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Coast To Coast – Talking w/ Jeff Austin

WinterWonderGrass is all about doing what feels good. When we expanded into California, it was because the foundation had been laid in Steamboat, and people wanted it, and it felt good. When we expanded to Stratton, there was a need for this kind of Festival on the East Coast, and it felt good to return to my roots, but we needed the community to buy-in. We spent time going door to door, talking to locals, inviting them to come out and see what we are all about. It was important that we delivered to them the quality of bands and production that is synonymous with WinterWonderGrass out west.

That was where the Coast to Coast artists came in – we booked five artists to play all three Festivals. Five artists that bring the energy, embody the spirit of WinterWonderGrass, and that make fans want to come back year after year. I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of our Coast to Coast artists, Jeff Austin, to talk about WinterWonderGrass, and so much more.

Photo by John-Ryan Lockman © WinterWonderGrass Festival All Rights Rerserved 2018

“The guy rips, he’s a huge part of what built the culture of bluegrass and jam-grass in this community, and it’s inspiring all of us, so it felt right…. We’ll go back and forth, and let’s have some fun with this one.”

Scotty: It’s about doing this from your heart, and aligning yourself with people who believe what you believe. Whether it’s the photographers, or my team, or the volunteers. We’re all on the same mission together. So going East was about going home, bringing back the culture that inspired me to move West, and then it was like, so who do we book? Now we have three of these things. Who wants to do this? Jeff Austin’s agent Baron was like, “Jeff wants to do all three!” That was before he even knew it was Vermont, and that’s awesome. Before he even understood the venue, or the consequences of Vermont in December, or any of those things, a guy like Jeff and a few other bands that are on the Coast to Coast ticket, just wanted to align with us and just said yes no matter what we put out there. It’s a real privilege and honor to see this guy back here.

He played with us once in Avon after he left Yonder. I’d imagine it was a more quickly put together band, and it was great, but it was freezing cold. The venue down there wasn’t great. It was a tough day. Everybody did their other things over the last couple years. I saw Jeff pretty recently and it just rocked so hard, I was like, “Man. It’s back, and it’s on.” To be honest, I never really knew Yonder that well back in the day, except I knew I always loved the performance side of things, the energy, the charisma, and the passion. Once I heard his band play, I knew it was on and we needed to get him out here for three shows. The guy rips, he’s a huge part of what built the culture of bluegrass and jam-grass in this community, and it’s inspiring all of us, so it felt right. I’ll turn it over to Jeff Austin. We’ll go back and forth, and let’s have some fun with this one.

Jeff: Well, first of all, that is so fucking super nice of you to say. I want to touch on one thing first, about going to Vermont. For me, having played the Avon event, that was kind of my only experience with it. Watching it from afar, watching it extend to California, when Baron Ruth was my agent and you spoke to him, he said, “I think it’s gonna be in Vermont.” For me, that seemed like such a logical fit. Before I moved to Colorado to meet the guys and form Yonder, I was going to move to Vermont and go back to college, work at Otter Creek Brewing, this and that. Truthfully, for me growing up in Chicago, it was just a little too far away. So when I went to Colorado, I was like shit I can jump in my truck and drive home. But when it was mentioned that was the addition, in December, it just seemed really logical to me. You have this community that’s up there, and I remember that was one of the first places we went to play out East, when I was playing with Yonder. We opened for Gordon Stone in like, 1999. Then we went back the next time and brought out 300 people on our own, and I thought, “There are people here that can’t really get out, but they want to connect. They can’t always fly two weekends to go see Phish, or they can’t fly to Atlanta to see Widespread. They need something to come to them. Flash forward 20 years, to have the festival expand there just seemed incredibly logical to me.

I’m so grateful to not only be asked to be a part of this, but to have you personally reach out. It means so much. It’s been five years since the end of my relationship with Yonder. To be invited back to this many different events in this many different places, and to feel this kind of love and energy, it’s just infectious. We were driving up yesterday and my band members were flipping out. As soon as we hit the highway to Steamboat it started dumping snow, and we were all so excited.

Our relationship goes back so far. It’s the connectivity of the people in the scene. For me, it’s what this festival is doing. For example, Leftover Salmon. I’ve always said, “So go with Colorado, so go with the Nation.” In this scene of music, from Greensky to Fruition, to Leftover Salmon, to the Lil Smokies, anybody, this state has really big ears. If somebody in this state listens to you and shouts out to somebody else, things happen.

Leftover Salmon to me in 1998…that was that. A year or two later, I was sitting with them on stage, and then you come on stage, and it explodes, and I’m like…”This is fucking awesome, who’s this cat?” So we meet. Then 20 years in the future, my agent reaches out and is like “Hey, you know how we’ve been looking for some allies in this world?” There are a lot of parts of this business that are not super fun. Finances, things going on behind the scene, things breaking down, blah blah blah. That’s why the veil exists. That’s not the fun stuff. Don’t pay attention to that part. Let’s have a good time, put energy into that, and that’ll make all that other stuff disappear. You’ve always spread that, and it’s become infectious amongst your staff, and amongst everybody. Our friendship going back as far, then rekindling, then playing the festival, it’s great. I can only relate looking through the eyes of the guys in my band. They’ve never experienced anything like this. Not even close. To see them talk about this 2 months before it happens, be blown up about it… I woke up this morning and Kyle [Tuttle’s] instagram feed was amazing. He sat in with everybody. He immersed himself. This will carry on. So that’s a little bit of our history, and that energy has always been there, but I appreciate so much the words that you’ve said about me.

I just try to let people have a good time, and work my ass off. Now there’s such a different perspective. To see it, to have played Avon, yeah that was a crazy day. Danny Barnes was playing Banjo in my band at that point, and there was one point where this 70 mph wind hit, and I looked over and Danny was GONE. It was amazing, he ran into a heater, and then came out like “WHAT IS GOING ON?” Yesterday when I first saw you, you said, “Wait til you see this.” I didn’t see it until I walked on stage. I walked on stage and was like “Oh my goodness. Yeah, this is a thing.” Last night I went and had a really morning and sat at this bar, had a meal, had a beer. All the locals were talking about the festival, this, that, life, and I thought…this is the community to support. I’m excited to go to Squaw, but to have been in Vermont and to have seen the way that it radiated through the community there was amazing. I even told you, I talked to somebody and they said, “What this means to our community right now, in December, this is life changing for us.”

Like you said, it’s not about one band. There are certain things that can happen at this festival that will light a fuse for people. I’ve seen it with friends of mine. It’s amazing watching it happen.

I’d be curious to see how you felt about that first year, from your experience. Having this gone from being in Avon, then the move to Steamboat and the success here, and then moving on to California, the success there. Like you said, you put your house up to make the first festival happen. That’s real life shit. That’s out of this world. Now to be this many years removed, to take it back home, that’s amazing. My question for you is, did you have a moment that weekend where you had the spark in your brain that said, “This is happening.” The minute I got on site I thought, “This is going to be here for a long time.”

Scotty: Well this is a good time to say, we are coming back to Vermont. We listened to the locals, our staff, and crew. We decided, as cool as it was to do this in December, a more logical move would be to move it into April. That was the only other weekend that was available. So a couple weeks ago we said, we’re going to come back to Vermont in 2020, but we didn’t want to leave anyone hanging, and we didn’t want anyone to miss us too much. I did a deal with Stratton to go back to Vermont this April, two weeks after Tahoe, and throw a thing called Sugar and Strings. It’s sugaring season there. We’ve got the Kitchen Dwellers, we’ve got Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, and Twisted Pine, plus three local bands, and Pappy from Cabinet. They’re all coming out for a free weekend of music in Stratton. We just do it because we love to build the community and we want to keep the momentum going, and we really care. It’s really awesome to be able to do that in Stratton. We’re building momentum for 2020 to come back to Stratton.

It felt good to be in Vermont. Fun story that I like to tell people about why I wanted to bring this to Vermont…I mentioned that I grew up skiing in Vermont, I have a huge connection to that place. I realize as I’m older now, what it really did for me. I think as you get older and wiser you realize the things and the experiences and the people that crafted your journey. Seeing those mountains as a kid really made me long for Colorado. That’s why I’m here, that’s why I got into music. But I had a notion to go back to Vermont. I got on a plane and went back in January. I think, secretly, there was a girl that I wanted to see. We had a connection. She had moved back to Vermont, a single mom. I didn’t know her that well. We wrote to one another and I said, “I’m looking at a festival site. Do you live near Stratton?” And she was like, “I live right around the corner, let’s have dinner.” So I went in, saw the site and thought, “This is amazing.” I had dinner with this human being, and fast forward to now…we’re engaged. I’m the stepdad to her five year old. The joke is…she said, “I thought you were coming out to give me a job interview.” And I was like, “No it was a date! Shit!”

So I got off the plane to go look at Stratton and I felt something. Now I’m engaged and now we have a festival there. I went door to door pretty much in the community, with the help of my marketing director Ariel. We told the story, we explained who we were. We talked to the people, we talked to the local businesses. We explained why we were there. We will never ever allow the success of the last events to permeate our confidence, it’s all about the next things that you do, it’s about what you take from what just happened to make it better, do a better job. It’s about knowing that you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Take those mistakes and empower your own knowledge and your own journey.

Stratton looked like this but with 1,600 people. It was just a little mini one! It blew their minds, they were like, “You guys are crazy! This is amazing!” We didn’t have to put on four stages, build all those stages, but we did so that we could show them what we’re all about and what we’re capable of. That Vermont expansion was awesome. I did the same thing with Squaw. I wasn’t really trying to expand, we never grow just to grow. I believe that progression should happen because there’s an intention to do the right thing, and to keep fulfilling your own journey. If that happens to be a new festival, new love, new relationship, or travel, that’s what you should do. That’s what Squaw felt like as well. I stood on that spot and looked at the face of the mountain and I was blown away. I knew it was the perfect backdrop to cultivate this new experience of authenticity and delivery from the heart.

But back to you, Jeff. I don’t know how much this is discussed. There’s definitely been talk about whether I book Yonder or book Jeff. It seemed like maybe some people didn’t want me to book either, and I’m like, “I don’t give a shit!” I book people based on what they do and who they are today, and what their intentions are. I’m not about drama. I’m not about any of that. We all do great things, we all screw up. If you don’t learn and gain from those experiences, that’s what I have a problem with. Everyone on my team has made mistakes, and we learn from them, and come together and band together like family and that’s what it’s all about. So when I reconnected with Jeff and saw the band, I was all about it. I don’t know if there’s drama around the situation [Jeff laughs loudly].

So I have two questions for you. What’s the hardest thing about leaving Yonder, and what was the best thing about leaving Yonder.

 

Jeff: Wow! My lawyer was texting me earlier to advise me on what I was able to…just kidding. The thing that I’m always grateful for is, and I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again. I was so grateful for that time. I’ve spent the last 5 years driving a lot of fucking mini-vans, loading a lot of gear, and I wouldn’t trade a single second of it. I got 15 years to travel the world with my friends, meet a lot of people, play a shit load of music, and have a lot of fun. That’s what I focus on. I learned a long time ago, you dig yourself into anything other than that, you’re going to cheat yourself out of a lot of stuff. So, ummmmm…[laughs] Two fold!

I took almost an entire year off. My daughter had just been born. She was about 3 months old when all that ended. I spent my first summer in Colorado since I moved there in 1998. I grew tomatoes, they were really tiny because we lived at fucking 10,000 ft. I ran around with my dog, hiked the woods. The coolest thing was that we got a house phone. We took our cell phones and put them in a drawer. That thing rang for a month and we didn’t know what it was, because nobody knows what the sound of a house phone is. So for me it was just getting to kind of…gah, there’s only so far I can go here, because I’m a good player. That reset button for me was so necessary. I had come out of a lot of personal shit, this and that, was on a very different path.

When I met my wife, I became a stepdad to a 4 year old little girl. Then I had a girl, we have a son together too. For me, that was one of the best parts. Like you, Scotty, the fact that you put forth what you put forth in order to make this festival happen, you were able to make a lot of decisions on your own. When you’re in a deeply emotional situation, this and that, there can be a lot more that comes along with it. For me, I don’t ever focus on the negative part. It has been 5 years. The fact that people are still so passionate about this…we did fuckin’ something right. We did something right for a long time. That’s what I’ll hold on to. Any of the other BS, this or that, what the internet believes, that’s fluff. The truth is that I still have people come up to me and tell me passionate stories and that means so much to me.

I believe we get one life. So you asked what the hardest or the best thing was. For me, all of a sudden I had this summer where I was hanging out with my daughter while she was crawling in the yard chasing butterflies. I got to really sit and reflect on that time. I had a manager at the time who told me, “Put your phone in a drawer. Bake some bread. Grow a weird beard.” This guy worked for The Eagles, he pushed Bohemian Rhapsody on radio stations, he’s seen a lot of shit. I grew the weird beard, but my two daughters weren’t really having it. I look at it now and I’m so deeply grateful for this vibe that’s happening, and you’ve been a part of it by inviting us to play these three events. This is real. This is what I do. It wasn’t that my time with Yonder ended and then I was headlining Red Rocks. It’s that I was playing for 12 people in Cleveland, and no one gave a shit. It was hearing everything horrible people were saying. So, to get out there yesterday, and at the end of the set I was jumping around like an idiot. Why did I do that? Look, 44 year old man, you were excited! Let yourself be excited. Shut up and let the 24 year old jump around.

I never ever spend one second thinking badly about what happened, and if I did go down that road, I’d need to remember to be grateful for the things that we were fortunate enough to have. Be grateful for the fact that we got to hang out with last night’s crowd 5 years down the road. I’m grateful 12 times over for that. It’s the work, the constant work. Tomorrow morning when I wake up at 8 to drive my crew back in a Rav4 to Denver, I might wish we were flying in a jet back to Denver and then Chicago, but we’re not. Maybe not in these conditions, but it would still be so awesome. It’s from my heart when I say that none of that for me exists in a second of what I do. This festival spreads so much positivity. Be grateful for what you have. Don’t focus on any of the clout. Go forth with your own thing. My own thing is being very fortunate in an opportunity to try to make this happen again. You are a big fucking part of that, Scotty. It stirs my pot, then the guys in the band see it, then it becomes contagious, and then we’re all in this together.