Jeff Austin walks in the door of his suburban Illinois home, drops his mandolin in the threshold and heads upstairs to give his 2-year-old a bath. His wife sends him a smile from across the room.
Oct. 12 | Cargo Concert Hall | Reno, Nev.
“Superdad,” she whispers, the love burning bright in her eyes.
When Austin announced his departure from progressive bluegrass group Yonder Mountain String Band in 2014, it felt for many longtime fans like he’d fallen off the face of the Earth. So beloved was this one-of-a-kind quartet interwoven with Austin’s lunatic energy that it was hard to imagine the band without him.
Although Yonder has continued onward as one of the premiere string bands in the country, it took two people to replace Austin: Jacob Joliff of Joy Kills Sorrow on mandolin and Allie Kral of Cornmeal on fiddle.
Meanwhile, the madcap mandolinist had retreated to his home state to reconnect with his family.
“When it all kind of came to head and I was no longer in the band anymore, I took the majority of the year off,” says Austin. “I started to think about my life, the anniversaries I’ve missed, the birthday parties I’ve missed. I don’t miss those things anymore.”
For the past four years, he’s returned to his roots while working hard to build the brand of Jeff Austin Band.
“The main thing that’s changed is that I don’t have to consult anybody anymore,” he says. “There’s one voice that builds the tours, one voice that decides when I’m gone and when I’m home. It’s also been a long time since I’ve put any number of substances in my body. That part has been a noticeable change. I’ll get home from a week of touring and actually feel good.”
After three years of playing to small, often undersold, houses with a rotating cast of musicians, the project is beginning to take shape and see a brighter future ahead. Austin has settled in with a solid lineup of young players. As he describes them, Mike Robinson on guitar is “an old soul who plays his ass off” and Kyle Tuttle on banjo is “an alien who bends time.”
The latest addition is Jean-Luc Davis on bass.
“When he joined a few months ago, I gave him a mountain of music to learn and from note one it was flawless,” says Austin. “I like my rhythm in a specific place and he gets it. These guys went to the best music schools in the country, but they also learned how to listen.”
When he took the main stage at the 46th Rockygrass Festival this summer, Austin alluded to the rumors that he’s been working in a convenience store and running a hot-dog truck. Later on, as he thanked the jubilant crowd, he joked that they were going to put on moustaches and suits and join the band competition before they got the invite.
“It truly was a cathartic experience,” he says. “I hadn’t been back to Planet Bluegrass since everything went down. I didn’t know if it would ever happen again. Then all of sudden here it was, this little thing in the distant future that we could work towards.”
When the band finished their flawless set for 4,000 people dancing in a paradisiacal field beside the St. Vrain Creek, the crowd was initially silent, before erupting into a giant standing ovation. Austin broke down.
“I started crying uncontrollably,” he says. “The universe has this way of putting its thumb on you. It felt like the beginning was finally over. It’s like it said to me, ‘You’ve put on a lot of boots and climbed a lot of hard steps. Now, let’s go.’ ”
Moving ahead, a re-grounded Austin has a found a new perspective on life, family and music to carry forward.
“There was a time when it became really easy to be on the tour bus and have someone take care of everything for me,” he admits. “Somewhere along the way, I lost appreciation for that, of just how hard it is and just how great that can be. Somehow, I pulled my head out of my ass. I did a good job of losing a lot of trust over the years, so it feels good to build that back up. There’s still lots of work to do, but I consider myself lucky. I didn’t die. I didn’t do something so stupid that I ruined my life. I’m getting a second chance to try this again.”
The Jeff Austin Band and The Dead Winter Carpenters will be at Cargo Concert Hall on Oct. 12. | cargoreno.com