“This is it. This is the band. We’re here and we’re focused,” singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Jeff Austin says with glee. He’s referring to his handpicked ensemble, the Jeff Austin Band. The group features long-time collaborator Danny Barnes on banjo and guitar, guitarist Ross Martin, bass player Eric Thorin, and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars on percussion.
The Simple Truth, the group’s 2015 debut solo album and Austin’s first recording for Yep Roc records, is no simple affair. His legions of fans have long known of Austin’s eclectic musical influences. Here, instead of familiar jam band motifs, listeners will find hints of power pop, country ballads, bluegrass and rock. Assisting the band is an array of acclaimed guests including Todd Snider, Jenn Hartswick, Brendan Bayliss of Umphrey’s McGee and Sarah Siskind.
Austin began recording the demos that would comprise The Simple Truth with Nick Forster (of eTown and Hot Rize fame) in December of 2013. In March of 2014, the group spent around ten days recording the bulk of the album’s tracks. Though the Jeff Austin Band is a new project, Austin is quick to point out that each member had a rich history of collaborating onstage and off.
“When I did Jeff Austin and Friends shows,” he remembers, “Eric was always the bass player. I love great solos but if a band can move at the same rhythmic pace, I get off on that as much as anything else. Eric and I move at the same pace as each other.
“Through Eric, Ross came into the fold,” Austin adds. “They’ve been playing music together for 20 years. So when we all got together, that’s what hit us.”
Austin’s connection to Danny Barnes, the famed Bad Livers banjo player and now avant-garde “barnyard electronics” experimenter, goes back even further. It’s hard not to hear the album funky down-home title track without hearing the hallmarks of Barnes. “Danny and I have been playing for at least ten years,” Jeff says. “I remember in the mid-’90s working on the radio in Champaign, Ill. They had all these cassettes in the studio room and I had just found bluegrass music. I heard the Bad Livers and said, ‘That’s the kind of bluegrass I like.’ There was a darkness there, a different tone to it. It sort of changed the way I thought bluegrass had to be played.”
“When I hear this music,” Austin says of The Simple Truth, “I hear Danny’s sensibility on it. You’re looking at 20 years ago, when a twenty-something-year-old kid working radio heard something and the switch was flipped. And now he’s standing right there, creating this music with me in real time. The simple fact of that is pretty mind blowing for me.”
Austin’s rock leanings can be found on the album’s opener, “What the Night Brings.” “We recorded that all together, live, there was something about that take,” he says. “It was played in a bluegrass style for so long, but that’s how that song was originally intended. The hook that rolls through it, the big drum, the big electric guitar … this is how it sounded in my head all along, for years. It was a moment of making this statement as clear as possible.”
Sarah Siskind’s impact, in particular, can be heard throughout the project, from the tender “Falling Stars” to “Over and Over,” a tune Austin co-wrote with the famed Nashville songwriter. “She changed everything,” he says of Siskind. “To say I’m a fan of her songwriting is a terrible understatement. She’s done something that I’ve only seen John Prine do, where gender has nothing to do with it. The emotions are straight across the board.”
Austin initially connected with Siskind thanks to a bout of writer’s block. He contacted the esteemed singer-songwriter via email when he couldn’t wrap up “Over and Over.” “I had chords for that song for over a year,” he says. “I had the beginning of the first verse, too. I was stuck and I was completely landlocked. “I was driving somewhere, listening to Sarah’s records and I said, ‘I think I know what I need to do.’ I typed out what I had, I made her a demo and a couple of days later I opened my little digital mailbox and there were a couple of emails from her.”
“It was absolutely lovely,” Austin says of her contribution. “ It took me a half day to recover from it, it was that strong of an impression. Over the course of a week, it was there. I thought, ‘Holy crap, we just digitally wrote this song together.’”
Siskind not only co-wrote the heartfelt “Over and Over,” she eventually contributed vocals to the album. Austin is excited that in 2015 she’ll even be opening and playing with the Jeff Austin Band on a few select dates. “I have this dream in my mind of her and Ross and Danny playing triple electric guitars with Cody on drums and me with a shit-eating grin, standing behind them all,” he says with a laugh.
Despite all the collaborations, Austin is quick to point out that he’s not letting go of his famed mandolin (an exquisite Nugget mandolin handmade by luthier Mike Kemnitzer) anytime soon. You can hear its chords on the album’s rock inspired opener and throughout the album. “On this record you notice that the mandolin is scattered about,” he explains. “I wanted to sing these songs without worrying if I have to do a solo here or figure out a riff for this part. I wanted to sing songs the best I could, tap into a lot of emotions that I haven’t ventured to in a while.”
It’s hard not to notice Austin’s enthusiasm for the new project. “As the primary writer and singer, my name may be attached to the thing, but this is everybody’s band,” he says. “To see the work these guys are doing on a nightly basis, embedding themselves and the dedication to work, it’s ridiculous. It’s a cool thing to be a part of.”