After 15 years of navigating the meandering, sometimes treacherous path between fiery-fingered bluegrass and jam-bandlike improvisation, Yonder Mountain String Band members have become bonafide experts of musical trailblazing.
"More often than not, we'll jump off the cliff and see where we land," says banjo player Dave Johnston. "I'd definitely say that we're ready to go bushwhacking."
No longer in their early 20s, the Yonder Mountain members of today are a little more organized, and they travel a little more comfortably, Johnston says, but they're more than happy to keep wielding the machete, so long as they have fans willing to follow their lead.
Fortunately, Johnston says, the band tends to attract people who are as adventurous as its members.
"They're willing to see what we have," he says. "I have to give them a lot of credit for having open minds and open ears."
Since forming in Nederland, Colo., around the nucleus of Johnston and mandolinist/singer Jeff Austin, Yonder Mountain has led the ranks of bluegrass' progressive party alongside artists such as Railroad Earth and Leftover Salmon.
The fanbase willing to follow them on their musical explorations has been legion, which contributed to their last three releases -- "Yonder Mountain String Band" (2006), "Mountain Tracks: Volume 5" (2008) and "The Show" (2009) -- hitting the top spot on the Billboard Bluegrass Music Charts.
Sunday, Oct. 13, Yonder Mountain will take the stage at Track 29 almost exactly a year after it headlined the opening night of last year's 3 Sisters Music Festival.
The show will come two days before the debut of "EP '13," a' four-track extended-play album that represents the band's first physical release in four years. Material for the album was recorded last fall at a handful of studios during the band's fall tour and was produced this spring, Johnston says.
At Track 29, the band likely will run through the entire EP in addition to sampling from its 10-album discography of studio and live projects.
Along with the expected fierce solos and four-part harmonies, the show will feature plenty of experimental improvisation. Just because they'll be forging a path into the unknown doesn't mean the band won't be paying attention to and honing in on the experiments that work the best, Johnston says.
"You can get so much out of ... finding out what things you played off the top of your head succeeded and what fell short," he says. "When you learn to trust that stuff, you learn to communicate more efficiently and give people what they're looking for and something to talk about."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.