Bob Dylan said everybody must get stoned, and Old Crow Medicine Show rocked like a wagon wheel, but what about being “stoned as rock & roll?” It’s the cornerstone phrase of Yonder Mountain String Band’s newest single, “Insult and an Elbow,” that sounds like a pleasantly delirious state of mind – unless, according to singer/bassist Ben Kaufmann, it’s actually more about forming a rock-solid wall between yourself and reality than floating double-versioned in the clouds. Premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country, the song’s video shows the modern bluegrass quintet doing what they do best: playing traditional music with a point of view that’s anything but.
“How many times over my life had I turned to a substance to provide relief from a difficult situation?” Kaufmann tells Rolling Stone Country of the inspiration for the fast-picking single and the turn-of-phrase that drives it. “Could it really have been the entirety of my twenties? Sure enough. And some of my thirties too. ‘Insult and an Elbow’ is my reflection on that time in my life when I felt utterly trapped, and when I was drinking and smoking for all the wrong reasons. But it is also written from the perspective of a person who is on the brink of a moment of growth and self awareness.”
What all that growth has meant for the band is a sixth studio record, Black Sheep, to be released June 16th at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and a new version of their sound that indulges their steely punk roots and fuses them with die-hard Appalachian rituals. This will be the first record that has the band in classic five-piece bluegrass formation on the entire LP — guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and bass — but, in Yonder Mountain String Band tradition, adhering to convention provides even more opportunities to shatter it just so.
Yonder Mountain String Band (Kaufmann, Dave Johnston, Adam Aijala, Allie Kral and Jacob Jolliff) will take their new songs on tour this summer, hitting the road through fall and winter, including a hometown show in their native Colorado at the storied Red Rocks Amphitheater with Greensky Bluegrass and Fruition. Live shows are where they gather a cultish following — their type of jam is half pickin’ party, half plucked from the swirling crowds of a Phish concert — which has propelled them to play both traditional festivals like the Northwest String Summit and a tour with Widespread Panic. Along the way, there’s been a lot of getting stoned as rock & roll — and thus, “Insult and an Elbow” was born.
“The phrase came to me one day,” Kaufmann says. “I thought it sounded cool and I kept revisiting it and trying to write a song using it. But I only began to have success when I stopped thinking about how cool the phrase sounded and began exploring the idea of escaping reality through substance abuse. The song became autobiographical. “
Maybe not everybody must get stoned.