Yonder Mountain Stringband banjoist Dave Johnston still loves his group

Yonder Mountain Stringband banjoist Dave Johnston still loves his group

Photo by Jay Blakesberg, © Jay Blakesberg

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Dave Johnston, banjoist with the Yonder Mountain String Band, says if there are any misconceptions about the band it's when someone tries to ascribe a genre to the group's music:

"It's the misconception that we're a traditional bluegrass band, which is not quite right, and the misconception that we're a rock 'n' roll band, which is not quite right either. Anything that's overly categorical should be met with skepticism and resistance."

The Yonder Mountain String Band carries on a tradition started with a few groups from the 1970s and '80s, most notably New Grass Revival, which mixed bluegrass with rock and jazz.

Yonder Mountain, though, formed during the heyday of jam bands, drawing audiences who also loved Phish and Widespread Panic.

The genesis of the group stretches back to when Johnston and mandolinist Jeff Austin met in Urbana, Ill. Various bands and moves brought the two back together in Colorado. Johnson lived in Boulder and Austin lived in Nederland. In 1998, the two met bassist Ben Kaufman and guitarist/vocalist Adam Aijala, who had landed in town after a knee injury intruded on his ability to do forestry work.

With a solid foundation in bluegrass, the group began collaborating on original material and pushing the boundaries of the genre. Always popular on the festival circuit, today the group is filling up 1,000-seat and larger venues.

Johnston says the group is "established enough that we're not going to starve" and visits a number of cities where the act has a solid following.

"It feels nice to frequent towns that you enjoy playing, and Knoxville is one of them," he says.

The years have changed certain aspects of the group's touring style. The members have become family men. Johnston's second child was born just a few weeks ago.

"Going on the road, in some respects, hasn't changed. You know what to expect on a lot of levels. But it has become a much more mature environment for us. Travel has gotten to be a lot better. It's a lot less of a physical and mental strain than it used to be. We're a more established band in all the places we go to, so every place tends to feel a little more like home."

Still, he says the members retain a sense of adventure, and that attitude stretches into more than travel.

"One of the ways you can really stay vibrant is to stay open to that kind of curiosity. ... Being able to live with that curiosity is humbling and really cool at the same time. It'll do a lot for you if you really trust it."

Sometimes, he says, that curiosity needs to be applied to things people take for granted.

"You don't need to be inspired by the fantastic. There's a lot of complexity and fascination in the mundane stuff, too. If you really think about it, if you spend a moment thinking about how your food got to the grocery store, you might find a whole 'nother world that you can spend some time exploring. There's just a rhythm to every day life that's really complicated and there's lots of stuff going on all the time in the most simple things, like going out to buy a broom."

Johnston says artistic inspiration comes in many forms. Sometimes it's with the band. Sometimes it's in private.

"Sometimes it happens on the golf course," he says with a chuckle. "To me, it's kind of like the same feeling as having a good conversation with someone."

Sometimes that someone is just the band and sometimes it's with the audience.

Johnston says when the group collaborates it's sometimes just someone bringing a complete song to the group and teaching it to the rest. At other times it's trading ideas back and forth.

"And everyone is kind of subject and open to the kind of editorial impulse," says Johnston.

He says probably everyone thinks about doing something different once in a while, but he doesn't think about it often.

"You can get into that mode where you think, 'Oh, what that guy is doing is so much more important than what I'm doing.' But anymore, I don't think we're doing this to be important. We're just doing what we love to do. We're not trying to win any awards or anything. It seems like a cop out to say, 'Oh, I wanna go do this' when you have a pretty sweet gig right in front of you."

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Yonder Mountain String Band

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10

Where: Tennessee Theatre

Tickets: $25, available at Knoxville Tickets locations, 865-656-4444, www.knoxvilletickets.com

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