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Published: 2000/06/15
by Aly Constine

David Grisman’s Dawg Music: A Musician’s Roundtable with Fleck, Furtado, Anger and Austin

I recently had the pleasure of spending a relaxing Saturday evening with the David Grisman Quintet on a quaint farm on the outskirts of beautiful Santa Barbara, California. My excitement for this event had been growing steadily for almost two months due to my expanding interest in bluegrass music and my increasing respect for the legendary David Grisman. Playing over and over my long-loved acoustic recording of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, which hosts Garcia on banjo and Grisman on mandolin playing such favorites as “The Thrill is Gone” and “Grateful Dawg,” I prepared for my first experience seeing the David Grisman Quintet live. Not only was I about to hear “Dawg” music firsthand, but I was to behold the man who has influenced the playing style of many of my favorite musicians.

David Grisman’s musical trip began with an affection for the folk music of the 1960s. With a couple of friends, he started a folk music club at his high school and had the luck of being introduced to mandolinist-folklorist Ralph Rinzler. Grisman quickly fell in love with the fast and light picking style of the mandolin and was determined to learn from one of the greats. In 1963, he journeyed to Washington, DC to seek out the virtuoso talents of the zany mandolin player and songwriter Frank Wakefield, who bombarded Grisman with everything he knew about bluegrass and the techniques of Bill Monroe. Wakefield’s progressive style of playing bluegrass opened Grisman’s mind to the freedom of musical experimentation.

In 1973, Grisman (on mandolin) and Jerry Garcia (on banjo) formed the legendary band Old and In The Way. Other members included Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals, John Kahn on bass, and a variety of fiddle players. The group existed for only nine months, about 30 gigs, and one album, but had an indisputable impact on bluegrass music. While giving many their first exposure to bluegrass, the band also gave Grisman the opportunity to experiment with the music’s traditional sound, combining traditional bluegrass material with rock & roll. This crossover reached a wider audience with variations on old bluegrass standards, traditional Monroe tunes, originals concerning contemporary issues, and a couple of rock songs.

Grisman’s next foray was the Great American String Band, formed the following year. Grisman used the group to further explore the malleability of bluegrass, this time adding the element of jazz. Complex folk and bluegrass tunes heavy on instrumental improvisation colored the repertoire of this loose aggregation of musicians, which regularly included Richard Greene on violin and Jerry Garcia on banjo. Unfortunately there are no official recordings available, but a couple of tapes do exist for those in the trading scene.

When the group broke up, the David Grisman Quintet was formed, giving the stylings of this innovative mandolin player their true outlet. Grisman took the idea of mixing bluegrass with other musical genres even further, writing compositions for DGQ that fused the high energy of bluegrass with blues, swing, gypsy, flamenco, klezmer, pop, and jazz. Grisman devised the term “Dawg” music to describe the sound he was creating. “That’s the nickname Jerry gave me back in the days when we were playing in Old and in the Way. So I decided to call what I was doing Dawg music because I didn’t want to mislead people into thinking my new group was playing bluegrass.”

At its inception in 1975, the quintet included Grisman and Todd Phillips on mandolin, Darol Anger on fiddle, Joe Carroll on bass, and the amazing flatpicking skills of Tony Rice on guitar. Since then, DGQ’s members and sound have continued to evolve. Drums were added when Grisman asked drummer Ed Shaughnessy to play on the title track of the 1982 project, Dawg Jazz/Dawg Grass. Grisman liked what this instrument brought to the band’s sound and asked Hal Blaine to play drums on the entirety of the 1984 recording Acousticity. This addition gave a lot to the calypso, swing, Latin, funk, and rock tunes. The quintet became even more immersed in jazz in 1985 when Grisman began jamming regularly with three musicians from the San Francisco jazz scene, bassist Jim Kerwin, guitarist Dimitri Vandellos, and drummer/percussionist George Marsh. Fiddle and mandolin player Joe Craven gave Grisman the notion to bring percussion into his sound when he started drumming on his violin case one day. The current DGQ line-up includes Joe Craven, Matt Eakle on flute, Jim Kerwin on upright bass, and Enrique Coria from Cordoba, Argentina on the acoustic guitar giving new life to Grisman’s Latin compositions. “I’ve always had this passion for Latin music,” Grisman told Dan Ouellette in a 1996 interview. “Enrique more or less authenticated it-here’ this guy who immediately played the right parts.’

Grisman has recorded numerous albums that showcase his genre exploration. Songs of Our Fathers, recorded with Andy Statman, reflects the influences of the Jewish instrumental folk music of Eastern Europe known as Klezmer; Not For Kids Only, recorded with Jerry Garcia, shows Grisman’s love for traditional folk tunes; Dawgonova, recorded with DGQ, is infused with Latin rhythms and melodies; and Tone Poems Vol. II is a jazz oriented project which Grisman produced with guitarist Martin Taylor. The hot new release from Grisman’s recording label, Acoustic Disc, is entitled the Pizza Tapes. It’s a high quality official release of the historic two-night jam session between Grisman and guitar greats Jerry Garcia and Tony Rice. The Pizza Tapes capture several folk/country classics, a jazz-infused version of “So What,” several free-form extended trio improvisations, and Jerry singing “House of the Rising Sun.” The recording even includes some relaxed conversation between the musicians, recorded between tunes.

Over the years, Grisman’s influence has radiated throughout the acoustic music world. His playing has inspired a new generation of mandolin players and his bands have trained some of most creative instrumentalists in acoustic music today. Grisman’s unique and innovative sound also furthered the arrival of newgrass music (the blending of bluegrass music with various genres). Jerry Garcia summed it up in his 1991 interview with John Carlini for Guitar Extra: “I think he’s spawned a whole generation, and even a second generation of amazing mandolin players, who are thinking on their feet and playing music that’s not bluegrass music, it’s something else, the whole Dawg music phenomena. I think that’s been a major contribution to the richness and detail of music. That’s an enviable thing to have done.”

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