An Interview with Dave Johnston: Kinfolk and Banjo Jokes
An Interview With Dave Johnston of Yonder Mountain String Band: By Chance, It’s Magic
Leading up to Northwest String Summit, we had an opportunity to chat with Dave Johnston, banjo player from the Yonder Mountain String Band. The 2019 Summer heatwave has not skipped over Boulder, CO, so it seemed appropriate that he was just returning from a trip to the swimming pool with his family. He took a break from the leftover pizza and mac’n cheese to talk to us about the 18th Annual NWSS and Yonder’s return to Red Rocks Amphitheater.
While we’ve never had a chance to formally meet, Dave has always appeared to be laid-back, yet witty, if not plain sarcastic. His style on stage seems refrained, yet intentional – with a side of straight up goofiness. This is purely speculation, but I consider myself a pretty good judge of character.
(As I type, I am listening to a 2011 Northwest String Summit Yonder set. Johnston makes a comment about a strange dream he had, to which Ben replies, “Dave, you are one of the stranger people I’ve ever met in my life…in a good way.” I rest my case.)
We settle in after our initial greetings with an ice breaker.
We’ve heard you’re a man of few words. Is that true?
Dave Johnston: Yes.
And we’re off to a good start.
While many bluegrass musicians share stories of hearing their grandpa picking with buddies on the back porch, that’s not always the case. Johnston doesn’t seem to possess those deep roots in his genealogy. Instead, he gives credit to a bluegrass radio show he discovered while attending college in Illinois.
Johnston acknowledges that the Grateful Dead, with perhaps even a little Phish, certainly influenced his musical styles. So, when the radio show played Ginseng Sullivan, something struck a chord.
Johnston: I was like – whoa, that kind of music comes from there. And I started listening more to this particular radio show. And finally I got the desire to go buy Flatt & Scruggs, because they talked about Flatt & Scruggs quite a bit. I wouldn’t have been able to identify it if they had played it, but once I finally bought the Complete Mercury Recordings, I went home and put it on the CD player or whatever – a disc man if you want to date me – and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Hearing these songs didn’t just make Dave fall in love with bluegrass. The impact led him to purchase his first banjo, because he deeply wanted to emulate those intricate progressions.
Perhaps it’s my naivety, but it seems peculiar that a musician would choose the banjo as their first stringed instrument. But, as mentioned earlier, Johnston is a bit peculiar. So, for him, it was the perfect fit.
Johnston: There was something obsessive enough and compelling enough about how to play it, and the difficulty, too, really attracted me to it. I like difficult things, I guess.
To be completely transparent, Johnston had owned a guitar his senior year in high school. While he had learned a few chord changes, he just never felt motivated to play it like the way he wanted to learn the banjo.
When I first got my hands on the banjo, I felt like I could immediately make music with it. It just made me feel a certain way that the other instruments really didn’t. By chance, it’s magic.
So begins the musical career of David Johnston. We’ll never truly know if he chose the banjo, or the banjo chose him – but it was certainly the first step in what would be a long journey towards his success in Yonder Mountain String Band.
It seems appropriate that the true roots of Yonder Mountain String Band can be traced back to Johnston playing music with Jeff Austin in Champagne, Illinois. Their band was called the Bluegrassholes. (Witty, yet sarcastic.) It’s been rumored that Austin was invited to sing in the band, but it turned out he had recently picked up the mandolin. And so the story goes.
The band went their separate ways for a bit, and Austin headed out to Colorado. In 1998, Johnston is invited to join him, and he obliges. His goals are simple: “to make enough money playing music to eat and pay rent. And to practice a lot.”
Colorado has its way of seducing people. Often you hear stories of how one simply picked up their life and moved here, never having stepped foot in the state before. Many others share of how they came to Colorado to visit a friend or take a vacation, and simply decided to never leave.
Boulder, in particular, can truly charm its visitors. Folklore contains tales of the Chief Niwot Curse, where anyone who sees the beauty of this land will never want to leave. Many who move away feel drawn to return.
After 21 years, it seems Johnston may have been cursed by Chief Niwot as well.
Johnston: Since we travel so much, we see different places that seem they could be charming or attractive or a good value or something like that. But no, I like the Front Range. I like living where I live. I like raising my kids here. I have a lot of family and good friends here. There’s a lot to really enjoy about being here. It’s nice to sit back and smell the roses every once in a while anyway.
I couldn’t agree more.
And it’s not just that Colorado is breathtaking, or that Boulder is just such a particularly cool town to live in. Colorado also boasts one of the most impressive music scenes, especially if you’re passionate about bluegrass or newgrass or jamgrass…whatever you want to call it these days.
Colorado also possesses some of the best music venues in the country, and in particular, Red Rocks Amphitheater.
Yonder Mountain String Band is certainly no stranger to that stage. In 2003, they were invited to be a part of E-Town’s very first Red Rocks recording, along with Keller Williams and Michelle Shocked. That was just the first of many times YMSB would have the honor of playing one of the best venues in the country – heck, in the world.
Johnston: We played two nights with the Allman Brothers, I remember. Really incredible. We opened for Willie Nelson. And then we played the Big Summer Classic with String Cheese Incident and Umphrey’s [McGee]. So yea, we’ve definitely put some miles on that stage. It’s pretty awesome to play there, for sure.
It didn’t take long before Yonder went from an opening act to a headliner.
Johnston: The first time we played Red Rocks as a headliner would have been 2007…with Jon Fishman. Todd Snider played with us then, and Rodrigo y Gabriela. That was a great, great time.
Over the years, Yonder Mountain String Band has had the honor of playing some of the most iconic outdoor venues around the country. When prompted to share his other favorite venues, it’s no surprise many of them are in Colorado. Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, and of course, Telluride’s iconic stage both get honorable mentions.
The list seems endless, and simultaneously impressive. The Gorge Amphitheater in Washington. Deer Creek in Indiana. Alpine Valley Music Venue in Wisconsin. Pigsah Brewery in North Carolina.
Not to mention Horning’s Hideout in Oregon, one of the most stunning festival venues in the country – and the home of Northwest String Summit.
This year, Northwest String Summit (or Strummit, as long-time patrons have nick-named it) celebrated its 18th year in existence. With hundreds of festivals coming and going over the years, there are few that possess the sheer magic that seems to exist at this little festival in North Plains, Oregon. Similar to the curse Chief Niwot seemed to put on Boulder, there is something that draws attendees back to Strummit year after year – and there is certainly a powerful feeling that overcomes you as your car bounces down that dirt lane into Horning’s Hideout.
It’s not just the venue that draws the crowds back. The festival has always boasted an impressive lineup of musical acts, with Yonder Mountain String Band as the headlining host band every year. Attendees may come for the nationally-recognized bands, but they are certain to leave with new favorite band crushes. It seems NWSS has a knack for discovering bands that are on the rise.
Take Fruition for example. In 2011, the band could be heard parading through the campground and down to the pond, playing their songs to a growing audience. One by one, festy-goers would fall in line, as if being seduced by the Pied Piper. Last year, as I was setting up camp, I heard the familiar sound of Fruition being played in the campground. But when I turned to find where the music was coming from, I discovered it was a group of young pickers playing Fruition tunes. Talk about full-circle.
Since Yonder has been there from the beginning, we were curious how much influence they personally had on the festival’s lineup over the years.
Johnston: The availability of what a band was and what they sounded like was so much more difficult to get to 15 years ago than it is now. In that regard, I think a lot of the lineups of the earlier stages of the festival kind of came from the band’s explicit suggestion.
The first Northwest String Summit included some of the band’s musical heroes, such as David Grisman and Hot Rize. So it’s safe to say the guys had good taste. But they also had a the support of a great production crew to help them over the years.
The original Northwest String Summit was actually conceptualized at Dexter Lake with Yonder Mountain String Band and Silver People Presents, a production company located in NW Oregon. It was pretty much a group of friends that wanted to throw a party together – and it seemed to work.
The next year, staff members Skye McDonald and Greg Friedman worked with YMSB to move the festival to Horning’s Hideout, located about 20 miles from Portland.
Over the next 18 years, the festival has grown and expanded – but it has always stayed true to its family roots.
Johnston: It was a really small festival when we first threw it at Horning’s. But we liked that part of it, and we liked that the whole family and communal vibe of the festival, I think, comes from the first festival we had at Bob’s place, at Horning’s Hideout, you know.
There’s always been a very strong family current – literal families and figurative families. Those sorts of ideas have grown up with the festival. We’ve seen whole people grow up. It’s been crazy.
That family is affectionately referred to as Kinfolk– the passionate fan community of Yonder Mountain String Band. As the years go by, one can’t help but feel this family-vibe grow at Northwest String Summit.
This year, the Kinfolk family lost one of their closest members. Jeff Austin, the original mandolin player of Yonder Mountain String Band, passed away unexpectedly in June. While Jeff hadn’t played Northwest String Summit in years, it seems this year his absence would be palpable.
We didn’t want to focus the interview on this disheartening topic, but it was inevitably going to come to the surface. The Kinfolk family is grieving, and there seems to be many at a loss on how to deal with losing someone who seemed to change so many people’s lives.
Many have been curious as to how the band will honor Jeff’s life. We were curious if Jeff’s songs might make it back into Yonder’s setlist, as a way to maybe preserve his memory and keep his music alive with the band. After all, Austin had been there since the beginning of Yonder and NWSS.
Johnston: We know how much the fans love his music. And we love his music, too. I’m imagining that there’s some bands who wouldn’t want us to play his music. And it’s all just very mixed up…and strange and really sad. And I mean, I respect his music and I respect the people who love his music and who want us to play it. We hear that, and I think that we’re going to get there and figure that out for everyone.
You know, it’s all about being respectful, and not taking the reins immediately. It’s nice to let the dust settle.
It couldn’t have been an easy decision, but Yonder did decide to honor Jeff at this year’s Northwest String Summit. It seemed appropriate that they didn’t just play a catalog of his songs, but instead, they spent Friday evening playing the band’s first album, Elevation, in its entirety. Coincidentally, this year marked the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, adding to the overall impact of the emotional tribute show.
Friends and family filled the stage throughout the set, including Dan Rodriguez, Tyler Grant, Jay Cobb Anderson, and Benny “Burle” Galloway. The set (and album) started with a song written by Jeff Austin, “Half Moon Rising”. A Jagermeister toast was made in Jeff’s honor during “If There’s Still Ramblin’ in the Rambler”.
As Johnston expected, fans have shared their mixed feelings about this tribute show. It felt like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Johnston reiterates that the whole situation is just strange and sad, and they want to do what is best for everyone – including the fans.
Johnston: We can’t say enough about the Kinfolk and the fans. You know, they are as important as anything else that happens.
The air certainly seems a bit heavier at this point of the conversation, but we didn’t want to end things on a sad note. So, we ask Dave to tell us a joke.
It takes him by surprise, but he delivers.
Why are there no banjos on Star Trek?
It’s the future.
A bad banjo joke – the perfect way to wrap things up and give us all a little chuckle.
In true Festy GoNuts style, we wrap up our interview with our quick-fire Festy-Five: Short questions that require a one-word answer. And go…
The Festy-Five with Dave Johnston:
What was your first concert: Def Leppard
What’s your fave breakfast cereal: Grape Nuts
What was the last album you listened to: Nikki Lane “All or Nothin'”
One piece or two piece? This is open to your interpretation: One piece
Twizzlers or Red Vines? Red Vines
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