Yonder Mountain String Band co-founder goes solo — and on tour

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Jeff Austin
Mandolinist and singer Jeff Austin, as pictured on his debut solo album cover, titled "The Simple Truth."

Jeff Austin was headed for Broadway. But going to see bands like Phish performing live during his student years changed that plan, sending him down a different musical track.

The mandolinist and singer was so taken by the energy on stage, that he moved to Colorado, took up the mandolin and started singing and playing bluegrass songs as a founding member of The Yonder Mountain String Band.

That was in 1998.

Known to fans simply as "Yonder," the band has become one of the most acclaimed roots music groups in the country.

In addition to playing sold-out concerts at iconic venues like The Fillmore in San Francisco, Yonder hosts its own music festival in the Ozarks, drawing big names like banjo player Bela Fleck.

Last April, Austin quit the band after 18 years, citing creative differences. Now the Black Hawk resident is embarking on a solo career. He has a debut solo album, "The Simple Truth," out this month, and is heading out on a national tour with dates in Boulder and Denver this weekend.

Austin talked with Arts Editor Chloe Veltman about his new project, and shares his musical memories. Here is a sampling of their conversation:

CPR: Why do you like telling stories in your songs so much?

Jeff Austin: I've always been fascinated with storytelling. I was raised on a lot of sketch comedy and stuff like that. The way people could get in there and tell you a story that would either make you laugh or make you think. I like people like Bill Hicks and George Carlin. Great storytellers. It's something that's always moved me. It's why I love doing musical theater. This way of telling a story and then you add music into it. Whenever you can combine telling a story with music, that's what we've been doing as humans since the beginning of us being humans.

CPR: On some of the Yonder Mountain songs you're known to scat sing. Where does that impulse come from?

Jeff Austin: I was always involved in music from kindergarten on, especially in high school. And I actually was going to go to college for jazz voice. Rolling Meadows High School in Illinois just outside of Chicago had a very vibrant scene. You could do concert choir, show choir, madrigal choir. And I went and did camp at Millikin University which is in Decatur Illinois. And in my junior year, there was a teacher there whom I worked with who had a jazz choir. And she said, "there's a point in this song where there'll be a scat solo. And I want one boy and one girl to do the scat solo." I'm sitting there going, "what's scat? I don't know what that is." She gave an example and she was awesome at it. I went, "I like that!" And I ended up getting the solo. It made an impression on me. Then in the early '90s, I had a friend of mine whom I went to high school with -- he's now the bass player for [Colorado jam band] Left Over Salmon, Greg Garrison. We used to sit around all night and play guitar and play songs we knew. But then we'd just start making things up. I found that it was something I really liked, to just make up words. Jump ahead again to the early days with Yonder. The band was in a groove. And I thought, "I know the lyrics to this song. I'll make them up right now!" And then I took a word and then it just started to dissolve. Like, say the word "apart" --- ta ta ta, a pa ta ta ta ta -- and you can break it up. I thought, "man, that was fun!" And the crowd reacted to it. I was an uncaged beast at that point. It became one of my favorite things to do. And I bring that into what I do now.

Jeff Austin and his band perform at the Bluebird Theater in Denver on Friday Feb. 6 and on Saturday Feb. 7 at Boulder's Fox Theatre.