All photos by Kelley Lauginiger || Jeff Austin Band, 2/13/15 at Thalia Hall
For most of my life, I’ve correlated happiness with a daytime Yonder set in the sunshine. I’m talking that hootin, hollerin, jitterbug kinda feeling; that old school, whiskey in your Camelback, hiked three miles through the wet, drippy mud at Marvin’s Mountaintop but somehow your top half is dusty, finally made it to the main stage and it’s Yonder Mountain String Band time, baby. That feeling where the stormy darkness was dissipating and Jeff Austin was about to split open the afternoon skies with his cheeky mandolin, beckoning the sunshine like he so consistently did for us, making it seem easy. Did it not feel like he, himself, made the sun shine with the way he played his instrument?
I only wish we were able to do that for him; to open up the skies through the darkness and deliver him some sunshine. I’ve been trying to process Jeff’s medical emergency for almost three days, like so many of us music lovers. Still looking for answers on what truly happened, my biggest fear is that he felt alone. That his pain was so deep and solitary he felt he could not go on any longer. That everyone good is broken. That someone so talented with a purview of peace and shared joy would feel so unable to bear the burdens of today’s world that suicide could possibly be the answer. As someone who has struggled with my own mental health, it hits hard when your heroes give up.
Just under five years ago, the Jeff Austin Band at Thalia Hall was the first show I shot with the camera I still use today. I reviewed the show for Tomorrow’s Verse and got to meet the band after. Jeff’s personnel at that time included Danny Barnes, who is assuredly the best banjo player I’ve ever seen with my eyes and felt with my soul. The three of us looked at my photo previews on my camera, and Jeff laughed when he saw himself, pointing to my screen and asking me, “Wow, do I really look like that?” Of course, he knew how animated and contorted his facial expressions always looked, but he was egging me on, letting me know that I did okay. How nice is that? The pictures in this story were the same pictures we looked at. It’s clear to see now that they’re pretty mediocre, but he encouraged me with his attitude. He and Danny told me stories from the road alongside their band mates, and I walked away feeling like I just caught up with old friends. I’ll never forget it.
I’ll never forget how proud he was that his mom was in attendance that night, or the conviction he played with as he shared new music he wrote himself for the first time in years as The Jeff Austin Band since exiting YMSB due to artistic differences. That time period reminds me of right now; with all of us fans wondering what really happened, but knowing the details are not actually our business. The main difference is that back then, Jeff’s new arrangement offered hopefulness and the possibility of a bright future, while by contrast, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so bleak writing about one of my heroes as I do right now. This is truly sad.
Whatever words it contains, this is Jeff’s story to tell, via his family and loved ones. Maybe we will get answers in time, but privacy is key right now. For the droves of his loving fans who are feeling this deep sense of hopelessness and wondering what exactly happened too, it is important we remember that Jeff was first and foremost a husband, son and father of three. Cherished so dearly by those close to him and adored by hundreds of thousands of fans, if he felt he lacked connection that is just painful to think about. My deepest condolences go out to those closest to Jeff, with blessings for clarity and some semblance of peace as this tragedy unfolds.
Every day we hear reminders about mental health. The more we educate ourselves about the fact that “mental health” is a blanket term that means different things for different people, and take the time explore what it means to nurture the people in our lives successfully and individually, the more we can combat the hatefulness of the world together. We can find comfort in bonding over a belief system that builds us up, not knocks us down, tossing aside the fear of vulnerability. There is no relaxation in this crusade to patch up the crumbling drywall of our societal mores, currently crooked, manhandled and covered in cheeto-dust. To get there we need to actively listen to each other’s goals and feelings on a local scale. We have to validate each others’ importance as long as its genuine, encouraging kindness as a strength and never a weakness. We have to lead by example that compassion can save lives. Life is hard and we all need to be reminded that we are worth loving sometimes, and I’m devastated that “we,” as a greater love parade for the being that was Jeff Austin, didn’t do this for him. As the outpouring of love the last few days has shown, his public persona was certainly beloved by many.
After that first night covering Jeff Austin Band at Thalia Hall, I kept going out to shoot shows and write stories, even when I felt like other people were a LOT better than me, especially at taking pictures. Eventually my work got better, and even GOOD, some people tell me. So now, when people send me my own article to “check out this cool story,” sometimes not even realizing I wrote it and suggesting its worth, I always think to myself, “Do I really look like that?” and always think of Jeff.
I wish this was a happy ending. I’ll still always think of Yonder in the daytime as definitive happiness and chase it like the Jeff-Austin-dragon it is. A mythical creature capable of spitting hot hot fire, there will never be another Jeff Austin, that’s for sure. He was one in a million. I’ll never forget all the memories and the beautiful music you gave us, Jeff. You taught me to let go and dance about it, and that life is for living. Your smirk will live on in your children and your melodies will live on in all of us because you were larger than this earthbound life. Your music was pure and you were a living legend gone too soon. You brought the sunshine, and I’ll never forget you. Thank you for everything, and rest in pickin, Jeff Austin. You will be extremely missed.