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The Yonder Mountain String Band (click for larger version)

Band members 'Old Hands' at making music

The Yonder Mountain String Band had a specific goal in mind when the group teamed up with songwriter Benny "Burle" Galloway to make "Old Hands," a CD that was released earlier this year.

Jeff Austin, mandolin player and singer for the group, said he knew that goal had been achieved when the Yonder Mountain String Band was touring in France.

"It's funny, we were over in France, and we were doing a press conference," Austin said. "And it was being done in French, not a lot of English. We had an interpreter and everything for the press conference. This guy got up there and started speaking French and suddenly the name Benny Galloway (comes out) and we were just dying ... I called him (Galloway) up and I said: 'Well, that's it. Your anonymity is over. You've gone worldwide Galloway, like it or not.'"

As Austin tells it, "Old Hands" was conceived not so much as a Yonder Mountain String Band CD, but as a showcase for Galloway's music. A meat cutter and cattle buyer by trade, Galloway has been a fixture in Colorado bluegrass/folk circles for many years, but was virtually unknown beyond the state's borders.

"We realized how important his music is to us and we wanted to let him know it and show it on a national scale," Austin said.

When Austin and banjo player Dave Johnston first moved from Illinois to Nederlander, Colo., in 1998, Galloway was one of the first musicians to befriend them. The two future founding members of the Yonder Mountain String Band met Galloway at what Austin called an underground local music festival that May, and immediately discovered they had a rapport with the part-time singer/songwriter.

"Benny's like 'I just saw something in you guys that reminded me of me,'" Austin related. "'You guys just wanted to play music and just live your life and do good things and just try to make sense of what the hell is going on out there. And if you can't, then just try to contribute something.' That was kind of why we got together. We were cut from the same kind of cloth."

Before that first year in Nederlander was over, Austin and Johnston had met acoustic guitarist/singer Adam Aijala and bassist/singer Ben Kaufmann at jam sessions and the foursome had formed the Yonder Mountain String Band. Ironically, Aijala already had met Galloway at an open jam session early in 1998. Kaufmann soon was introduced to Galloway as well. And even as the group launched its own career, it wasn't long before the four had begun bandying about the idea of recording a CD of Galloway's songs.

But the foursome had to first tend to their own group, and over a four-year period, the Yonder Mountain String Band made major strides. Forming its own record company, Frog Pad Records, the group debuted in 1999 with the studio CD, "Elevation." That CD was followed by a second studio CD, "Town By Town" (2001) and a pair of live records, the 2001 release "Mountain Tracks: Volume 1" (2001) and the 2002 release "Mountain Tracks: Volume 2."

The group's touring base, meanwhile, has mushroomed. After starting out in small clubs, the Yonder Mountain String Band has been embraced both in bluegrass circles and in the burgeoning jam band scene and now often plays venues with capacities of 2,000 or more.

By early 2003, the foursome felt the time was right to team up with Galloway. From a Galloway songbook that features more than 60 songs, 13 were selected for "Old Hands.''

The results on "Old Hands" support the opinion of Austin and his bandmates that Galloway is one of the most gifted songwriters on the bluegrass/folk scene. His plain-spoken lyrical tales of colorful work-a-day characters looking for love, seeking a place that feels like home, dreaming of prosperity and enduring the hard-fought life of rugged frontier work, are easy to understand.

"It's not like you have to be a serious musicologist or a folk historian to get what he's saying," Austin said of Galloway's lyrics. "You've got to be a human being with a heartbeat and pain or joy, any basic human emotion ...''

On a musical level, Galloway's rustic and melodic songs are easy on the ears. But they do take the Yonder Mountain String Band, a group known as a progressive bluegrass band for their energetic playing and non-traditional influences — each of the band members started out playing rock 'n' roll — in some new directions.

"The majority of that record I actually look at as being more American or folk to me," Austin said. "There are a few songs that sound like traditional bluegrass, but the majority of it to me sounds kind of like good American folk music, whether it's got a bluegrass feel to it or a real raucous banjo kickoff or that sort of thing."

The Yonder Mountain String Band plays Nov. 28 — and Nov. 29 — at the Pageant, 6161 Delmar Blvd. Tickets for the 8 p.m. shows cost $15.

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