Although Austin was born in Arlington Heights, he grew up in Elk Grove, Illinois and attended Rolling Meadows High School. Austin attended the University of Cincinnati, but soon made his way to Urbana, Illinois, where he met future banjoist Dave Johnston. Receiving a request from Johnston to perform in his band The Bluegrassholes, Austin picked up the mandolin for the first time. After some time, Austin moved to Nederland, Colorado; Johnston, after seeking improvement in his playing ability, also moved to Nederland. While attending a club called the Verge, Austin met Adam Aijala and Ben Kaufmann, with whom he and Johnston would form the Yonder Mountain String Band.