"For me, there was a million reasons why I really got into [bluegrass]. It definitely wasn't so I could be a rock star or meet chicks or anything like that," the 27-year-old picker told POLLSTAR.
"I think that when I first heard bluegrass, I got the same feeling that someone gets when they listen to Led Zeppelin for the first time, or Nirvana, or whoever," Johnston said. "I was just like, 'These guys are the coolest!'"
And rather than practicing guitar-god poses in the mirror as a kid, he took a different approach.
"For me, it was that I really appreciated the honesty that goes into the older recordings and things like that. And [I appreciated] people like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin and all those guys."
Included among "all those guys" is Jerry Garcia. Yes, that Jerry Garcia.
"[Bluegrass] is a very distinct American kind of music. It's amazing. And the Grateful Dead influence you know, a lot of us kind of came to bluegrass through the Grateful Dead. You mention David Grisman and Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead to people and then say, 'What about this band called Old And In The Way (a Grisman/Garcia side project)? and they'll be like, 'Oh, wow, it's those guys?'
"And [the Grateful Dead] are kind of like a gateway band for people, for what acoustic music sounds like. And you could even argue that they were one of the first jamgrass-type bands out there," Johnston said.
"Jamgrass" is a term the band and its fans use to refer to Yonder Mountain String Band's music. Sure, it's rooted in traditional bluegrass and YMSB sometimes even includes a single mic set in the old style during concert encores. But the foursome is especially known for going off on extended jams that would bring a tear to a Deadhead's eye.
"When everything is just right, and everyone's ears are really tuned in, it's like we're having the musical conversation that we probably have in our heads a lot anyway. It's like a very good conversation where it will be serious and then somebody will crack a joke, or whatever, and take off with that," Johnston explained.
The mixture of old and new, bluegrass and jam band styles seems to be working quite well for the Yonder Mountain String Band.
In three and a half years since forming in the Denver suburb of Nederland, Colo., the band has made the leap from playing the Colorado coffeehouse circuit to playing before a raucous, and sold-out, Irving Plaza crowd in New York City last April.
It's a success story for Boulder, Colo.-based Partners In Music, the team behind YMSB, as well.
"Three and a half years ago, I saw the band in a coffee shop ... and there was me and 12 other people there, eating apple pie," agent/manager Casey Verbeck recalled. "I saw these guys play, and I thought, 'Wow, this is really something special.'"
Verbeck quickly signed the band to the company, which was strictly a booking agency in 1998.
"In just a short amount of time, in three and a half years, I'm thrilled with how things are moving along for the guys. But it's been a lot of work on their part, going out on an average of 170 dates per year. And, on our part, it's where we created a team around the band and are sticking to a strong artist development game plan," Verbeck told POLLSTAR.
The band quickly drew larger and larger audiences, and began making appearances at prestigious bluegrass and folk festivals in the area, including Telluride. As YMSB's fortunes grew, so did Partners In Music, which now runs Frog Pad Records the band's label, distributed by Ryko and provides management services in addition to booking the gigs.
"It's worked out really well," Verbeck said. "They come home, they can walk into our office any day and they know everyone really well. We have a total of 10 people working there, and it's just an organically grown group that's trying to make a difference at the same time."
Even without the benefit of commercial radio exposure, Yonder Mountain String Band became a big hit with college and community radio stations. Then, the band's latest studio album, the Tim O'Brien-produced Town To Town, was serviced to Americana radio where it rose to the mid-20s on that format's charts.
And it's expanded its reach on the festival circuit, too. In the last year, the band hit not only the usual folk fests, but was the main attraction at a few jam band campouts, too.
The timing couldn't be better for YMSB, which is able to ride the crests of a few musical waves. With the "O Brother" phenomenon in bluegrass music last year and the rise of the jam band "movement" this year, peaking with the news of a Grateful Dead reunion tour, Yonder Mountain String Band would seem poised for a breakout.
Johnston is ready for whatever comes. But don't buy the "I never wanted to be a rock star" line not when Ozzy Osbourne and Michael Jackson have places in the YMSB repertoire.
"Yes, we do a bluegrass 'Crazy Train,'" Johnston admitted. "I don't really know the name of the other Ozzy song we do, but it's like... (he hums a few bars of what sounds like "Paranoid"). I kind of goof around on that song.
"Michael Jackson's [song] is 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough.' It actually kinda falls really well into the bluegrass groove; it's really scary how much Michael Jackson is in tune with his Appalachian roots."