went from a face in the crowd to a career in photography and music journalism, and from the very beginning, Jeff was a true friend who was always ready to help with whatever silly idea I had. In interviews, he would play the loon as often as he would play the mandolin. When I went to photograph a Yonder show, I knew the biggest problem I would have would be choosing between the unending series of shots of Austin’s contorted, smiling face as he tore into each tune with palpable glee.
Whenever I covered one of their shows or festivals, he made a point to squeeze in a hang and shoot the shit with me about our biggest shared non-musical passion, cartoons. In one of my most treasured memories of Jeff, we discussed his work scoring the documentary, I Know That Voice. When he heard how jealous I was that he got to work with folks I worshiped like H. Jon Benjamin (Archer, Bob’s Burgers) and John DiMaggio (Futurama, Adventure Time), he stepped away for a moment before walking back and handing me his phone. I put it to my ear and heard the words “Bite my shiny metal ass!” in pitch-perfect Bender. It was a simple gesture on his part to get the illustrious voice actor on the phone, but to me, it was one of the best surprises of my life. That’s just how he rolled.
The fire that burned inside of Jeff was brilliant to behold but clearly exhausting for him and those around him. Once he departed from Yonder, he immediately formed a solo band featuring scene luminaries like frequent Yonder collaborator, banjo player Danny Barnes. Sadly, Barnes and the rest of the band quickly cycled through, starting what would be a revolving door of band members.
Word of recent troubles had been in the air, with reports of a recent discordant showing at the fabled Mishawaka Amphitheatre that left fans worried for Austin’s health. Some subsequent shows were canceled, though appearances at the Blue Ox Festival and a recent show with Brendan Bayliss of Umphrey’s McGee as part of their two-man, acoustic 30db project went on as scheduled.
I don’t know what else to say. I’m sure we at Live For Live Music will have much more to say on Jeff’s passing and the hole it will leave in both the music scene and our hearts. For now, I want to leave you with a few of my favorite moments we shared. Just after the split with Yonder, the birth of his first child, and the formation of the first iteration of the Jeff Austin Band, I had the chance to sit and chat with Jeff about the Earth-shattering upheaval. He was introspective and, as always, extremely funny.
I am going to remember him as he was on that day and so many others when we spoke or I watched him play—smiling and sharing the seemingly infinite energy within him. That interview, as well as an iconic performance I captured of Yonder performing an amazing take on a Grateful Dead song they played for me, is below. Jeff Austin is survived by his wife and three children and an entire world of mourning music fans. Rest in peace, my friend. You are loved and you will be missed.
Yonder Mountain String Band – “They Love Each Other” [Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia cover]
Jeff Austin – “The Art of the Pause” Interview