Jeff Austin, mandolinist, singer, songwriter and founding member of The Jeff Austin Band and Yonder Mountain String Band, passed away back in June, and the world of progressive bluegrass might never be the same. A sudden and tragic passing, he left behind a grieving family, including wife Devlyn and children Lily Rose (12), Penelope (5) and Jude Patrick (2). An incredible inspiration in the community in which he thrived, Austin made friends with nearly every musician that was privileged enough to cross his path. It is this fact that brought the artists from near and far to gather on a stage in Broomfield, Colorado to celebrate a life that ended far too soon. Touring musicians, all considering themselves friends of the late singer and mandolin player, took the time from their crazy schedules to make their way to the Rocky Mountains in order to pay tribute and raise funds to support his suffering family. The all-star lineup was stacked to the brim with collaborations and jams that will go down in the history books as something that can never be recreated or impersonated. Austin’s contribution to the music itself, the community in which it lives, and the fellow musicians and countless fans, is insurmountable.
Should you wish to contribute, a fund has been set up to raise money to benefit Austin’s family. Please visit the Sweet Relief Music Fund Page.
It’s been two weeks since the Jeff Austin Tribute that absolutely blew minds out in Denver, Colorado and in all honesty, it’s taken that much time to fully process the event and its impact on myself and the music community. I’ve read the official recaps of the event itself detailing who got onstage with whom, and what songs they played. I’ve seen the photo galleries of the stars and unmatched musical talent that piled onto a single stage. Reading back through all the recounts and set lists over and over, and remembering what I saw, gives me chills each time, that is something that pretty much goes without saying. What I’ve struggled to find, is the words to describe the meaning behind the What the Night Brings event, as a whole, and why it needed to happen in the first place. While every single song and person that stepped on that stage are worth mentioning, there are plenty of places that you can find that information and I wanted to try to touch on the significance and feeling that was in the air that night.
Since my return from Denver, there have been several things that have also added to the whole event being processed and the reason that this has taken me so long to write about, some good, some not so good. The not so good, I’ll refrain from highlighting because I want to focus on the joy that so many can say Jeff Austin brought into their lives, and what an absolutely amazing influence he was on the world of bluegrass. In the past two weeks, I also got to see artists that shared the stage in Broomfield perform to sold out audiences in Washington, DC which only reiterates that life goes on, and while Jeff may no longer be here still, his memory and music will live forever. Billy Strings delighted a sold-out crowd at 9:30 Club where folks lined the block waiting to get in. Yonder Mountain String Band dazzled the audience at The Hamilton and dedicated their encore to their lifelong friend, Jeff. Both shows were heart pounding reminders that life and music go on, however I fully believe that each artist carries a piece of the magical night in Colorado with them and forever will as they take stages far and wide for years to come.
Jeff Austin was no stranger to Denver – he lived in Colorado for 20 years. The Jeff Austin Band had its very first show in Denver in 2015. It’s very fitting that we’ve now said hello and goodbye to pieces of his life in the square state that was home to him. I was fortunate enough to see Austin perform at the Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin just weeks before his passing. I heard about the shared experience at Telluride when an audience of 10,000 first heard of his medical emergency that would later lead to his untimely death. And the entire music community saw how many people cared for the man who is credited as a pioneer in the music scene.
Any light that burns as bright as bright as Jeff’s did has the chance of fading too fast, and the love that was left behind was clearly evident at 1st Bank Arena early this November. Jeff Austin had a knack for making friends and keeping them in the music world, something that was plain to see as news of his passing spread on social media early this summer. He was a friend, a confidant, and a food connoisseur by accounts many fellow musicians gave of him, someone you could ask for a restaurant recommendation almost anywhere a tour would take you.
An avid baseball fan, the concert itself was appropriately kicked off with Sam Bush, Billy Strings, Noah Pikelny (Punch Bros) and Greg Garrison customizing a version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the late Cubs fan. Nick Forester, being a hosting pro, was the host for the evening and his ability to relate to artists and music never leave audiences wanting for more. Keller Williams, a dear friend and collaborator on the Grateful Grass project with Austin, was among the first to take the stage. In an interview with Williams earlier this month, he mentioned what an honor it was to be part of the event. “You’ve got artists coming in from all over. They’re all out touring and taking the time to fly in and do this event for free. It really shows how much Jeff was and still is loved.”
Everyone admired him. His musical prowess was something that inspired millions and his willingness to have a heart to heart and actually listen to anyone that needed to talk, was something that set him apart from most. Anders Beck, dobro player for Greensky Bluegrass even mentioned getting Jeff’s stamp of approval on, as he put it, “this band that I was thinking about joining.” He explained in a heartfelt post how many different roles Jeff played in his life: friend, chef, showman and buddy. This was pretty much par for the course when it came to the relationships that he built over the years with other artists. Austin was a trail blazer as far as music, but more importantly, a dedicated and loyal friend and will forever be remembered as such. He left behind a catalogue of music that was showcased and shared by a jaw-dropping amount of people in Broomfield.
The show, originally slated for the Mission Ballroom, sold out so quickly that it had to be upgraded to 1st Bank Arena, and was still a hard ticket to come by. Just about any artist that has been a part of the latest class of bluegrass musicians were there. At one point in the show, every single musician came out together for a version of Jeff’s No Expectations, and seeing that image now, it still makes my hair stand on end. The collaborations that happened that evening are the things that dreams are made of and every single fan that shared space in that arena will forever have a bond.
Reflection and appreciation were two emotions that held an immense amount of space in the arena that night. It was easy to find company and comfort amongst strangers that evening as each of us shared a loss and void that went far beyond words ever could. We shared an appreciation and unification that will never be able to be replaced, and as Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage with Half Moon Rising it’s almost as if the universe, too, was making sure that the stage was set in every memorable way possible. On the way to the show that night, leaving the house, I did the same thing that I do every night when I walk outside – I looked up for the moon. Seeing the half moon that evening was beautiful in the Colorado sky, but it wasn’t until hearing the words, “There’s a house somewhere I know where’s the fire’s burn all night long. There’s a swing outside on the porch where I feel I could rock away the dusk until the dawn,” that it hit me and hit me hard what that moon actually symbolized. Playing their favorite Jeff Austin songs, a collective “Cheers Jeff!” by performers and audience members, was one that will go down in history after Vince Herman (Leftover Salmon) lent his vocals to the end of the Yonder portion of the evening.
While the entirety of the show was an experience that is now among my top three concerts of all time, some of the highlights of the night, in my opinion, were not only the songs that were the epitome of Austin and his contribution to the music world, but also the music that was shared that influenced music long before Jeff. Up On Cripple Creek by The Band is a personal favorite song of all time and seeing Sam Bush, Anders Beck, Greg Garrison, Carey Harmon, Jeremy Garrett, Noam Pikelny, and Billy Strings sing those lyrics together was hypnotizing. The Travelin McCourys, a band that also performed back at Blue Ox, picked two great tunes that I thought showed insight, and cause for thinking of deeper meaning, with Passin Thru and Things in Life. Both songs with their magnificently written lyrics reminded ticket holders that life is short and should be lived each day with intention and appreciation.
To say that the loss is great is an obvious understatement. It always seems that people who are able to reach the masses with their gifts are gone too soon, especially musicians. Countless stories that I have heard when remembering Austin, even just by strangers, are that he gave so many people hope through his music and that he helped an endless amount of people through rough times. I think I speak for every music lover that was in attendance that evening when I say that we are all extremely grateful for the opportunity to remember Jeff Austin together, and take pride in the responsibility of keeping his music alive, a request from his mother in a letter that was read by Umphrey’s McGee guitarist Brendan Bayliss. For such a great man and someone who gave so much, it’s an honor and a pleasure.