Times are changing again for progressive bluegrass favorite Yonder Mountain String Band.
The Colorado-based acoustic jam band hits Blacksburg’s The Lyric Theatre on Tuesday with a new guy, Nick Piccininni, on mandolin, fiddle, guitar and banjo. The group brought on Piccininni after mandolinist Jacob Joliff departed to focus on his own act.
Yonder Mountain had just finished a week of shows with Piccininni when The Roanoke Times spoke with the band’s guitarist and co-founder, Adam Aijala, by phone on Jan. 16. The band and the new guy are still seeing how they get along together on the road, he said. On stage, the multi-instrumentalist has already proven himself.
“It’s more about really getting to know him as a person,” Aijala said. “So far, he just seems like a super awesome guy. The onstage stuff is amazing. It’s amped up a bunch, having him in the band. Just from this week of shows, I can already feel us having more fun, and he’s lightin’ it up.
“He’s kind of a goofball onstage. Not like a lampshade [on his head], running around, but just a very lighthearted stage presence. It’s great.”
The band met Piccininni, who is a member of Moe. side project Floodwood, through fiddler Allie Kral. She invited him to a show the band was playing in his native upstate New York, and he wound up sitting in, doing double-fiddle duty with Kral. Later on, they called on Piccininni for a handful of gigs that Joliff couldn’t make last year.
“He basically just walked in and crushed it on mandolin,” Aijala said. “He claims he’s least competent on mandolin out of the four instruments he plays. It felt great. He is a helluva fiddle, guitar and banjo player, too.”
Losing a founder
Kral and Joliff had joined Yonder Mountain String Band in 2015, after it parted ways the year prior with one of its co-founders, mandolinist/singer Jeff Austin. Yonder Mountain fans and the wider prog-grass fan world were saddened at news of Austin’s death last June, at 45. He left a wife and three young children.
Aijala, who founded the group in 1998 with Austin, bassist Ben Kaufmann and banjoist Dave Johnston, said that the consensus among friends and musical associates was that mental illness got the best of Austin.
“We knew something was wrong” when he was in the band, Aijala said. “None of us knew that it was to the extent that it was.”
Yonder Mountain and Austin parted ways amicably, when he wanted to focus more on his own career and the rest of the band members felt that he was unwilling to commit to them, Aijala said.
“His story is a tragedy, when you think back on it,” he said. “And it was awful, because he had so much talent — his rapport with the crowd and his songs. We wouldn’t have had the success we had early on without him in the band, I don’t think. At that point, none of us were writing a whole lot, but he had the voice. He was always the front man. He really helped the band in the early stages, and as time went on, we all started adding songs to the catalog, and the shows started being more democratic, simply because we were all writing more.”
Austin and his former Yonder Mountain mates lost contact after his departure.
“It’s just one of those things where I really feel like we did everything that we could to try to help him,” Aijala said. “None of us are doctors or psychologists, and there’s only so much you can do without a degree, or inside knowledge. ... Everybody’s been depressed before. But when you get to that point where you’re like, I’m gonna do it [commit suicide], like, I don’t know what that feels like. ... You can’t understand. It just happens, and it sucks for his family.”
Yonder Mountain in November 2019 participated in a fundraising tribute to its former front man at a venue near Denver, with Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon, the Infamous Stringdusters, the Travelin’ McCourys, Hot Rize, Keller Williams, Billy Strings and members of Austin’s band.
The band has not released new music on record since 2017, when it dropped the album “Love. Ain’t Love.” Yonder Mountain entered a studio last year and recorded “a handful of originals and a couple of covers,” Aijala said, intending to release it in a couple of EPs. Then Joliff left the band. While the band is deciding what to do with that output, it is looking to make time for more studio work this year. Meanwhile, fans can expect some of the recently recorded material at its shows.
“With Nick coming on board, we’re doing one to three new ones every night,” he said. “It’s growing slowly. We’ve got about 60 songs right now, maybe more that he can do, which is about a third of our repertoire.
“He’s kicking ass. He’s really doing the work, and he’s playing great, and he’s got a great voice.”
That attitude helps keep things fun for the rest of the band. As far as Aijala is concerned, he’ll keep doing Yonder Mountain indefinitely, as long as his hands work, folks show up and the band still has fun together. That means different sets every night and a lighthearted attitude toward the time onstage, he said.
“I didn’t get into it for the performance element of it,” he said. “Maybe I differ from a lot of musicians in that they do live for the performance. That wasn’t my drive when I started playing guitar. I just loved the sound of it. I wasn’t like, ‘ Yeah, I’m gonna be in a band someday.’ That wasn’t a thought.
“All the same, I enjoy performing, and I enjoy being around the people in my band, and playing music with ’em. It’s fun. We’ve been having a blast the last week. It’s been awesome.”