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Jeff Austin 1974 – 2019 (Travels with Jeff)

July 4, 2019 1 comment

* Editor’s Note: There won’t be much wine in this geist.

My dear friend, Jeff Austin, is gone.

Jeff & me 2003

I’m still processing, though the news cycle has moved on, but I also need to write some things down. This is how I used to process everything, before I sold booze for a living, back when people would pay me for words. It used to be a whole industry, before they started calling it user-generated content, and settled on shittier copy for free. You get what you pay for. I used to write a lot, as did my friend, Jeff, often in the same place and time. I recall a time high on a hilltop, above Nederland, CO, pounding away on my laptop (and wrestling with Sawyer the dog) on Jeff’s living room floor, while he and Todd Snider worked out some tunes.

I like Todd a lot, but he never remembers me. The third time we all hung out together was on the front couch of somebody’s tour bus outside a theater in the south (maybe the Ryman, maybe the Fox?) that one or both had just played. Todd introduced himself to me, so I reminded him of the living room writing session, and another solid hang in between. I told him, “no worries, I get it, songwriters only remember chicks and guitar players.” Without missing a beat, Todd replied, “I don’t much remember guitar players.”

Jeff Austin was one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and unlike Jeff, I’ve never had a lot of them, at any one time. I don’t entirely know the details, but I know that he is gone, and I am currently a 6’3” raw nerve in a hail storm. He had so long since survived his hard coke days, and the rehab that followed. It had been a decade since I had seen him consume to excess, and I never saw this coming.

Jeff and I certainly had some hard days, nights, and weeks of mass consumption, but the last decade or so, our parties usually involved fairly lavish meals, and reasonable bedtimes. Jeff worked much of his early work life in kitchens and food service, and became a true gourmand and a highly skilled home cook. He used to work at the deli in Nederland when he was off the road with Yonder, not because he needed the money, but because he enjoyed the work.

Chef Park’s Wagyu Carpaccio

Our youthful Vegas trips, filled with drugs and strippers (long before his marriage), quickly turned into long slow evenings of 12+ course dining events and rare Chambertin at profound eateries, most notably and often, Joel de Robuchon’s L’Atelier at the MGM. Those meals were rivaled by equally decadent, though more rustic and relaxed NY dining expereinces at Chef Park’s counter, at Bistro Petit. The visceral joy we shared at those counters, watching the deep effortless artistry that occurred in the open kitchens, reverberates through my brainstem even now.

I met Jeff and the other founding members of Yonder Mountain String Band when that scraggly bunch of skinny kids (and one full size acoustic bass) spilled out of a stuffed white minivan, onto a soggy festival field in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. It was the 3rd year of the Big Wu’s Family Reunion. Jeff was a human rubber band of life lust, Ben soft-spoken and joyfully reverent, Dave was reading The Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich, and I thought that Adam hated me, but it turned out he’s a profoundly dry wit, moored to a stoic anchor. And man could those kids pick. That drive without drums was riveting. Through the course of that wonderful weekend, Jeff and I found ourselves in the same place and time, over and over again, and by the time those four packed back into the minivan, we were fast friends. Swimming in similar circles for then next few years, I crossed paths with Jeff and the Yonder crew frequently, both happenstance and planned.

Jeff & I once spent a couple of days looking at houses outside of Nashville, with the intent to buy, and we joked about being hetero-life-partners. And there was always music! Everywhere we went, we were always comparing notes on what we were discovering and exploring. Jeff turned me on to the Louvin Brothers, I turned him on to Yo La Tengo. Driving west from Colorado to Las Vegas once, listening to Ben Folds’ then recent release, Rockin’ the Suburbs, Jeff said, more than slightly enviously, “That guy holds the patent on every hook in the universe.”

It wasn’t long into our friendship that the Yonder van rolled up to Berkfest, and I spent much of that weekend careening

Jeff holding church in 2006

through forest and field with Jeff, his mandolin, and the Devil (a tiny, sweet, cherubic blond with a magical sack full of trouble), stopping at tents and camp sites to pick and partake. At some point during the weekend I arrived (just as Jeff, Dave, Ben, and Adam walked up) at the tented, elevated platform that served as the festival stage’s indoor/outdoor green room. At this time in my life, I was respectful (and naïve) enough to believe the sign reading ‘Yonder Mountain String Band and family’ meant the band and blood relatives, as opposed to ‘family’ in the Dead sense of the word. I was talking with Jeff as he headed up the stairs, and then he turned back toward me, noticing that I had stopped at the sign. He shot me an incredulous little smile, “what are you doing? You’re family.” It’s hard to explain how much that meant to me then, and how much it still means to me now, but it has been a long time since anybody paid me for words, and I’m a little rusty.

During those years, as a Hunter Thompson disciple, I was practicing the self-indulgent art of getting away with it, which is what Thompson said of writing for a living. In our travels, and occasionally from stage, Jeff would refer to me as his lawyer (though which of us was Dr. Gonzo was always in question), and I in turn would offer life and professional advice. My cartoonish tone would indicate whether it was a deliberately awful idea, or an actual moment of reason. Considering our individual self-destructive tendencies, we were more often than not, a centering influence on each other, which is why I feel such an abject failure now.

Through my freelance years, during which we both traveled extensively, I had more world-class times with Jeff Austin, in more cities and festival fields than I can count or detail. When he first started attaining real material success, he was proud of the pull he could muster and came to New York to join me for two consecutive small venue Jeff Tweedy shows- for which he had excellent seats awaiting us. We had a blast. And I was proud of what my friend had built, from nothing, with his buddies and his bare picking hand. Over the years, my own fortunes ebbed and flowed, while for many consecutive, Jeff’s were on a steady constant rise. Through my leaner years, he always picked up the check, without

Wrigley Field 2007

saying anything about it.

I once had the ill-conceived idea to join my friends Jeff, Ben, Dave, and Adam, on Yonder Mountain’s Europe tour, and shoot a feature on spec. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and then there was radio silence from Yonder’s then manager for a very long time. The project was going to be scrapped completely, until Jeff stepped in and insisted that my feature accompany the next Mountain Tracks (4) live release, as a CD/DVD combo. When the dust settled, and the cash was counted, I was repaid what I had spent on production and travel, and a (tiny) little bit on top. How many filmmakers can say that they turned a profit on their first feature (using the term loosely, as it’s my only feature)? The only reason I can say that is Jeff Austin.

It was also on that trip, that for 11 Euro each, at a picnic table full of Yonder cast and crew, we shared one of the most profoundly fulfilling meals of our lives, outside the otherwise sold-out tiny village dining room, two towns down the road from the American country music festival the fellas were playing in rural France. Many of the festival’s patrons didn’t speak a word of English, but they did line dance in tasseled leather, and wide-brim hats. If I could make this shit up, I’d be a better writer.

Our times were always music and food centric. But few things will ever beat the profound simplicity of those freshly picked wild morels, sautéed in butter, in a heavy skillet, over an outdoor hearth on the edge of Yellowstone. Was that before, during, or after Sandy and Stella’s wedding, Jeff?

Jeff wasn’t perfect. He once caused a huge rift between my girlfriend and I, after curtly dismissing discussion of her music (she is a classically trained string player, and a founding member of an indy band, with a couple of solid records). But she eventually threw me out, in the middle of the night, for something I didn’t do, and Jeff would always take my calls in the middle of the night, so it’s tough to hold that one- or any other- against him.

In an interview once, Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, told me with a reverent chuckle, “On stage, Jeff is a freight train.” Hunter Thompson often said that you know who your friends are at 3 o’clock in the morning. Jeff Austin was a freight train, who would take my call at 3 o’clock in the morning. There is no replacing that. My world is a much smaller place for his absence, and I will miss him as long as I breathe, but I will be listening to his music, and recalling our adventures, fondly for the rest of my life. And you should too.

If you’d like to help out Jeff Austin’s wife and kids, you can do that HERE.