A pillar of the modern bluegrass and jam band scene, singer/mandolinist Jeff Austin died unexpectedly on Monday, June 24th. He was 45.
A statement posted Tuesday afternoon on Austin’s Facebook confirmed his death, calling him a “dear friend whose music touched the lives of so many.”
Born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, Austin attended the University of Cincinnati. In Urbana, Illinois, he befriended banjoist David Johnston, whose band the Bluegrassholes he joined. Austin and Johnston later moved to Colorado, where they would found Yonder Mountain String Band with bassist Ben Kaufman and guitarist Adam Aijala in 1998.
With their instrumental prowess and adventurous musical spirit, Yonder Mountain String Band were — and still are — a pioneering group in the emerging progressive bluegrass scene that now includes marquee acts like Railroad Earth, the Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, and Billy Strings. They have also been a festival staple for the better part of the two decades since they formed. During Austin’s tenure with the ensemble, the group would garner six Top 10 albums on the bluegrass charts, including three Number One releases. Austin parted ways with the group in 2014.
On Facebook, Yonder Mountain String Band mourned the loss of their former bandmate: “We are saddened to report that we have lost our brother Jeff Austin. Remembering the incredible times and magical moments puts us at a profound loss for words. While we honor his memory, we will continue to pray for his family and for the journey they now face without him.”
Since 2014, Austin toured the country as the leader of his namesake Jeff Austin Band. The solo project had been gaining steam in recent years, especially through their ongoing collaboration with the Travelin’ McCourys and the Grateful Dead bluegrass tribute showcase titled “The Grateful Ball.”
“The Infamous Stringdusters opened up for Yonder in our early years and they taught us what was possible as an acoustic bluegrass band to be presented as a rock band,” Jeremy Garrett, Grammy-winning singer/fiddler for the Infamous Stringdusters, told Rolling Stone Country. “Jeff Austin was a huge part of presenting bluegrass as a rock show. It’s tragic. We’re all going to miss him and his profound influence on our scene.”
Contributions to help Austin’s wife and children can be made at www.sweetrelief.org/jeff-austin-fund.