Yonder Mountain String band shows its hand – July 2003
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Yonder Mountain String band shows its hand  Print

By John Lupton, July 2003

Although the dominance of New York, Los Angeles and Nashville as centers of the American music business remains firm after more than a half-century, a few pockets of independent resistance have developed and thrived over the last 30 years or so, sometimes in surprising places.

San Francisco and Austin have long been known as havens for alternative musicians, while both Washington, D.C. and Boston have even longer histories as hotbeds of bluegrass music.

In Colorado, the lure of the Rocky Mountain lifestyle has made towns like Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins magnets not only for up-and-coming bluegrassers, but for aspiring jam bands and singer-songwriters as well.

With the release of their third studio album "Old Hands" on their own Frog Pad label (they also have two previous live releases), the Nederland, Col.-based Yonder Mountain String Band continues to merge respect for tradition with their own "Gen-X" take on bluegrass, this time using it to showcase and salute the singing and songwriting of a man they consider a mentor and, more importantly, a friend, Benny "Burle" Galloway.

All 13 tracks on the new disc were written or co-written by Galloway, and his rough-hewn voice adorns several of the songs as he sings and plays with the regular Yonder Mountain quartet - Adam Aijala on guitar, Jeff Austin on mandolin, Dave Johnston on banjo and Ben Kaufmann on bass.

Curiously, although the band came together in the late 90s, they each met and came to know Galloway under more or less different circumstances.

Austin, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, had joined Johnston's band there, the Bluegrassholes, before they both decided to move to Colorado.

"I met Benny Galloway with Dave, our banjo player. There was this festival, this kind of underground festival. They call it the 'Tell You What' Festival. It's kind of a spoof of (the) Telluride (Bluegrass Festival), in a good way, not in any kind of demeaning way. It was bands like Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident. They would kind of come and play under a different name. It cost like five bucks to get in, all the beer you want to drink, that kind of thing. It was this great little scene where all the local musicians would get together and hang out at this underground festival. Dave and I pulled in the first year that we lived here, in '98...and literally got out of the truck, pulled the gate down and started picking, started just playing music. We were playing for probably half an hour, and all of a sudden, up walks this guy with this big mustache and this guitar and proclaims himself the Fire Marshal of 'Tell You What,' and he wanted to see what was going on. So he came over, and that was basically how we met Benny. We sat there and played music for the next hour and a half. We hung out the rest of the weekend and played music the rest of the weekend. We had such a great time with him. We just kept in touch. I said 'let me grab your number, let's play more.' That's how our friendship started."

As the tracks cycle through on "Old Hands", the listener is tempted to draw comparisons between Galloway and another singer-songwriter known for transmitting sensitive and intelligent music through an otherwise gruff exterior - Kris Kristofferson.

Galloway's "Wind Thru The Willows" certainly conveys the same sort of tender feeling as Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night," for example, and "The Pride O' Alabama" shows off Galloway's ability to tell a good tale as well.

It is a remarkable gesture then, considering that each of the Yonder Mountain quartet has contributed their own share of original material to their live shows and studio recordings, that the band would devote an entire album to the work of someone they consider more than just a friend and peer.

Austin says that it's simply the desire to share and spread their appreciation for these same qualities of Galloway's work that has inspired "Old Hands."

"The main reason we wanted to do this project is just because we admire him. He's one of my favorite songwriters of all time. The reason being, he has the ability to write a love song, and it's not schmaltzy. He has the ability to tell a story in a song, but it's not clichéd...When he tells these stories, and he writes these words, it takes you there, immediately. You are there. You are taken to the place he is writing about. It truly grabs your emotions, whether it's about loss, or love or life. He truly has an amazing way to take you by the hand and lead you into these tunes. We just admire the hell out of him, and he's such a great guy, a dear friend of ours."

In addition to the vocal and guitar contributions of Galloway himself, the album is also bolstered by a multi-talented supporting cast that includes two top-level Dobro talents, Jerry Douglas and Sally Van Meter (who also produced), along with four outstanding fiddlers, although only three of them - Tim O'Brien, Darol Anger and Casey Driessen - actually play the fiddle on ' "Old Hands." The fourth, Dirk Powell, brings the Cajun accordion work he's been doing with Balfa Toujours the last few years to the mix.

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