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David Grisman: Pizza and Pop Culture

David Grisman is a man on a mission. His record label, Acoustic Disc, is now a decade old, and has become a nostalgic voice of reason in a time when the majority of America listens to whatever pop culture decides feed them. His own music, aptly referred to as “Dawg music” in reference to his nickname, includes works in almost every genre possible. Admittedly, Grisman’s first brush with fame came from his work in the bluegrass band Old and in the Way, which was brought to people’s attention because of the presence of his friend and long time playing partner, Jerry Garcia. But a virtuoso like Grisman can’t be hidden beneath the shadow of an icon for long. As amazing as the list of musicians he has worked with is (Stephane Grappelli, Martin Taylor, Doc Watson, Bela Fleck, etc.), David’s work with the DGQ can stand alone. I caught up with Grisman at his studio in San Raphael, California.

DM: Your recording career began with the Even Dozen Jug Band in 1963. What would you say were your major musical influences up to that point?

DG: Well, my dad was a musical influence, and probably my earliest. He was a trombone player. I discovered bluegrass music when I was about fifteen years old. There was a guy named Ralph Rinzer who really got me into playing.

DM: What drew you to bluegrass and roots music?

DG: A certain kind of non-conformity. I had been into rock n roll in the middle and late fifties during the golden age of rock n roll . . .

DM: Like the Big Bopper?

DG: Yeah, and Jerry Lee Lewis . . . all that stuff. I really liked that. Then in about 1960, it all kind of evaporated. Buddy Holly got killed, Elvis got drafted, Chuck Berry went to jail, Jerry Lee Lewis had his teenage wife scandal; it all kind of went away and we were left with Leslie Gore. So I think that part of my attraction to traditional music was my disenchantment with what was going on with popular music, and part of it was just a natural attraction to something that just rang true to me.

DM: In the late sixties, you started getting more into jazz. How challenging was it to tackle jazz as a mandolin player?

DG: Very challenging, because there was very little precedence for it. Jethro Burns was a pioneer in his work, but it just wasn’t that prevalent. In fact, my first instinct was to go out and buy a saxophone. Which I did.

DM: That didn’t bode so well?

DG: Well, I just didn’t have very good saxophone chops. I couldn’t get a good sound out of it. I probably should have pursued it more, but I just got too frustrated not being able to make just one note sound good.

DM: So up to that point, the mandolin hadn’t really been seen as a typical jazz instrument?

DG: Yeah there wasn’t much going on with jazz mandolin, which was both an advantage and a disadvantage.

DM: In the seventies, you started to be known by a now familiar nickname. Where does your nickname (“Dawg”) come from?

DG: Well, it’s actually a nickname that was given to me by Jerry Garcia in 1973.

DM: That’s when you guys were in Old and in the Way, right?

DG: Yeah, we all had nicknames and that became mine. Pete Rowan was “Red”, Vassar Clements was “Clem”, Jerry’s was “Spud Boy” and John Kahn’s was “Mule.”

DM: How much of a part do you think that Jerry played in Old and in the Way’s and your own public and critical recognition?

DG: He was the public figure. He’s the reason that a lot of attention got paid to Old and in the Way. Even back then, he was pretty famous, and that’s why a lot of people were interested in Old and in the Way . . . and they discovered bluegrass music thro ugh that.

DM: You just released a recording with Jerry called “Pizza Tapes”, which was the only time you, Jerry, and guitarist Tony Rice played together. What’s the story behind the title?

DG: Well, there are a bunch of stories. The tape was made in my studio, and it got out and ended up being played on the radio and being bootlegged in various forms. One of the stories was that a pizza delivery guy swiped it from Jerry’s kitchen counter. I think that’s probably not what happened, but its a rumor . . . it’s a story. I heard other stories but they didn’t lend themselves to creative packaging. I just thought calling it that gave it a certain informality, which was good because it wasn’t a form al tape. It wasn’t recorded to make an album, and I probably wouldn’t have put that out if it hadn’t been bootlegged. It was kind of fortuitous, but at the time, I was kind of upset about it. It was just a jam session in a recording studio, and whenever I got together with Jerry, we just taped everything. It wasn’t like “Oh, we re working on this album now” or “we got this budget” or “this deadline.”

DM: I imagine that made it a little easier.

DG: Yeah, I knew we would get something out of it. But we just got together and played and that’s what produced a lot of great music.

DM: The other new release you have is called “Tone Poems III.” You describe it as a period piece, which I guess is the period between the acoustic sounds of Django Reinhardt and the electric sounds of Charlie Christian.

DG: Yeah, resophonic instruments, as they re called, are kind of the missing link between acoustic and electric. It was a quest for more volume. These instruments, the National guitars, the dobro guitars, were all developed by a guy named John Dopyera who was looking for a louder guitar. The album kind of traces the development of that.

DM: It’s obvious that you are a believer in the natural tone of instruments and the integrity of committed musicians. How much disdain do you hold for mass media’s disregard for America’s musical roots, and instead opting for things like Britney Spears?

DG: (Laughs) Yeah, mega disdain for that. You know, I think they’ll all do themselves in at some point. I think what’s happening to culture in general, not just music, is real bad. But there is also more interest in real music, too. There’s more of it available. The larger macrocosm of bad taste is there, but there is a small microcosm of good taste, which is also flourishing to a certain extent, and not even so much in this country. You can always look to America for bad taste. We are the world leaders in crap. But, we have also innovated some true musical art forms, and if we don’t destroy them, they will survive.

DM: There does seem to be a growing subculture that has attached itself to the growing “real music” scene.

DG: Right. You know, I’ve got my constituency, and Britney Spears can have hers. I mean, if you were to give them all I.Q. tests, I bet you mine would come out higher.

DM: You’re playing a couple dates alongside Jazz Mandolin Project, led by mandolin player Jamie Mansfield. In mentioning some of his mandolin influences, he names you as one of them. Do things like this reflect your efforts as a pioneer of acoustic music?

DG: Well, for him, I guess it does. I’m happy to be an influence if I’m a good influence . . . wouldn’t want to be a bad one. I’m happy to be part of a process. But I’m still trying to develop and improve. I don’t look at it like I’ve “arrived” . . . but I am definitely getting older.

Five Influential Albums:

Mountain Music Bluegrass Style – (Smithsonian Folkways)

The Complete Columbia Sessions- Miles Davis and John Coltrane

Playing It Straight – Jethro Burns

Mysterious Mountain – Alan Hovanhess

Vilayat Khan and Inayat Khan- (Odeon)

Musician that you would have most liked to play with: Miles Davis

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