The Jeff Austin Story: Put On Your Purple Tuxedo and Go To the Dance Yourself
We were fortunate enough to speak with Jeff Austin just 6 months before his unfortunate departure. We count our blessings for the time we had with him, and for this encounter, which we will cherish forever. Below is the article in full, as it was originally published.
Jeff Austin is a husband, father of three and mandolin player for The Jeff Austin Band. The Jeff Austin Band is currently on tour and is on the lineup for all 3 WinterWondergrass festivals. We spoke with Jeff from his home in Illinois right before the holidays, as he was enjoying a rare long break at home with the family. We had planned for a half-hour interview with Jeff, which effortlessly stretched to an hour. Talking to Jeff is just that easy. It’s like shooting the shit with one of your closest friends, if that friend is a witty artist and a wordsmith with a stash of tales to share.
Jeff Austin called us from his home in the Chicago area, but with a 303 area code serving as a reminder of the musical journey that he has taken.
We got to chatting as Jeff was briefly escaping “the mayhem of the morning,” a common occurrence in the Austin household:
Jeff at Home
“The safe word is cantaloupe,” Jeff joked, warning us that the two youngest were having a bath, and if we suddenly heard running water, “they have come through the floor!”
“I have almost a month off to take a breath, put up an inflatable snowman and reindeer in the yard, play with the kids.”
We wanted to know more about this side of Jeff Austin, and where the balance is found between family and time on the road:
“I wish there was some deep answer, like transcendental meditation on a little hill behind my house,” Austin says. “I’ll be 45 years old next year, maybe I’ve got a couple of things I’m starting to figure out. I don’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. That’s one thing I’ve learned getting older – what you allow to get to you… just keeping all these things in check.”
“For me, it’s also just making sure that I’m home for all the things that are really important – my wife and I’s anniversary, all the birthdays – that’s a dance right there. It’s really just managing to almost do too much before you go crazy, because then your downtime is really precious and really worth it.”
Jeff Austin’s current downtime came just after playing in Vermont for the first East Coast rendition of WinterWonderGrass.
The Jeff Austin Band is one of the few acts appearing at all 3 WinterWonderGrass Festivals this year: in Stratton, VT, Steamboat Springs, CO, and Tahoe, CA.
“Spectacular – they could not have picked a better place to have it,” Austin said of Stratton Mountain Resort. “For a first-year festival, as far as I see it, I just thought it went off great. We had a blast, the fans could not have been more generous with the energy they gave to us!”
And that energy can be important when playing an outdoor music festival on a ski mountain in the winter. The fans get to bundle up, but the musicians have a show to put on regardless of the temperature.
How does Jeff Austin manage to play mandolin in freezing temperatures?
“This answer might piss you off a little,” Jeff laughed, “but I don’t get cold! I don’t know if I was struck by lightning as a child, or played with too many electrical outlets, but my hands don’t get cold, my feet don’t get cold, I don’t get cold.”
The Jeff Austin Band will be back on the road for WinterWonderGrass in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where he most likely will have a better chance to put his cold-bloodedness to a test.
“You want it to snow, right? And you can kind of almost count that one of those days in Steamboat we’re probably going to get that lacey, cool looking Colorado snow that makes all the pictures look rockstar!”
Easy to say for someone invincible to the elements.
“I said to one of the guys in the band, if you need a hug during the set, I’m right here. Come over, I’m like a blanket, a big warm blanket!”
J eff Austin was born outside of Chicago. He grew up with his mom, who managed to expose him to many different types of music. His first concert was the J. Geils Band in 1983 at 9 years old. Not exactly Bill Monroe. By the time he was 14, Austin had it set in his mind to “go to school, go to Broadway and be in musical theater…and whatever goes after that.”
He may have easily succeeded upon that path, but as it happened, he is not Jeff Austin, Tony Award-winning actor. He is Jeff Austin, mandolin freak.
How did he get here? Was there a defining moment in Jeff Austin’s life that led him down the path he has traveled?
“There was,” Jeff says. “It was the day that I decided to drop out of college.”
Stay in school, kids. Jeff’s journey was not for everyone!
Jeff Austin enjoyed a “good music program” in high school, and by his senior year in 1992 he was winning competitions and awards as a singer. He had already committed to a small school in Evanston, IL to study jazz voice, when he won a National solo voice competition. Austin got a call over the intercom summoning him to his choir teacher’s office. It was there that he learned his competition performance had caught the attention of someone who worked for Disney.
The prospect of working for Disney didn’t quite persuade Jeff to give up on his jazz voice studies, but his choir director also had referenced him to someone at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (CCM). Within a week he was auditioning, and he was accepted on a full scholarship.
(Jeff’s audition, in case you’re wondering, was a number from the Broadway musical “1776”. He sang Mama Look Sharp, an uplifting tune about mothers of young soldiers who walked through battlefields looking for the bodies of their children. “Yeah, 17 years old, this is what I find fun!” )
So it was that 17-year-old Jeff Austin found himself looking at a full scholarship to CCM.
“I had been programmed, in my own mind, since the time I was 14, that I want to do this… But all of a sudden I started to go, you know what man? ‘Cause I was going to see live concerts my whole life, my mom would take me to see anything! I saw REO Speedwagon, the Signals Tour from Rush in ’84, so something had drawn me to performing on the stage. But now I was 18 and I was in it, and CCM (Cincinnati Conservatory of Music) was crazy!”
CCM held Jeff to a pretty grueling schedule, and he was constantly auditioning for something. It became clear to him that he was unlikely to finish a four-year degree there.
“I was basically being informed…we’re going to keep letting you audition for these things and you’re probably going to end up getting one of these, and then if that happens, you may blink and then you’re thirty, and you’ve been doing Broadway for 15 years.”
Listening to the Noise…
Jeff had been seeing the Grateful Dead since 1987, and performances like those were beginning to sway his vision. He became intrigued with the idea of playing music, or singing on a stage where the crowd is “more reactive than ‘I perform, you react, and then we move on.’”
Austin started entertaining the possibility of performances where the artist and the crowd are reacting together.
“I started at that point to think, ‘Do I want to leave the safe secure world of musical theater in 1992 to start a band?’ And the noise became louder.”
And louder. And louder.
“I wasn’t sleeping or eating. I was getting really depressed, and I was calling my mom at 3 in the morning… and finally one day I told her what I was thinking and she said, ‘If you want to do that, I will support you no matter what.’”
So Jeff Austin, at age 18, just 2 months away from finishing his first year of college, had his mom pick him up and take him home.
Jeff laughs reliving it to us, “I was throwing away everything I had ever wanted and everything I had ever known; but, I was 18, so I was like, fuck it, right? Shit, ‘I have tons of time’, says the 44-year old Jeff Austin pacing around his living room, with 3 kids, driving around in minivans!”
He moved back in with Mom, worked in a computer store, and started formulating what he wanted in music.
“But that was the moment for me where I just said, ‘Well, you don’t get that chance back, and you just got rid of it, so you better go work your ass off no matter how long it takes!’”
The path did not instantly present itself, but his theatrical influences helped pave it for him.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda (American Broadway icon) basically said, ‘I wanted to be on Broadway, but I didn’t see a role for me so I wrote one.’ That truly was my goal.”
Into the Woods
Part of Austin’s desire to ‘write his own role’ also stemmed from some of the darkness he was attracted to. He recalls his love for the works of Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd) and his fascination with dark comic books and horror movies as influences. “I wanted to write something that brings these two worlds together, the dark side and the light, and combine the two.”
As much as Jeff Austin was intrigued to dedicate himself to some grand theatrical project, he also realized that “people that do that..that’s a decade-plus worth of work… years go into that.”
He thought there may be other ways to express himself.
“…at 18 I kinda was like, well maybe I could do that every night, to different crowds of people, over and over. Maybe I could write 200 songs, rather than writing 20, and then I could write another hundred songs, and another…that was the moment.”
It was at 18 years old, living with his mom in Illinois, that Jeff Austin began to formulate what it was he actually wanted to accomplish.
“I wanted to play rhythm guitar, sing songs, find great musicians and play with them. And that would kind of evolve into, ‘Holy crap, now I’m in a bluegrass band!’ But I didn’t grow up with bluegrass. I grew up with all this trippy crazy shit, so maybe, let’s do both of those together, and then…blink, and I’m on the phone with you talking about Kyle Tuttle bending space and time.”
The Jeff Austin Band
It’s pretty well known that Jeff Austin and Yonder Mountain String Band parted ways in 2014. Since then, the Jeff Austin Band has gone through several different looks, with more than a few members coming and going. Banjo legend Danny Barnes and guitar virtuoso Ross Martin are a few of the members who have had a stint with the Jeff Austin Band. The current lineup is Julian Davis on guitar, Jean-Luc Davis on Bass, and space-time bending Kyle Tuttle on banjo.
It’s been over 4 years since Jeff and Yonder split, but Jeff took some time off in that first year before getting back at it.
“So this is really year 3, and for a small business, year 3 is always the year that is like, well, are we going to crash into the ocean, or are we gonna skim it, and it’s going to push us in an upward trajectory, and that’s what, luckily has started to happen. And it really is a comment to the guys that are playing music right now. They have so much other stuff going on, but there is a commitment to it. I only ask one thing, just play your ass off, and that’s it. It’s really simple, get up on that stage, let’s all just play our asses off!”
Jeff and the band have a lot planned for 2019. Finishing an album they began recording last year is at the top of the list.
“My idea for the record that I want to have come out, with the music that I have in mind right now, is done. All the songs are done, the
Fans will already know a majority of the tracks on the forthcoming record, as the Jeff Austin Band has been playing them live for a while. The few songs that haven’t been played yet are about to make their way into the rotation.
“I used to be a prisoner of the record cycle where it’s like, ‘well, you don’t play the stuff before you put the record out.’ Well, in my world, familiarity is really helping.”
The new record will hopefully be out in the summer of 2019 if all goes as planned. The band has a tight window to fit the recording into, as they’ll be hitting the road hard this summer.
The summer music festival lineups are already starting to emerge, and Jeff Austin Band is on more than a few of them.
Jeff Austin is no stranger to music festivals. While with Yonder Mountain String Band, he helped to create a world of festivals in which they were the top act, in some of the most magical locations in the world.
Ask Jeff Austin about his favorite music festivals, and the answer is a bit nostalgically sad.
“Favorite festivals?” Jeff laughs. “Truthfully, festivals I’ll probably never play again. Telluride Bluegrass… Northwest String Summit. So much of my heart was there. Funny, right? It’s like, ‘Oh, the rose you long for!’”
Strings and Sol is another amazing music festival that Jeff had his hand in. The festival has gone on for 4 years since the Jeff and Yonder split, with Yonder maintaining the headlining spot. Many fans would like to see Jeff back on the beaches of Mexico, and in the woods of Hornings, but don’t get your hopes up. When we asked if we might ever see him back at one of these iconic music festivals, Jeff replied, with a chuckle, “Hmmm…No!”
“To me, it’s not even like, ‘Darn it.’ There’s none of that about it. It’s just like, well, then what other opportunities are there? But I’d be lying to you if asked me what my favorite festivals were, and I didn’t list places that were actually amazing.”
Jeff Austin did get a chance to return to Planet Bluegrass this year for Rockygrass, an experience that clearly had an effect on him. “That festival changed my whole life. Who didn’t go there and go, ‘Wow! Holy Crap, Colorado! Jeez, this is what this is about?!’ And to go back there 20 some years later, and it’s still what it’s about!”
And JAB is making headlines at other music festivals around the country. Some of Jeff’s current favorites:
“Old Settlers Music Festival, what a freakin’ blast that is!”
“Charm City Bluegrass. I can’t say enough about that festival. The people who put it on are just exceptional…”
“That [Suwanee] Live Oak, I mean, forget it. It’s like you’re in a scene from The Dark Crystal!”
Inspiration to Rebuild the Castle
The last four years haven’t been such an easy ride for Jeff Austin, as he will readily attest to. There have been ups and downs and plenty of bumps in the road leading to where Jeff is now. The kid that grew up with the dark comics and the dramatic theater certainly had some self-doubts along the way.
He hasn’t gotten through these times alone. Jeff’s wife has been a motivating factor, a huge source of positive reinforcement.
“Someone would leave the band…and I would just be so freaked out. I would think, ‘Nobody’s gonna come, everybody’s gonna think, You can’t keep a band together.’ And my wife looks at me and says, ‘Jeff, write the songs, play the songs, and sing the songs.’ Write the songs, play, sing the songs, just keep doing that, and get on the stage and let’s go!”
Growing up without a father, Jeff has learned to seek out role models within his musical circles. One such figure has been the Father of Newgrass, mandolin god Sam Bush.
Jeff speaks about Sam Bush with genuine affection, “Sam is kinda like my dad . I didn’t grow up with a dad, so Sam has been there for me through a lot of crap. Huge pivotal moments in my life, I call Sam. He’s a very important person in my life.”
(Watch the “Revival! The Sam Bush Story” for more of Jeff Austin on Sam Bush)
In one instance Jeff recounts from about a year ago, as the doubts started to creep in, he shared them with Sam:
“[I was} thinking maybe I need to try to do something else, was my heart in this, after having it been broken a bunch, am I still really in this game? I don’t ever want to be up there faking it. The day that that happens, I’m done. I said something like, ‘You know, it’s going to be really friggin’ hard to rebuild the castle brick by brick, but I’ve been doing it for 3 years now, and it’s really hard, but I can see some light to it, you know what I mean?’ And [Sam] looks at me and says, ‘Yeah, I’ve been doing it for 33 years!’ Damn! Hammer of Thor! That’s like dad knowledge, you know what I mean?”
That “dad knowledge” resonated with Jeff, who has started to see the castle come back to some of its former glory. The moments of light are becoming more common.
“Just when you think the bus is just gonna come by and cream you, and just run you over…” Jeff Austin is not afraid to speak openly about the light cutting through the darkness.
One recent moment of seeing that light, as Jeff recounts, was at WinterWonderGrass in Vermont. “Crowds to me, they go ‘Whooo’ or they go ‘Whaaa’, and when they go ‘Whaaa’ they’re going crazy!. And the crowd was going ‘Whaaaa’, and they got louder and louder. I was like, Damn! That’s pretty emotional right there. So, yeah, you can feel that stuff.”
Jeff felt it earlier this year at Rockygrass as well:
“At Rockygrass this past year, I fell apart. I couldn’t take it. It was a very emotional thing.” At his wife’s urging, Jeff Austin and the band decided to play Snow on the Pines, a fan favorite from the Yonder Mountain String Band days.
“And so we did…and people seemed to like it. And then I looked out and everyone stood up and were jumping up and down, and…they all rose up, and then they kept going, and that ‘Whaaa’, got like ‘WHAAA WHAAA’, and I went to the mic to say something, and I completely fell apart. I sobbed. I breathed out and when I breathed in it was like, god, I’m crying in front of 4,000 people! And I’m having this moment, where I’m like, ‘Well this is new!’ And I’m looking at my guys, and they’re all getting emotional too. And I turn around and my wife’s there with all my kids, and I’m like, oh my god, now I’m a wreck!”
“It was a very cathartic experience, just to feel that. It’s just been…it’s been great. It’s like, this is what I do. Shit, this is what I do no matter how hard it is, and no matter how hard it will continue to be. This is what I do! I’ve got three people that look at me like, ‘Dad, I like shoes and food!’ So, there’s that part of it! But to feel that has been really powerful.”
Jeff Austin Has Missed You
Jeff has been experiencing a common occurrence lately as the Jeff Austin Band enjoys larger and larger audiences. Fans feel something for Jeff Austin, and some have the need to share that sentiment with him. Understandable, as Jeff Austin touched many a life with the wide reach and the longevity that Yonder had enjoyed during his time with them.
“There’s a comment that people have made, and they’ve made it since the whole split happened and everything, but they say it a lot now. People will come up to me and say, ‘I’ve missed you’. And my reaction is always, ‘I didn’t go anywhere! I’m right here! In fact, I’ve missed you!’ Like, there were 20 people in Baton Rouge, where the hell were you?! I missed you more, so ‘Come on, let’s go on tour!’”
Just Do the Work
It’s been a long and interesting road for Jeff Austin. Life takes unexpected twists and turns. Paths disappear as new ones emerge. No one knows that better than Jeff Austin. More than once, Austin has made the decision to choose a different path than the one he was on, whether it be at 17 or 40.
What has kept him going, and not just humming along, but really going, has been his dedication and drive.
“I can’t measure it in, ‘Am I gonna do this? Am I gonna do that? Is this gonna happen?’ Just do the work. Just fucking do the work. Keep your head not down, just keep it up so you can see what’s ahead.”
And what’s ahead for Jeff Austin?
“I’ve had the opportunity…when I was in Yonder, man I had 15 years when I traveled the world with my friends…and was able to make a living, and spread a lot of joy, and it’s like, possibly, with the right amount of work, I could do it again! Let’s try that! It’s a lot of hard work, but I knew it was going to be. So, little bits of light are always super helpful. But the good thing is I got Lasik and my vision is really good, so I can see really far.
No matter how small the light is I can still make it out.”
“At some point, you just put on your best purple tuxedo and go to the dance yourself. And you rock it.”
An interview with Jeff Austin is a quote explosion. Seriously, some of the stuff that comes out of this guy’s mouth! We tried to include as much as we could in the above story, straight from the mind of Jeff Austin. Inevitably, there were way too many delicious one-liners to fit them all into the story, but there were many that were just far too good to leave out!
So, straight from the brain of Jeff Austin, here is Jeff Austin On…
Not being invited to Northwest String Summit: “At some point, you just put on your best purple tuxedo and go to the dance yourself. And you rock it.”
2018: “2018 was pushing against a lot of walls to make them wobble, and now that they’re coming down, it’s time to go!”
Aging: “I used to go on the road and get no sleep. Now I go on the road to sleep!
WinterWonderGrass: “There are a lot of festivals that book with too much emotion. This festival was like, this is what the fans want to hear, they totally want to get down so that’s exactly what we’re going to give them. Scotty Stoughton and the whole crew, they know exactly what they’re doing and they really do it well from every perspective”
Performing: “When I get onstage everything kicks in and I don’t think of it”
His music: “It gets a tad dark…a tad dark…just a little nibble on that part of the moon…”
His changing band members: “People kind of ebb and flow into the band…and that might not happen in the future, or tomorrow, or two years from now, or they may meet another Jeff Austin and just replace me with him.”
His current band: “These guys are just assassins at what they do, and I’m just really fortunate at this time to be making music with them.”
Kyle Tuttle: “I have not met one finer. His ability to take such deep-rooted theoretical music knowledge and pair it with improvisational brilliance is above and beyond.”
Recording: “I’m not a 400 take guy, for the music that I make and the way that I view the studio, for me the magic happens in those first 4 or 5 takes.”
Strings and Sol: “This is just nuts! How insane is this?! You’re in a hot tub on your deck listening to Railroad Earth!”
Wolves: “When the sun goes down, the wolves come out and it gets (growls) Graargh! It’s crazy, but the fact that you can have that vibe…that’s important, and it tells the tale of a festival.”
Kids at music festivals: “If there are kids at a festival, that’s a good festival! Because the parents are there having a great time, the kids are there having a great time, and therefore there’s an atmosphere that’s created.”
Suwanee – Live Oak, Florida: “The way you come through…you’re driving through crazy Florida and this and that and all of a sudden you’re like, wow, where am I now, and then you pull into the festival ground, and you might as well be on the moon.”
Crowds: “When they go ‘Whoo Whoo Whoo’, they’re having a fun time, but when they go ‘Whaaaa’!”
Being missed by his fans: “Well, I’ve missed you all, too. So now that we’ve gotten over the missing part, let’s go kick some ass! Let’s go do that!”
Jeff Austin: “Write the songs, play, sing the songs, just keep doing that, and get on the stage and let’s go!”
Can’t get enough Jeff Austin?
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Jeff Austin Full Festy GoNuts Interview
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Great article!! I miss Jeff and can’t wait to see him at WWG in Steamboat!
What a great read! Thanks! Can’t wait to listen to the interview. Seeing him tonight in lil ole Columbia, SC!!!