FLINT, Michigan — Jamgrass. It’s a unique mixture of jam band and bluegrass, and it’s one of Yonder Mountain String Bands’ defining traits. The group, which originated in a small Colorado town, has sold out Red Rocks Amphitheatre, performed at Bonnaroo, and has continued to play a steady lineup of gigs since 1998. On Wednesday, April 20, the group brings their modernized, free, expansive version of traditional bluegrass to the Capitol Theatre in downtown Flint.
The quintet (Adam Aijala, Ben Kaufmann, Dave Johnston, Allie Kral, Nick Piccininni) combines the use of electric rock and pop instruments with the traditional bluegrass slide dobro guitars, and banjos to create a genre-defying sound that varies each show.
Adam Aijala, vocalist, songwriter, guitar player, and one of the band’s founding members in Yonder Mountain String Band spoke with Flintside about the band’s history and their upcoming Flint show.
“This will be our 24th year, come July,” he says of the musical group. Aijala says the band had already exceeded his expectations after five years together and continues to do so. Today, they’re still writing new material and putting out new records, something Aijala is happy to do alongside his bandmates who became friends. Their latest record, Get Yourself Outside
, released in Feb. of this year, saw the addition of a new band member, Nick, and with that, a new, refreshed energy.
“Nick is the newest member of the band, who plays mandolin mostly, but he is really amazing at all the bluegrass instruments,” Aijala says. “He’s a great banjo player, great guitar player, great fiddle player, and he’s a songwriter and great singer too. He’s considerably younger than the rest of us too, 16 years younger than me, but fits really well. He’s got a really good ear, and even better, he’s really great offstage which to me is just as important. You spend way more time offstage than you do onstage.”
Writing and recording of the record took place amidst the pandemic and ushered in a brand-new (to the band) way of doing things. Aijala says nine of the 11 songs came to existence after the March 2020 lockdown, many during Zoom call writing sessions.
“A lot of bands do pre-production for every record,'' Aijala says. “We’ve never done it before, and it actually proved to be very helpful and made the actual studio time pretty efficient. It was a great experience, to be honest. I think having a new songwriter gave the band a boost of energy. Nick is very melodic, his songs are cool and we help each other with lyrics. Dave and Ben are both really good songwriters.”
The jamgrass group is currently on tour and headed to The Capitol Theatre in downtown Flint on 4/20.
Since the group consists of multiple singers and songwriters, there could be potential for clashing of styles or particular opinions, but Aijala says he’s grateful to work collaboratively.
“Everything I write: lyrics and music, I run by the whole band,” he says. “I think that’s one of the things when we talk about being a family — we realize that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I’m not married to any given idea of a song I come up with. If someone says ‘I don’t like this line or lyric,’ or ‘maybe try a different chord here,’ I don’t get offended. We’re all in it for the right reasons. We want the best song possible. Co-writing can sometimes have egos getting involved, but I feel fortunate with these guys in the band.”
Many bands considered the pandemic as a sort of ‘sabbatical from live shows,’ which allowed for some introspection. For Aijala, he spent time playing the guitar and listening to the band’s recorded gigs. “I went and listened to a bunch of our live shows,” he says. “I ended up shelving a few songs that I sang and/or wrote, and just felt like they weren’t really translating to me in the same way. I’m not saying they’re done forever, but maybe I will rework some of them or figure something out. Digging into my own playing and I was able to practice and work on stuff on my instrument that I wouldn’t do if we didn’t have that break.”
Get Yourself Outside
the best bluegrass album of 2022 by Westword, Denver’s independent source of local news and culture. The recognition is appreciated yet unexpected for Aijala.
“Whenever a new record comes out, I’ve always had the element of feeling a bit of pride in the accomplishment of it,” he says, but I don’t have any preconceived notions that when I write something or when we put something out, that it’s going to have any sort of recognition or notoriety. It’s bluegrass, for starters, and that’s never going to be mainstream. Maybe Billy Strings
will change that narrative.”
Although Aijala admits he doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of what’s popular these days, he is grateful that everyone has different musical tastes, allowing space for all kinds of bands. With that, comes the accessibility to a seemingly endless supply of music, thanks to streaming.
“There’s something for everyone, and there are so many genres now,” he says. “Having everything on your phone, you can listen to 300 million+ songs at any given point, it is almost overwhelming. I used to have 20 cassette tapes, and my parents had their records. I love the idea of streaming, I don’t like how little musicians get paid from it, but I do like it all being right there and available. There are definitely more pros than cons to the availability of music these days.”
For more information and to purchase tickets for the April 20 show, visit Capitol Theatre’s website. Genesee County residents can save 30% on tickets; discount applied at checkout. Masks and vaccinations are highly recommended for the show, presented by LightSky Farms.