For nearly 17 years, Yonder Mountain String Band has redefined bluegrass music, expanding the traditional acoustic genre beyond its previously established boundaries by steadily pushing the envelope into the realms of rock n’ roll and improvisation. YMSB has always played music of their own design, in the process attracting a devout coterie of fans that often resembles a tight knit family on an epic musical journey as Yonder traverses the country with an ever-rigorous tour schedule. Yonder is a quintessential ensemble honing its craft night after night on the road, and the fans are there to experience it in real time. The result is music that doesn’t stand still, it’s always progressing and breaking unprecedented ground.
With their latest album, Black Sheep (released on their own Frog Pad Records late spring of 2015), Yonder Mountain String Band — Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals), Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals) and Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals) — begins a new era. The first YMSB release produced by the band itself, Black Sheep is, by any measure, a triumph, perhaps the most mesmeric of their career. For the recording, their sixth studio album overall, Yonder has recruited two standout musicians to join them in the studio (and, subsequently, on the road), violinist Allie Kral and mandolin virtuoso Jacob Jolliff. The result, says Kaufmann, is that, “This record sounds more like Yonder than any record we’ve ever done. I’m hoping that when people are finished listening to it, they’ll just hit play and listen to it again.”
Black Sheep marks the first time in Yonder’s history that they’re actually utilizing, throughout an entire record, the conventional five-piece instrumental arsenal of bluegrass introduced in the 1940s: guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and bass. With the exception of the album’s sole cover tune, “Ever Fallen In Love,” originally by the late ’70s British punk-rock band the Buzzcocks, each of the album’s new tracks were written by the YMSB members during the past couple of years. Three of the new songs — “Annalee,” “Landfall” and the title track — have already been road-tested on tour; others will be added to the band’s live repertoire following the album’s release. The majority of Black Sheep was recorded at Coupe Studios in Boulder, Colorado, with Adam handling much of the engineering at his home studio and while on the road; the first time a band member has taken on that task.
Even on first listen, it becomes instantaneously apparent that Black Sheep is the work of a new Yonder Mountain String Band, one with a strong commitment to re-exhibiting itself, broadening its parameters following the departure of a founding member. While it’s immediately recognizable as YMSB music, there’s undeniably a raw aesthetic to the studio tracks—a sense of daring is embedded in both the instrumental interaction between these five singular players and in the lyrical content of each song.