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Jeff Austin: Musical Inspiration is a Two-Way Street

Jeff Austin
Photo: Dorothy St. Claire

Jeff Austin has nothing against a good hot lick, mind you. It’s just that he thinks they sometimes distract from the vocal and the lyrics of a song. “It’s about the voice,” he says, “and how it can be showcased from song to song. It’s the direct communication with the crowd–not just asking them how they’re feeling, but bringing something out of them.”

It’s a philosophy he practices with the Jeff Austin Band, who’ll be part of this year’s Beartrap. And to say that Austin has been around is an understatement. The Colorado-based artist has played venues from the Filmore Auditorium to the Red Rocks Amphitheater, and from Telluride to Bonnaroo among many more.

He’s also shared the stage with Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Earl Scruggs, and others, and he says it’s their music that may have the most influence on his new self-titled solo album. “I’ve learned a lot from the musicians I’ve played with,” Austin says, “from both the rock side and the Bluegrass side. I’ve learned a lot about song structure, solo ideas, playing with guts, and being who you are.”

It’s been a winding path for the mandolinist, singer, and songwriter, who has explored a lot of musical territory over his career. For his 2004 album, he recruited Chris Castino, Noam Pikelny, Carol Anger, and Sally van Meter. It was followed in 2006 by (talk about a wide-ranging approach) a live album of Grateful Dead covers titled Grateful Grass, and he donated the proceeds to the Rex Foundation, created by the Dead and fans in 1983 to “proactively provide extensive community support to creative endeavors in the arts, sciences, and education.”

But Austin may be best known as co-founder of Bluegrass heavyweights Yonder Mountain String Band, with whom he split three years ago. When the band formed, Austin was a relative beginner on the mandolin, and has always considered himself first and foremost a vocalist.

He discovered that talent at a young age, participating in musical theater in high school and college. “I still love musicals,” he says. But nowadays he’s also busy on charting new improvisations. Even classically trained musicians, he says, are capable of what he calls “some far-out arrangements.”

But he also has a place in his heart for earlier material, such as “Snow in the Pines” and “Dawn’s Early Light,” popular in the 1990s. “I like these songs because they evoke strong emotional responses,” he says, “both from the audience and myself.” Having his new band for instrumentation also gives the older numbers a new feel, he believes.

As for what happens when the band takes the stage for a crowd, he says, “I hope the audience takes with them exactly what I hope they leave with us. And that’s inspiration.”

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