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Published: 2000/03/15
by Bob Makin

David Grisman: Making the Tone

When David Grisman was a young man, he impressed Bill Monroe with his mandolin playing at an after-concert party. That must have meant a lot because a few years later, Grisman named his son Monroe in honor of the legendary founder of bluegrass.

Grisman has since pioneered his own style of music, which he simply calls Dawg music, an improvisational mix of traditional and ethnic acoustic styles he plays in nearly as many different configurations. The David Grisman Quintet has showcased Dawg music ever since he started the first DGQ in the fall of 1975. That band featured Grisman on mandolin, Todd Phillips on mandolin, Joe Carroll on bass, Tony Rice on guitar, and Darol Anger on fiddle.

Through the years, the DGQ has been a breeding ground for new acoustic talent. Rice is a Nashville super-session picker and respected recording artist in his own right. Like Grisman, champion fiddler and Grammy-winning violinist Mark O’Connor worked extensively with jazz great Stephane Grappelli. Anger, a violinist with the Turtle Island String Quartet, formed the Modern Mandolin Quartet, the Anger-Marshall Band and Psychograss with DGQ mate Mike Marshall (Psychograss also features Phillips).

Grisman and his bands have also had a strong impact on a new generation of musicians, like banjo phenomenon Bela Fleck who saw a traditional bluegrass instrument like the mandolin being taken beyond the bounds of one idiom. Grisman has performed and recorded with Fleck over a span of 20 years. The DGQ soon will hit the road again with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. Stops will include their first New York date together in mid-April.

A tireless musician, Grisman also will play the Telluride Festival in Colorado and The Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Conn. Then he’ll work with the Grammy-nominated Retrograss, featuring banjo greats Mike Seeger and John Hartford. The trio plays acoustic versions of rock oldies.

Grisman also is a energetic musicologist. Whether with the DGQ (now bassist Jim Kerwin, flutist-percussionist Matt Eakie, guitarist Enrique Coria and violinist-mandolinist-percussionist Joe Craven, also a member of Psychograss); the David Grisman-Martin Taylor Quartet; Retrograss; his late, great Old and In the Way mate Jerry Garcia, who gave Grisman the nickname Dawg; or any of the special projects he has created for his own Acoustic Disc label (800-221-DISC, www.dawgnet.com), such as the Grammy-nominated “Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza” with Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Bobby Osborne, Ricky Skaggs, Frank Wakefield and guitarist Del McCoury; the three-disc “Tone Poems” series, a meticulous history and demonstration of superbly crafted string instruments featuring guitarists Martin Taylor and Tony Rice, National guitarist Bob Brozman, dorbroist Mike Auldridge, and Grisman on mandolins; “Dawg Duos,” his latest release featuring pairings with the likes of Fleck, Seeger, Brozman, bassist Edgar Meyer, percussionist Zakir Hussain and fiddler Vassar Clements (another Old & In the Way mate) or well-packaged anthologies honoring Brazilian mandolin master Jacob do Bandolim, mandolin innovator Dave Apollon and swing guitarist Oscar Alem├ín, Grisman has kept traditional acoustic styles and their instruments alive by simultaneously preserving and reinterpreting them. His efforts recently were recognized with a INDIE Award nomination in the Acoustic Instrumental Category for “Dawg Duos.”

One of Garcia’s best friends (and greatest lookalikes), Grisman also may end up adding more to the sorely missed guitarist’s legacy than the increasingly dysfunctional Grateful Dead family. The forthcoming “Pizza Tapes,” a studio summit between Grisman, Garcia and Rice, will follow the recently released video of Garcia/Grisman playing B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” a track off the duo’s eclectic Grammy-nominated self-titled 1990 Acoustic Disc debut. Since then, Acoustic Disc has released four Garcia/Grisman CDs: the traditional folk of “Shady Grove,” the acoustic jazz of “So What” and the children’s album “Not For Kids Only.”

Many more Garcia/Grisman discs will follow “The Pizza Tapes,” says Grisman, who met Garcia in 1964 while he was picking banjo in the parking lot of a bluegrass festival in Sunset Park, Pa. Six years later, Grisman furnished mandolin for “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple” on the Dead’s “American Beauty” masterpiece. In 1973, the pair formed Old and In the Way, a quirky, ragged-but-right bluegrass band with Garcia on banjo, Clements on fiddle, John Kahn on bass and guitarist/vocalist Peter Rowan, one of Bill Monroe’s latter day Bluegrass Boys. Old and In the Way imploded after nine months, leaving a self-titled live album in its wake.

When Grisman put together his seminal Great American Music Band in 1974, Garcia sat in on banjo on several occasions. Their paths diverged until the concept for Garcia/Grisman began in the winter of 1990 when the pair bumped into each other at a party. I spoke with Grisman about Dawg music, Acoustic Disc, his friendship with Garcia and the impact all three have had on the jam band and bluegrass scenes. He also spoke lovingly about acoustic music and instrumentation and critically about jam bands who approach bluegrass with electric instruments. Step inside Dr. Dawg’s classroom. He’ll definitely school ya’.

What is the difference between bluegrass and Dawg music?

For the most part, it has very little to do with bluegrass. Bluegrass is at least 50 percent a vocal style. So that part goes out the door because Dawg Music is instrumental.

Dawg music is mostly tunes that I write, and I try to write in a number of styles: swing, Latin, tunes based on various ethnic traditions. Everything about Dawg music is pretty different from bluegrass. Although some tunes I write are influenced by bluegrass. Bluegrass is an element in Dawg music.

You’re often described as a bluegrass musician, but that’s only partly true.

Right. That’s been an albatross around my neck. I love bluegrass. I probably help confuse the issue by continuing to do bluegrass from time to time. In fact, my band turns into a bluegrass band often at shows. We have another band that we become that does play bluegrass for comic relief.

The problem with all these musical terms is that music is like an evolutionary process. Disc jockeys, newspaper reporters, historians, writers try to label some of this stuff. Bluegrass is a term that disc jockeys came up with in the early ’50s.

Like rock ‘n’ roll.

Right. The problem is that the term immediately becomes so general that I wouldn’t even know what you mean when you say bluegrass or what the next guy means. I know what Bill Monroe means. I know what I mean when I use the term bluegrass, but half the stuff that’s called bluegrass isn’t even bluegrass in my opinion.

It’s like, what is jazz? Is jazz Louis Armstrong in 1927 or Miles Davis in 1958 or Miles Davis in 1968? Or Thelonious Monk or Art Tatum or John Coltrane? The truth is that great musicians — or even bad musicians — like to be known as themselves. So Dawg music is my personal music. It’s the music that I do, and nobody else really does that. They might do similar kinds of music. Like Ralph Stanley doesn’t like to be called bluegrass. Flatt & Scruggs didn’t like to be called bluegrass because to all those guys, bluegrass was Bill Monroe’s music. He called his band the Bluegrass Boys because they were in Kentucky. That was originally intended to just be his music. He didn’t have a name for it. But there’s the dilemma for you guys trying to write about this stuff. You have to come up with terms.

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