Dave Johnston, co-founder of the Nederland, Colorado-based bluegrass group, Yonder Mountain String Band, has been helming a set of musicians throughout a long, steady and prolific career. The jam band, which was founded in 1998, has played to countless fans, released seven studio albums as well as an EP (and six more live recordings) — and toured with famed artists like Bela Fleck and the Dave Matthews Band. During those two-plus-decades, Johnston has learned at least one very important lesson about how to treat his relationship to music. And that is to treat it like a relationship to a person he loves.
“I was talking to one of my wife’s friends the other day,” Johnston says. “She’s a photographer and we were talking about loving what you do. And she said, ‘Well, if you love what you do, treat it how you would treat a person you love.’ Meaning, you can’t be overbearing and you can’t demand stuff that just isn’t there.”
This creative strategy works particularly well for Johnston because, as he helps to steward his five-piece string band, the idea of community and togetherness is crucial. For a band to stay committed and continue to make music, as Yonder Mountain String Band has, there needs to be a sense of progress and there needs to be a sense of safety amongst the members that a failure or flub won’t call for some proverbial denouncement.
“I feel like, as a group of people, we’re always trying to do something new or accomplish something all the time,” Johnston says. “Even if it’s just a little bit or a little part of something. As a group, we’re committed to working and being a part of the greater good, if that still means something.”
One of the premier aspects of the band is their live set. The group is often hypnotizing, captivating. Banjo plucking leads to mandolin strumming that leads to fiddle bowing and rollicking vocals. Concerts can go for two-plus hours into the night as dancing and hollering intertwine in the audience. It can almost feel like a drug, bathing in the wash of the roots music. It’s why the band has many supporters, some of whom follow the band from show to show on their tours.
“I’m not a fan of ‘magic’ or that kind of terminology,” Johnston says. “But I do think that when everything’s firing on all cylinders, there’s definitely something happening that is not planned and the energy is not normal, for lack of a better way to put it. There’s a wonderful abnormalness to what’s going on. I think it elevates people and it connects us all on a different plane, a different area of energy.”
Like a bartender or restaurant worker who sees the same regular customers at given times of the day, Johnston says the band’s biggest fans help push the group to be better, to show more each time on stage.
“It feels really good when you see the same group of people following you around,” Johnston says. “It ups the ante a little bit. You want to do something to let them know that you’re not phoning it in. I think it’s a really uplifting and cool part of the whole deal.”
Johnston, who came to playing music a bit later in life, first picked up a banjo with musical intention at 20-years-old in college. Prior to that, he’d thought of himself as a writer, enjoying books by authors like the playfully surreal, Richard Brautigan. For Johnston, the banjo felt accessible, pleasurable. He soon discovered the catalog of Earl Scruggs. He fell in love. Not necessarily a technical master of the instrument, Johnston nevertheless became masterfully productive.
“Gertrude Stein has this quote,” Johnston says. “Like, ‘How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?’ That’s a big part of how I do things, too.”
Throughout Yonder Mountain String Band’s history, the group has also run its own record label, Frog Pad Records, which has helped to ensure Johnston and company maintain control of the band’s sound and presentation. It’s a freedom that affords the quintet more time to think about the music it wants to bring into the world, rather than having to appease some looming, disgruntled voice bent on making a bigger buck.
“We have editorial carte blanche on everything,” Johnston says.
Lately, during the global quarantine, the band has released a few digital, Zoom-recorded videos for songs like “Low Rider” and “Hill Country Girl.” It’s the kind of fun, genre-bending output that the band has become known for. Yonder Mountain String Band is never afraid to make a leap, especially for someone or some thing that the members love dearly.
“When we started, we wanted to be a crack bluegrass band,” Johnston says. “But when it became clear that we were going to have a long road if we wanted to do that, we ended up thinking about playing the way we wanted to, picking songs that we wanted to play. We may not improvise in a classic – or even a good – way. But this is the way we’re going to do it. We’re notoriously good at jumping off cliffs.”