Yonder Mountain String Band inhabit a vibrant space between Doc Watson and the Grateful Dead, blending the down-home comity of mountain string music and the light, loose-limbed spirit of a pre-eminent jam band. They aren’t bluegrass purists. Though they’re steeped in that traditional sound, they infuse it with a modern folk sensibility that’s made them a grassroots favorite.

The Colorado-based quartet formed 14 years ago around the friendship of banjoist Dave Johnston and mandolinist Jeff Austin. The two had met — much like revered songwriters Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett — on a front porch while attending college. It was in Urbana, Ill., rather than College Station, Texas, but the spirit was the same. Austin and Johnston sought to make music that feels like you’ve been invited to join them around the kitchen table or campfire.

“Some of the most powerful moments in people’s lives are when you feel you’re a part of this great, intimate thing. Playing music has always been like that for me, and if I can help someone feel at home for a little while, I feel that’s a really cool thing for everyone,” Johnston says.

At the time they met, Austin didn’t even know how to play the mandolin, but the two shared a fascination with bluegrass and the uniting power of music. Their first band, the Bluegrassholes, fell apart after a couple years, and the two made their way to Colorado. There, they met bassist Ben Kaufman and guitarist Adam Aijala, forming Yonder Mountain in 1998.

Though none of them grew up on bluegrass, its spirit drew them in and inspired them. “The siren song was bluegrass,” Johnston says. “It sparked our interest and it’s still the foundation of what we’re about.”

Their timing couldn’t have been better as they arrived just ahead of O’ Brother Where Art Thou, which sparked a wave of interest in acoustic roots music. YMSB rode that wave, developing a passionate live following reminiscent of the Dead. Though bluegrass was their inspiration, they filtered it through the rock and folk music they grew up on. They pepper their originals with a canny mix of covers, ranging from Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” to deep Stones cuts like “No Expectations” and tracks by U.S. punkers like the Minutemen’s “Corona.”

They’ve self-released all their own music with the exception of 2006’s eponymous release for Vanguard Records. The album was produced by Tom Rothrock (Beck, Foo Fighters), who returned to turn the knobs on their self-released follow-up, 2009’s The Show, which is the closest they’ve ever come to making a rock album. Just about half the album features drummer Peter Thomas (of Elvis Costello and the Attractions), and includes wonderful songs like Kaufman’s pretty pop-minded “Complicated” and Austin’s country-rock ode to a Texas hottie, “Steep Grade, Sharp Curves,” which describes her as “a treacherous stretch highway.”

Thomas could make the drums complement what the band was already doing, which can be pretty tricky for a rock drummer in a situation like that.

“String bands have a telepathy and a different understanding of rhythm that you have to develop,” Johnston chuckles. “It changes the dynamic. It changes the relationship between instruments. It’s just a different ballgame.”

Of course, it’s been three years since their last studio release — something Aijala sounds a little sheepish about when asked. He acknowledges that they’ve always been primarily a live act and the studio — where you don’t have the audience’s energy to feed off —will always present a challenge. Since they release all of their performances, and most songs receive stage workouts long before they make it into the studio, it’s not like fans are necessarily missing out on new music.

Yonder Mountain seems a little hung up on the proper approach and how to meld their live energy in the studio setting. They’ve actually been in the studio a couple times in the last year, but nothing’s come of those tracks yet. Things have been further slowed by two members’ expanding families. Indeed, Aijala confesses they’re scheduled to get together in a couple days and hash out their plans. He says they’d like to put something out this time next year.

“[We’ve thought] maybe we should try to keep some songs hidden to make it a little more special for our fans,” he says. “I think that would be cool for them. A lot of bands do that — they won’t perform any of their new music live until the record comes out. We’ve never really done that. I don’t think it will make a difference in how many we sell. It’s just a cool gimmick for the fans.”

As a band whose live music is bootlegged and passed around nearly as much as the Dead’s, Aijala’s point is spot on. But since the beginning, it’s been about performance more than record sales, and that’s sustained them even as other bands struggle in the recessionary, post-Napster world.

“We’re known as a party band, and people want to have a good time when times are good or when they’re bad,” Aijala says. “So they might be more selective about a show, but if they know they’re going to have a good time, maybe their selection is going to be us.”

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