The shocking news about the sudden and unexpected passing of Jeff Austin brought to mind an interview that I did with Austin in February 2015. I had spoken with him before when he was still with Yonder Mountain String Band, the band he had helped found and bring to national prominence. However this particular discussion took place a year after his departure, and it was notable for the fact that Austin had clearly turned a corner in his career and was looking forward towards the future.
After 17 years with his former band, he found himself out on his own with a new album and a new touring outfit. Recruiting an astute group of players – former Bad Livers member Danny Barnes on banjo and guitar, guitarist Ross Martin, bass player Eric Thorin, and drummer/percussionist Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars – Austin claimed he had never been happier than he was at the helm of his own ensemble.
“There is absolutely a sense of responsibility,” Austin mused as he spoke by phone from Nederland, Colorado, the place he had called home for 20 years. “There are people who want to see if you fall on your face, or stand up and take the reigns. This is about reconnecting with fans who have seen me only be one thing. I’m more committed than ever to new music and I’m working really hard on making it.”
Indeed, evidence of that fact was found in his solo debut, the aptly titled The Simple Truth. A varied affair, it veered from the rollicking and robust lead-off track, What the Night Brings, to the back porch pluck and strum of Simple Truth, the celebratory fiddle frenzy amplified in the unabashedly descriptive Fiddlin’ Around, and the breezy bluegrass picking that elevates Run Down.
“Sonically it’s a departure from what people have known me for, for almost 17 years,” Austin explained. “It’s music that’s always been inside of me. I wanted to let these songs just really be themselves in the studio and let the music serve the songs. This record is really a collection of the music I’ve always wanted to play.”
Austin also had plenty of compliments for the band he was making the music with. “It’s really fun to travel with these guys,” he suggested. “We’re all really committed. We’re just letting it be its own thing, letting it be its own beast in a way. There’s a strong sense that we want to have the band well represented. We’re trying to make it really clear what this band is, and what the energy is. Me and those three guys intend to make music for a long time. We’re intent on making the songs stand up. I’d rather let the music be true to itself and be honest, and let people really see what’s going on, rather than try to fool them with smoke and mirrors. I’m still in amazement that I’m in an ensemble with these guys.”
Nevertheless, Austin was also quick to point out that the preceding year had been a challenging time for him in many ways. The arrival of a new baby girl found him taking time off from touring so he could stay at home with his family. It also meant turning his back on his former bandmates. “It was hard,” he recalled. “There were all these crazy transitions. First it was coming off the road to be with my family. Then it was going back on tour, and finally it was the realisation that as far as Yonder was concerned, we were no longer happening together. I just shut down over the summer, I put my cell phone in a drawer and turned it off and didn’t speak to anybody for a month. If you needed me, I wouldn’t know what to tell you. We have a home phone, but only three people know the number — my mom, my wife’s mom, and the lawyer. But the beautiful thing was, I was able to be home for the majority of my daughter’s first year of life.”
Despite the emotional turmoil found in the process of splitting from musicians he had played with for nearly two decades, Austin still seemed satisfied with the way things evolved. “When you go from four bosses to one, the meetings get a lot easier,” he reflected. “Especially since I’m the boss now. When we say, ‘You know what, we’re not going to do four week tours, we’re going to do three weekends,’ the result is that we’re going to have a great time and we’re going to play for a lot of people, and then we’re going to all go home. The draw to home for me is pretty dramatic.”
Likewise, by his own admission, Yonder Mountain matters had definitely turned tense, making his decision to leave that much more deliberate. “There were points when I was involved in my former band where the issues got bigger and the egos started to swell,” Austin insisted, his exasperation obvious. “At this point in my life, it’s all about freeing myself from the ego and just doing my job well to serve other people. I don’t need to take the solo; I can watch another person take the solo and watch Ross Martin make people’s eyes fall out of their heads. It’s one hell of a thing.”
Nevertheless, by starting out on his own, even with an exceptional band in tow, Austin had to go back practically to square one. Yet, that’s a reality he was more than willing to accept. “I know the work that’s going to go into it,” he maintained. “Just because I may have played to 1,500 people in the past, I’m under no illusion that I’m going to walk into a venue in San Francisco and there are going to be 1,500 people there. The best thing is, I’m in a band with a group of guys that are also aware, so if we go somewhere and there’s maybe 150 people there, it’s not like, ‘aw damn!’ I mean, we’re a new band. I can tell you how long it takes to build up to 150 people. It’s a lot of work!”
Nevertheless, Austin said that it was work he was ready for. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m ready to embrace that challenge,” he refelected. “I have a far clearer head than I’ve ever had in my 40 years of life, and I have an amazing family at home, and some really good friends. I decided to put my name on this because I want to be held responsible. It’s about making myself responsible to other people. It has to do with doing right by these guys. I want to write good music that they can dig their teeth into. I want to write well to serve their playing. I want to sing and play well for them. I have these three inspiring musicians saying to me, ‘Go for it. We’re here. We love the music.’ Hearing that will help you through any intimidation or pressure. Even though my name is on it, we’re all in it together. So if something goes wrong, I’ll take the heat. I’ll handle it. It’s a humbling thing.”
Sadly, his life was cut short before he could fully fulfil that promise.