Dave Johnston, banjo player for Yonder Mountain String Band, is a bit sensitive to banjo jokes.
"I get a little weird about them," he says. But he can't resist: "What do you got?"
Sensitive, maybe, but he's heard this one: What did the banjo player get on his S.A.T. test?
"'Drool.' Yeah, well, I did really well on the S.A.T. Why doesn't anyone make fun of hedge-fund managers?" he asks.
Johnston's thin skin with jokes that portray the banjo as the instrument of slack-jawed yokels is understandable. With his playing often driving the music, the Yonder Mountain String Band has introduced contemporary bluegrass music to legions of fans that have likely never seen Deliverance. They sell out venues nationwide that seat thousands, have performed at high-profile festivals like Bonnaroo, and in May will release their fourth studio album, Yonder Mountain String Band (Vanguard), which is likely to expand their audience.
"We definitely think of it as a definitive album and something that's more of a departure from our previous studio records," he says.
For previous releases, the band enlisted bluegrass luminaries Tim O'Brien and Sally Van Meter as producers, but on this album, the band's first on Vanguard, Yonder Mountain hired rock producer Tom Rothrock, who's worked with the Foo Fighters, Beck and the late Elliott Smith.
The result is an album firmly planted in the bedrock of bluegrass, but with noticeable rock elements. Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas plays on the first single, "How 'Bout You," which features a wailing electric guitar dueling with the banjo. "East Nashville Easter," co-penned by the band and singer-songwriter Todd Snider, has a sludgy bass and a build up more akin to hard rock than bluegrass.
"I'm of the opinion that bluegrass music is very malleable, very vital, and can sit with anything. I don't really see much of a difference between straight-ahead rock 'n' roll and bluegrass. I really don't," says Johnston. "Bluegrass and punk rock are the same thing to me: Simple, direct songs with simple, direct messages with a lot of feeling and a lot of intent."
Yonder Mountain has not so much innovated the bluegrass sound, Johnston says, as they have updated it.
"To me, traditional bluegrass is firmly bedded in an historical time, and the thoughts and fears and concerns of people who played the music back in the '40s and '50s is very contemporary with those particular eras," he says. "Ours is the same way, I'd venture to guess."
Lyrics like, "Go to work / Get through the day / And try not to remember," found on "Classic Situation," seem to convey contemporary struggle and show the band's fearlessness in exploring not-so-happy themes. "Angel," Johnston says, "is a story song about a guy that kills his girlfriend or his wife." Even on upbeat tracks, there seems to be a pervasive sadness.
"We want to avoid 'bubble gum' at all costs, and most real-life situations aren't that cut and dry, so you need to render them as completely honest as you can," he says. "Even if it sounds happy, it might be kinda sad. You're not going to get 100 percent one way or the other. That's a reflection of where we are, the way American people think, all kinds of things."
The songwriting process has also changed for this album. In the past, each band member would bring a nearly complete song to the table, and the others would accept it or reject it. The process for this album, Johnston says, was much more collaborative and spontaneous. The result is a collection of material that sounds unselfconscious and relaxed.
Tell that to the bluegrass purists who will likely cry sacrilege when they hear the progressive, contemporary bluegrass on the new album. "The real innovators are always going to catch heat from people that want it to come from a different time," he says. "You're always going to have purists. And that's fine. I have no problem with the purists. If they think we can't play traditional music, well then they're wrong."
The band is currently rehearsing the new material for the road. Johnston says the studio albums get the most press, the live albums sell best, and the shows are where fans are won over. A cadre of percussionist friends may be on hand to lend extra rhythm; the electric guitar will remain in the studio; and Yonder Mountain String Band is departing from home base outside Boulder, Colo., to hit the road and forge new traditions in bluegrass -- for better or worse.
"Dave Grisman had a very good point in an interview I read, where he said, 'All tradition starts off as heresy,'" Johnston says of the quintessential bluegrass innovator. "I think that he's right."
- Yonder Mountain String Band: "More of a departure."