Yonder Mountain String Band has been expanding the bluegrass genre and performing to a loyal fanbase across the country for over 15 years. Now, as they near their two decade mark, YMSB has the energy and spark of a brand new band, thanks in part to the addition of fiddle player Allie Kral and mandolin Jedi Jacob Jolliff in March of 2015. The group expects to release a unique studio album in early 2017, designed around the idea that each original track will be seamlessly connected by instrumental jams. The Poke Around recently spoke with Allie Kral over the phone for an interview about her experience so far with the band, and how she realized that playing violin was her destiny.
The Poke Around: What was your one of your favorite moments on tour this past summer?
Allie Kral: Oh my goodness! Let’s see, one of my favorite moments was at (Northwest) String Summit. We did the whole entire Animals album by Pink Floyd, and it was one of those things that we had practiced and rehearsed so much, and then the payoff was just so great. Sometimes you’ll practice a tune and you just don’t really know if it’s going to go over well. We hired Asher Fulero to play keys with us and our friend Jay from Boulder on drums, and we were kind of wondering, ‘how is this all going to come out?’ And it actually turned out amazing. It was one of those moments on stage where I felt really good and proud of the work we put in, and I hadn’t felt that way on stage with a band ever.
You and Jacob Jolliff officially joined YMSB about a year and a half ago after playing with them for some time. So at this point you’re no longer such newbies, so to speak. How has the dynamic of the group evolved between the first few months with the band compared to now?
Oh, sure! Well, the first few months when I first started playing with them I sort of felt like I was just an added gun. I was doing anything that they wanted, and they were incredibly cool about me having free range and playing whatever I wanted. I don’t want to give that the wrong impression, but at the same time, it was their band. Now, especially on the bus, it feels like our band. And I forget sometimes, I have to pinch myself, because they’d been a band for 15 years before I even started playing with them, you know? They worked really hard to get where they are without me. And I come in and am just pinching myself at the amazing opportunity to be able to travel and play at these incredible amphitheaters with huge crowds that just love their music. I still do have to remind myself that I’m a newbie, but they’ve been incredibly nice about getting us feeling comfy and making us feel right at home on the tour bus. I do feel like it’s our band now and that’s how it’s going to stay.
Aside from the beautiful sounds coming from your fiddle and vocal chords, you really have quite the stage presence on your own with your adorable dresses and cowgirl boots, especially next to a lineup of boys. So, I’m not sure if it makes a difference, but what’s it like being the only girl up there?
Sometimes it does (make a difference), like the other day I was wearing a bright red dress and everybody was wearing grey or blue and I’m like ‘ah, should I change?’ And they said ‘who cares?’ I was like, ‘you’re right, who cares? I wanna wear this dress!’ When I first started playing music and playing with a bunch of guys on stage, way before Yonder days, I would try and dress down and just wear jeans and a t-shirt, and I mean, that’s just not me. Wearing the dresses and the cowboy boots are honestly what make me feel comfy, and that’s what makes me feel like I’m ready to rock on stage. So, I go there and I put on all the makeup and it just kind of puts on my game face for me and gets me ready for the show. As far as being a girl, yeah, it takes me longer to get ready for the show. It literally takes Adam (guitar) two seconds to change into a black t-shirt, and it takes me an hour to do all my make up, slip into my dress, put on my tights and the cowboy boots and get one of the guys to zip up my dress, those poor guys (laughs). But aside from that and as far as being on stage, we’re all equals. I’m just kind of – what did somebody put it as – a lampshade on stage, where I love performing and feeling the music, and I’m not afraid to show those emotions while performing, because it is a live thing and if I’m not showing what I’m creating right then and there and how passionate it is then I don’t know if it would be as fun to watch.
Yes, certainly your fans can feel it when you’re being yourself in one way or another, from what you’re wearing to how you’re performing.
Exactly, exactly. I remember videotaping myself one time, well we were videotaping a show, and I was trying to look extra cool for the video. And then watching it back, I looked like a fool. I looked like I was trying and I wasn’t being myself. So I went back to my dorky little moves and it’s like, I don’t even know what I’m doing. I’m just feeling the music, and I look at that and I think, ‘what am I doing, I look so geeky!’ But, I mean, there’s nothing I can do about it (laughs).
So how about this new album in the works, and the new song “Alison” you all pre-released with a music video filmed in Telluride? Can you talk about the album and that recording experience?
Sure, sure. We started with an idea for this album, Adam really wanted to make it seamless, having individual songs but also having a jam in between each song to carry it over so that it’s one continuous sound. We’re shooting for that, we’re working on it and we’re trying to make that happen. I hope it does happen because the ideas in our heads are really cool. We’re about 80 percent done with all of the recording. “Alison” was a song that Dave (banjo) wrote. I don’t know if he wrote it about someone in particular or just about a guy kind of stalking a girl. A lot of times he tries not to write about a particular thing. He gets up every morning and he just writes in his bunk for, gosh, it seems like hours. He just loves writing, and he’s an amazing writer. It shows in his lyrics. He’s been helping me out personally with the beginning stages of writing songs. So anyways, “Alison” is one of the tunes on our album and we pre-released it so that people could hear the new sound. We want to get people hearing the new Yonder as much as possible. Adam’s wife brought up the idea to have it shot up in Telluride, so we flew out to Telluride Bluegrass Festival early and went to probably the most beautiful place in the U.S. to film this song, and it turned out really well. We’re happy with it.
[The video of “Alison” is linked at the bottom of this article]
Yes, it looks and sounds incredible. Do you guys know what you’re going to name the album yet?
We’re working on that. We were just throwing out ideas yesterday about that, actually. We could go with calling it the name of a song again, and there are a couple of titles that we could run with, but I don’t really know. We have a tiny bit of time, you know, we’re hoping to come out with the album in the beginning of 2017. So, it’s kind of crunch time right now.
Yeah, it is. And even though it’s a band that’s been around for 18 years, it’s a new band. We have that drive to get our new music out to the people like a new band would. So we’re just working our little butts off, constantly in the studio or constantly practicing, hanging out and making sure we’re developing as a new group.
Your bio says that you are classically trained, but that you found jam bands through the Grateful Dead and found yourself inclined to that improvisational style. How did those two styles, jam bands and classical, evolve into the bluegrass-rooted style that you play today?
Growing up I listened to all classical music, and then my folks listened to classic rock, and I didn’t realize that I had been listening to Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead, U2 and Neil Young, all these bands that I had no idea who they were, but their songs were ingrained in my head. And then when I started finding my own style of music that I really liked, I realized that I liked the Grateful Dead. In high school I went to see Phish quite a bit and I started going to see any kind of band that was in that genre. That included seeing Yonder Mountain String Band in the year 2000 or 2001 when I was in college (laughs). So I started to get into bluegrass a little bit through Yonder and The String Cheese Incident, and I think that’s all basically coming from the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia’s playing with David Grisman. I met some people who were going to the same shows and played in a bluegrass band where I went to school, and they kind of made me start playing with them. They were sweet about it, they were like ‘you gotta play fiddle with us!’ And I told them ‘I don’t know how to play fiddle.’ But I started, and it was so much fun. I loved the freedom and traveling all over the country playing bluegrass, and from there I joined Cornmeal, and that’s where I really got into improvisation and really honed into rocking out my fiddle skills. From there came Yonder, and now I’m going back and redeveloping my bluegrass skills. Cornmeal I think got me to where I am with Yonder, but I’m still learning the traditional bluegrass licks now.
On your most recent blog post you talk about a passion you have outside of music – baking, and you note how you thought about going to culinary school, but that ultimately the fiddle stole your heart. How exactly did the fiddle win out on that battle?
Well, I went to school for only two years at University of Illinois. I had a full ride to the music school there and was intending on playing in symphony for the rest of my life. And then I started playing bluegrass, and my schooling started suffering as I was falling in love with bluegrass more. So, I was a college dropout. I dropped out after two years, and then I was really confused. I was 20 years old and just felt like ‘what am I doing with my life?’ I felt like I had messed up my classical career for bluegrass, which was something I had just started, so it didn’t really make any sense to me. But in all actuality it led me to believing that all things happen for a reason. So I toyed with the idea of culinary school after I had left music school. I was in between bands and just thinking about what my passions were. Really violin was the only thing that I had ever done my whole life, and so going to music school was never a question, it was just what I was going to do. I started trying out other passions just to make sure that I wasn’t missing out just because violin was what I was good at. I put my violin down for two months and drove out to get my bows repaired, out in that Illinois country where I grew up, and I would listen to bluegrass. That was when I really realized that I loved baking, but playing the violin was what I was truly destined to do. I knew I needed to get on this, so I emailed Cornmeal that day and said ‘I’m living back in Chicago, and if you guys ever need a fiddle player to sit in, let me know.’ And that became a 10 year job. It’s crazy when you make those leaps because you just feel like you need to do something with your life one way or the other, and for me it was just listening to my instincts and following them. I was never the type of person who thought ‘oh, I need to make a ton of money and so I’m gonna go to law school.’ I was way more on the passionate side of things where I was like, ‘no I wanna do something that I love to do for my entire life.’ And that’s playing the violin.
Do you have any words or advice for others pursuing a passion of their own?
My parents told me ‘we just want you to be happy.’ So, I would say, whatever you do, do it full-heartedly. If I’m gonna do violin for the rest of my life, I’m not just gonna float around and wait for the gigs to come to me. I’m gonna practice my little behind off and get out there and put myself in situations where I’m meeting musicians and having fun and seeing who I click with. So, do things full-heartedly. I fully agree with doing something you’re happy doing for your career because I think we would be incredibly happy as a people, as a whole, if we’re all loving our jobs. And that could be anything, it doesn’t have to be in the arts just because that’s my passion. I just have too many friends who hate their jobs, and I love my job. I hate missing my husband when I’m on the road but I love going on the road and playing music, and I wouldn’t change that.
Interview by Meredith Warfield
Yonder Mountain String Band Fall 2016 Tour Dates
10/5 — Workplay Theatre — Birmingham, AL^
10/6 — Jessye Norman Amphitheater — Augusta, GA^
10/7 — Mustang Music Festival — Corolla, NC
10/8 — U.S. National Whitewater Center — Charlotte, NC
10/9 — Legends — Boone, NC#
10/12 — Jefferson Center — Roanoke, VA#
10/13 — Mainstage Morgantown — Morgantown, WV#
10/14 — Jefferson Theater — Charlottesville, VA#
10/15 — 9:30 Club — Washington, DC#
10/16 — The Ardmore Music Hall — Ardmore, PA#
10/19 — Brooklyn Bowl — Brooklyn, NY%
10/20 — Brooklyn Bowl — Brooklyn, NY%
10/21 — Paradise Rock Club — Boston, MA%
10/22 — Higher Ground Ballroom — South Burlington, VT%
10/23 — Port City Music Hall — Portland, ME%
10/26 — The Ark — Ann Arbor, MI%
10/27 — Turner Hall Ballroom — Milwaukee, WI%
10/28 — First Avenue — Minneapolis, MN%
10/29 — House of Blues Chicago — Chicago, IL%
10/30 — The Waiting Room Lounge — Omaha, NE%^ with Fruition
# with Billy Strings
% with Pert Near Sandstone