Dave Johnson Talks About Yonder Mountain String Band

“Playing in Vermont is like maple syrup: sweet and delicious” is the first phrase that comes to Dave Johnston’s mind when asked about playing in Vermont.

Johnston and his fellow band mates, Adam Aijala on Guitar, Ben Kaufman on bass, and Jeff Austin on Mandolin, make up the Yonder Mountain String Band, which will play the Higher Ground in Winooski tonight, Tuesday the 11th.

The quartet formed in the small town of Nederland Colorado in 1998. Johnston and Austin had played together in a band called the Bluegrassholes in Champaign, Illinois.

Kaufman and Aijala are both from the greater Boston area, Stowe and Sterling, respectively.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dave Johnson about the band.

Johnson says, “I was inspired by the writers and painters I lived with in Champaign, artists who all wanted to be free from the nine to five job. I originally wanted to write for a living, but I started playing banjo and making a little money with that [Bluegrassholes], then after college I moved to Seattle to get out of the Midwest, but it wasn’t economically viable. All I was doing was playing on the streets and not making much money. Jeff called me and said ‘Get here to Colorado,’ so I went.

The music scene there is supportive to musicians, plenty of people willing to feed us.

“I was 20 when I started playing the banjo; it was my friend’s dads and I had played a little guitar before. The banjo just clicked, it felt right,” says Johnston.

This will be the group’s seventh appearance at Higher Ground since 2000, when it first had an opening slot.

Higher Ground is one of the smallest venus on the tour, which started on Halloween in Portland, Oregon, and continues through Thanksgiving, wrapping up with a two night stand in St. Louis. Missouri.

“Higher Ground is an excellent place to play a show, better than some theaters” says Johnston.

The band recently instituted a no smoking policy, so the show can be enjoyed without the watering eyes (at least not smoke-induced watering) and the smelly clothes that can normally be counted on when attending a musical event at Higher Ground.

Yonder draws from a large catalogue of original music, as well as a huge selection of covers, ranging from the Misfits “20 Eyes” to the Talking Heads “Girlfriend is Better.”

Its influences are as diverse as its covers. Johnston credits Ben Eldridge of the Seldom Scene and Earl Scruggs as getting him started with bluegrass music. Johnston says, “Bela Fleck’s ‘Sanctuary’ did it for me; it’s a great song”.

The new album from Yonder,”Old Hands,” is a departure from its other two albums. On this album, a good friend, Benny ‘Burle’ Galloway, wrote all the songs, with the Yonder boys performing them.

This is not Galloway’s first collaboration with the Yonder boys. Johnston and Galloway wrote “Checkout Time” together, which appears on the Yonder album “Town by Town.”

“Burle’s staying at home this tour, he’s got some huntin’ to do” says Johnston. Galloway has done mini tours of the northwest with the band before, coming on to play a few songs each show.

Expect some new songs to be debuted on this fall tour “We’ve all got a lot of music in our head from Yonder and other places,” says Johnston.

Yonder has spawned a few side projects, most notably the String Congress led by Kaufman, which had its first appearance at Yonder’s festival the North West String Summit held at Hornings Hideout outside of Portland, Oregon, in June.

The String Congress includes fiddler Darol Anger, formerly of the David Grisman Quintet. Darol will be joining Yonder on the northeast run of this fall tour; unfortunately, he will not be playing with them until the show after the Higher Ground show.

“Darol Anger is an invaluable asset, great guy, great musician, and he brings wonderful ideas to the table,” said Johnston.

Johnston recently performed with a group calling itself Swing Set; they are a trio, with Will Downes on bass, Blackdog on guitar, and Johnston on banjo. They play mostly swing and jazz songs.

Austin has a new album in the works with Chris Castino of the Big Wu, which is scheduled for release in March; and the duo will be opening up the first night of Yonder’s two night stand in St. Louis to close out the tour.

Yonder Mountain is playing tonight at the Higher Ground in Winooski; tickets are $20.