On June 22, 2019, fans woke to a slate grey sky at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to news that matched the weather. Stories had spread through the campsites that beloved bluegrass maven and Yonder Mountain String Band co-founder Jeff Austin had suffered a critical medical emergency. Coincidentally, the day was the 20th anniversary of Yonder Mountain String Band first playing the festival. While Austin left the band in 2014, his footprint on them and his contribution to their success in the bluegrass community remains brightly visible. Very little news updated throughout the day, leaving fans to question if Yonder Mountain String Band would play and if Austin, a pillar of the modern bluegrass and jam scene, would be seen on stage again.
Ben Kaufmann, bassist for the band, began their set by informing the crowd — through a broken voice — that Austin remained with us. However, Kaufman stated, “if you’re a prayer, send prayers. If you’re a lover, send love his way. If you’re a healer, send energy his way. This is what we’re going to send his way,” before performing their hit “Half Moon Rising,” a song from their 1999 debut album Elevation. Typically a warm and sunny place, Telluride felt heavy – in a sea of 10,000 bluegrass fans, a true icon of the movement was close to slipping through our fingers.
Days later on June 24, the passing was confirmed and the sound of hearts breaking resounded all over the country. In commemoration of his life, the bands that belong to the scene and knew Austin personally have thrown a night of music that would make him proud. On Monday, November 4, a decadent array of world-class musicians will gather at the 1st Bank Center in Broomfield for a major musical event, What The Night Brings, aptly named after the first track off of his 2015 solo album, The Simple Truth. The hefty lineup includes Bill Nershi, Billy Strings, Brendan Bayliss, Greensky Bluegrass, Hot Rize, The Infamous Stringdusters, Keller Williams, Leftover Salmon, members of the Jeff Austin Band — Kyle Tuttle, Jean-Luc Davis and Julian Davis, Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain String Band and The Travelin’ McCourys.
To claim Austin was an influential musician is an understatement – he served as one of the first true rock stars in bluegrass music and forever altered the way the world perceives the genre. Austin began his music career in 1998, and throughout his involvement with YMSB, created multiple side projects. In 2004, he recorded Songs from the Tin Shed with Chris Castino, in 2006 he recorded Rex (Live at the Fillmore) under the band name Grateful Grass with Keller Williams and Keith Moseley and in 2010, he partnered with Brendan Bayliss of Umphrey’s McGee to form a group called 30db. After departing from YMSB, he formed the Jeff Austin Band in 2014 with a revolving lineup of his friends.
Everyone in the room on November 4 will have memories of Austin’s music, whether listening or playing. Sam Bush remembers the times they played as a conversation. “I tend to make friends with the mandolin players, so we were mandolin buddies right away. Sometimes when we would get up and go back and forth, some people would say, ‘oh they’re dueling.’ But it wasn’t dueling, it was communicating.” While fans surely wish Austin could be there for the performance in his honor, his many friends are dedicated to making the night one of celebration and reflection. “The over-riding feeling is joy,” continues Bush. “Jeff would love to be at this jam, this is what he loved. When I’m gone, throw a jam.”
Jamming is what Austin was known for, and one of the greater tragedies at What The Night Brings will be the lack of Austin’s stage presence. Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon remembers the difference of Austin on stage at that time from his peers. “All these bands would get together and take off and start touring out of [Nederland.] None of them in the batch had the animation and complete willingness to improvise and jam that Jeff had. Improvising to him was the taste of freedom. It was beautiful.” Anyone who has ever watched Austin perform knows his spirit, energy and faces — which have garnered their own unique following on social media — is what truly set him apart. “Jeff brought a lot of theatrics and intensity to the music and he had a very animated stage presence,” says Dave Johnston, Ben Kaufmann and Adam Aijala of YMSB. “Jeff wanted the entire venue out of their seats dancing and unaware there wasn’t a drummer.” Austin’s stage antics are what separated him from his fellow performers and solidified him as a distinctive star. “Nobody ever said that Jeff Austin was the best mandolin player in the world, but he damn sure was the best performer or entertainer,” says Billy Strings.
Bluegrass fans of all kinds owe a great deal of their passion to Austin. His charm and influence is the reason many have picked up instruments on their own. “Jeff changed the whole thing,” Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass states. “He was a rock star of bluegrass, he was this larger than life thing.” Beck, like many young fans, grew up idolizing Austin and YMSB. “He was a big supporter when I joined Greensky. He gave me a lot of encouragement about that.” A similar pattern of support is remembered by Strings. “One night when we were in Baltimore, Jeff asked me if I wanted to play with them,” details Strings. “I got up there and Jeff said something like, ‘Isn’t it great that we have this kid to look forward to for the next 50 years?’ To have him say that meant the world to me and I will never forget that.”
In light of the loss, we can learn from Austin in one final way. “He left us a lot of great, great music. There’s a lot of little messages of love in there, but there is also a lot of messages of pain,” says Strings. “We really need a huge support system for touring musicians. Just because what I am doing is great, doesn’t mean I’m doing great.” Thorn cites that fans can influence an artist’s experience with their support. “Life on the road isn’t always easy. Your support means so much to us musicians. In the Colorado music scene, there’s so much support, it feels like you’re part of this great big family — one that’s coming together to sell out this show and raise a ton of money for Jeff’s family.” The YMSB is especially grateful for the feeling of community that has transpired from the loss of their former bandmate, and they look forward to sharing Austin’s favorite thing with his fans yet again. “Jeff was once asked what drew him to play bluegrass music,” adds Johnston, Kaufmann and Aijala. “His response was, ‘it gets under your skin and doesn’t go away. There’s an intensity to it, a rare beauty, it’s like the human heartbeat at a dancing pace.'”
Tickets to What The Night Brings are sold out, however you can pre-order access to the live stream here. The concert and live stream will start at 9 p.m. ET on Monday, November 4. All proceeds from the show will be donated to the Austin family. Donate to the Austin family fund here.