In its 17 years Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) has built a distinctive rock ‘n’ roll infused bluegrass sound that appeals to music lovers of all ages and tribes. The most recent YMSB album, Black Sheep, released in June, is the group’s first to include all five traditional bluegrass instruments: guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass. When the group’s original mandolin player, Jeff Austin, left to pursue a solo career, remaining original members—Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals), Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals), and Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals), took a long hard look at the group and where they wanted it to go.
This year the band announced a new permanent line-up to include Allie Kral (violin, vocals) and Jacob Jolliff (mandolin, vocals). Even with this new traditional bluegrass line-up, don’t expect to hear instrumentation that fits neatly within the boundaries of bluegrass traditions.
While the group claims inspiration from the likes of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Doc Watson, it is also is influenced by the Grateful Dead and Phish. The band’s only cover song on Black Sheep is “Ever Fallen in Love,” originally by the Buzzcocks, a British punk rock band of the late ’70s.
“The traditional bluegrass lineup allow us to rethink things on different levels,” says Johnston, “but at the heart of it all is the same energy and drive and freewheeling spirit. It’s an exciting time for us because we have an invigorating sense of the future. Yonder is a band with almost two decades of music under its belt, but we’re always restless. We want to move the music forward in new places, which keeps us on our musical toes.”
“It’s not just bluegrass—it’s progressive,” says Kaufmann. “Everything Yonder has ever tried to do, we’re doing in this record. It’s gonna take some time for fans to get acquainted with the new Yonder. When you make a big change like we did, it’s a huge thing.”
“I think the ground rules for what we do haven’t changed that much,” adds Johnston. “We are kind of going back to our roots more, and I think Black Sheep seems more like our first few records than the last two.”
He says that it didn’t take all that long to ease Kral and Jolliff comfortably into the line-up. “They really added a lot right away,” he explains. In particular, Kral brought not only new instrumentation, but also lends a female voice to the vocals.
“We love the texture that the fiddle brings to the music, in general. We are also excited about all the harmony,” says Johnston. “Ally has a great voice and a great attitude so she brings a lot of positive energy.”
Black Sheep marks the group’s first self-produced album, which in itself was a learning process for the band. “We learned about what works most efficiently in the studio for us,” says Johnston. “The fact that we produced it ourselves and engineered it ourselves is a great testament to Adam’s imagination. It just feels like we have more resources at our command than we used to have. I’m really proud of this whole record.”
The band, which generally tours about half of the year, has tour dates scheduled throughout the summer.