When Nick Piccininni got the call in 2020 from Yonder Mountain String Band to sub in for some shows in place of mandolin player Jacob Jolliff, he wasn’t expecting it to be a big deal.
“At the time, I didn’t think anything would necessarily come of it,” Piccininni recalled in an early January phone interview. “I guess, my main hope was that it might help my career in terms of just rubbing shoulders with the right people.”
What it’s become is a chance to become a long-term member of Yonder Mountain String Band, one of the most popular acts on the “jamgrass” scene. At the end of 2020, Jolliff left the group and Piccininni accepted an invitation to join the band.
Ironically, Piccininni didn’t know much about Yonder Mountain before subbing for Jolliff. But he was friends with Allie Kral, the group’s fiddle player, and that put him on the group’s radar when the need for a fill-in mandolin player came up.
“I knew a few tunes and I had heard their name a lot,” said Piccininni. “I was running in a very like traditional bluegrass (circle). So really, even though both, you can say that Yonder is bluegrass and it’s just a different brand of it, but it’s just like two different worlds, really. You’ve got the jam world that they were in (and a separate traditional bluegrass scene). So I wasn’t really exposed to it a lot, just had the faintest idea of who they were, really.”
The parting of ways with Jolliff marks the second major personnel change for Yonder Mountain String Band since 2014. That year, mandolin player Jeff Austin left after a decade and a half of being a central figure in the group that he co-founded with guitarist/singer Adam Aijala, banjo player Dave Johnston, and bassist Ben Kaufmann in 1998 in Nederland, Colorado. The remaining trio moved forward, bringing on Kral and Jolliff and making the 2015 album, “Black Sheep.”
A second album with that lineup, “Love. Ain’t Love,” followed in 2017. But as the group continued on, it became apparent that Jolliff, a virtuoso on mandolin, wasn’t the right fit.
“I think the main thing with Jake is he’s on a music trajectory that’s a lot different from where Yonder’s at,” said Aijala, who joined Piccininni for the interview. “He really is that good. I would imagine if you have that level of ability that playing with a band like us would probably be either boring or uninspiring (although) he never said those words to me.
“He’s an awesome dude,” Aijala said of Jolliff. “There was no ill will at all in that departure. I think it was a natural progression, an evolution, for both Yonder and for him.”
In Piccininni, Yonder Mountain not only found a capable mandolin player, but a musician who also plays guitar, dobro and fiddle and is a strong vocalist. And Piccininni has already made his presence felt on “Get Yourself Outside,” the new Yonder Mountain album that will arrive on Feb. 25.
Even though he was the “new guy,” Piccininni was very involved in the songwriting for “Get Yourself Outside.” That was the intention from the start of writing process.
“I feel like we encouraged him to have as much (input) as he can,” Aijala said. “I think he’s a great singer and the songs are good. So why wouldn’t you encourage that?”
For Piccininni, the biggest adjustment may have been learning to write as a collective.
“It’s kind of weird to say this, but I’d never co-written any songs before then. So that was a new experience,” he said. “That comes with its own set of (challenges), kind of feeling a little timid, because you’re kind of baring your soul there…But I think that they made me feel comfortable about it.”
Aijala said Yonder Mountain’s shows have undergone a slight change recently. The band has been famous for playing completely different song sets each night for a week or more on tours. But that is changing somewhat, partly because Aijala and his bandmates reassessed some songs that had been vehicles for jamming. Those songs now appear in sets in much shorter form, which means the band is playing certain songs more frequently.
“We had a big reflection during the pandemic, and talking with Ben and Dave, talking about, just passing around solos doesn’t really make the song a jammer anymore, nor does it make it better,” Aijala said. “We used to do that with ‘Casualty,’ and we do it once in awhile where we’re passing around the solos. (There are) songs that I can think of that we need to maybe stop doing that, and there are other ones where we don’t do that at all anymore and they’re three- or four-minute songs now. I think that is also contributing to maybe having to play one song twice in a week or a couple of songs.”
Yonder Mountain String Band plays Victory North on Wed., March 16. For tickets or information, visit victorynorthsavannah.com