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Published: 2004/02/28
by Mick Skidmore

All Around And Back With David Grisman

David Grisman has had a career that's spanned four decades. During that time he has defined himself as both a musicologist with a penchant for various forms of roots music and also at the same time as a wonderful perceptive musical visionary. To the point where he pretty much created the "newgrass" type genre with virtuoso music that he affectionately calls "Dawg" music.

During all this time Grisman has become one of the most important, accomplished, and respected exponents of the mandolin. Of course, he's association and friendship with Jerry Garcia also led to some great projects especially albums such as Old and in the Way, and the various archive released on Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label, such as The Pizza Tapes with Garcia and Tony Rice and the wonderful film Grateful Dawg.

There are also many other sides to Grisman such as his days playing with the Even Dozen Jug Band, Earth Opera, Muleskinner, the Great American Music Band, the David Grisman Quintet and much more. With the release of the excellent new Garcia/Grisman album, Been All Around this World, it seemed liked an appropriate time to chronicle this amazing musicians career. In fact, many of the old albums that Grisman was involved in have found their way to CD recently.

What follows is an interview with the articulate, affable and refreshingly frank Grisman in which he touches on the various areas of his career and some general insights on the industry.

M.S. The new archive album with Jerry Garcia Been All Around This World is a great album but in the sleeve notes you elude to the fact that it might be the last album. Dou think you have gone through everything?

D.G. Well, not everything, but as far as different songs. There are no more songs that haven't been released. There might be a few things here and there, but by and large I don't have any plans to release another CD, but there is some live material so I guess at some point that's a possibility.

M.S. You’ve had a really long and interesting career so I’d like to hear about some of the stuff you did in the beginning and then we can come back to the recent stuff. Back in the 60s the mandolin was hardly the average person’s instrument of choice, what got you so interested in it at a young age?

D.G. I met a guy named Ralph Rinzler who you may be familiar with. He was the mandolin player in a group called the Greenbriar Boys. He also discovered Doc Watson, produced a lot of records for Folkways and ran the Newport Folk Festival for a few years and he ultimately purchased Folkways Records for the Smithsonian Folk Life Institute. He was quite an amazing guy. He was a neighbor of mine in New Jersey. He was taking art classes in my mother's art class there. I met him when I was young. He was my big influence. He came into a junior high school English class with a guitar, banjo and mandolin and it basically changed my life.

M.S. So, when did you first start playing in bands?

D.G. It was around that time, early 60s. There were like three kindred spirits in New Jersey. I had two friends who played folk music, old-time music and bluegrass and we started a little band called the Garret Mountain Boys.

M.S. When did the Even Dozen Jug Band happen?

D.G. Well, it was more or less around this time. I was in another band called the New York Ramblers. I guess the Even Dozen Jug Band was 1963. That was something that was thrown together during the summer by Stefan Grossman. He had a deal with a small company called Spivey records. Victoria Spivey and her boyfriend Len Kunstadt had a small blues label and they were talking about making a jug band record. We used to all go down to Washington Square Park (in NYC) and play. It was a big tradition in the New York folk scene. Every Sunday musicians would go there and play around the fountain and there'd be blues guys, old timey guys, political folk song guys and bluegrass guys. Stefan was over with the blues guys and I was with the bluegrass guys. We all knew each other, so he just rounded up a bunch of musicians and by the time we got around to making a record, Elektra Records had bought the contract. The folk labels thought there was going to be a big jug-band craze. We went into the studio with Paul Rothchild. That was his first record for Elektra.

M.S. What about Earth Opera. How did you end up in a rock band?

D.G. Well, Peter Rowan and I had plans to form a band when he left Bill Monroe. I always thought it was going to be a bluegrass band, but I guess when Peter left Bill Monroe he had had enough of bluegrass. He had written some songs and of course the Beatles were a big influence back then. So, we decided to something different and it ended up being that.

M.S. I like that band a lot. I thought it was quite progressive. What do you think when you listen to it now?

D.G. Well, I don't really listen to very much of anything that I have done in the past. I don't know, I think it has passed its prologue.

M.S. It was interesting stuff.

D.G. Oh yeah, my kids discovered it…my oldest son Monroe is an out and out rocker and has been all his life. Then one day I told him that Jimi Hendrix blew up my amp, and my status rose about 50 points. It's interesting but I just can't listen to things without hearing technical imperfections. As I remember with Earth Opera the records were really kind of tame to the live shows. I don't think the whole energy of it was ever captured on those records. Certain kinds of music lend itself to the more careful approach.

M.S. A little later you got hooked up with the other Rowans, Chris and Lorin, how did that come about?

D.G. Towards the end of the 60s Earth Opera had sort of dissipated and it was difficult making a living being a mandolin player or playing bluegrass. I decided to focus on trying to be a record producer. It was something that I had started in 1963 when I produced my first record that I was also playing on, with my friend Peter Siegel. It was called Red Allen, Frank Wakefield and the Kentuckians. I learned how to edit tape and I did various jobs editing or helping to produce records, so I decided to try my hand at producing a pop record. A couple of artists I focused on were The Rowan Brothers and Jack Bonus.

M.S. I think that Rowans album was a great album.

D.G. Thanks. I did too. I think what happened was Jerry Garcia compared them to the Beatles and the label used it in the advertising and I think that was probably the kiss of death. But if you listen back to it they wrote really good songs. Also, they hadn't done much live things at the time. They put the record together and then went out to play. I think it's better if a band just starts in the garage, nurses the songs and then goes out and starts playing and builds a following. It is hard to have success with a record with none of that in place. So I think the expectations were a lot higher than maybe they should have been, but whatever they went on to make quite a few more records.

M.S. From there did you try to produce other bands?

D.G. Well, I had Jack Bonus. I produced some things that never got put out. The problem was I had a deal for the Rowan Brothers but it was hard to get the deals. Producing is so much business and you know and I was just the music part of it. Then the next thing came along. There was nothing pulling me to be a rock producer so I moved on.

M.S. Didn’t you do a lot of session work after that?

D.G. Well, not an awful lot. Most of the session work I did was for people that you would notice. They really didn't hire mandolin players very much back then. You were type cast. People never hired you for a whole album it was "this cut will be okay for mandolin." I could never figure that out. I always thought I could play every cut. Today it has gotten a lot more popular, but back them they were very careful about it. They always used the word color. Mandolin is going to add "color" to a song. The upside of that was that almost the only people that knew about mandolin had taste and were doing better type records. I worked for Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, so the records were pretty well known.

M.S. Is there any artist whose records you would have liked to play on?

D.G. Sure, I used to make a lot of lists and had a file in my cabinet called Concepts and after years and years you realize that certain things are just the way they play out. The people that I would have liked to record with are people like Miles Davis and stuff like that. A lot o people ask me who I want to play with, now it's almost to the point of well, who wants to play with me. It doesn't really matter who I want to play with. If it happens, it happens and that's okay. It's chemistry. Some chemistry works and some doesn't.

M.S. Talking of chemistry, Old and in the Way certainly had that. That album must have done wonders for bluegrass music?

D.G. Well it did, but it was long after it was over. You have to realize that the band played for less than a year, about 9 months and the record didn't come out until two years after the band had stopped playing. It came out in 1975. Any effect it had was after the band ceased to exist. There were only ten songs on that record and they were recorded in a small club.

M.S. But it sold well didn’t it?

D.G. Yes, but the effect was happening when we were sleeping somewhere else, so we never really felt the effect of it other than delayed royalty payments. The effect was somewhere else.

M.S. What was it that spurred you to form your own record label?

D.G. That was an accident, kind of serendipity. I was ready to make another record why I was under contract to MCA at the time. I had one or two more records in my deal but I had put out a record with Sven Asmussen which was an extra record and they put a clause in the contract that said if that record didn't sell 25,000 copies in nine months that they could get out of my other deal. So, I was ready to make a record and I was trying to communicate that to the record company and nothing was happening. Finally, I got a letter from them saying this record has only sold 19,000 and we are thinking about dropping you but if you want to send us a demo tape of the material that you are planning to record we'll give you an extra six weeks they'd consider it, so I told them to get fucked. Around about the same time some friends of mine Artie and Harriet Rose had moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and were looking to start a business.

M.S. Roughly when was this?

D.G. It was around 1989 when CDs were just coming in. First they were thinking of starting a CD store and I was helping them look into that but we quickly realized that there was no way to compete with Tower Records. I had also been building a studio at this time. The studio that I had been using for all my recordings in Berkley, called 1750 Arch Studios, had gone out of business and their equipment was in storage. The engineer I was working with there was working with me on the road and he kind of got the idea that I should have this equipment and build a studio. And he, no pun intended, engineered a deal between the owner of the equipment and myself to get the equipment very cheap.

I rebuilt the basement of my house into a studio. I had a studio and a record to make and my friends were looking to start a business. One day we said, gee why don't we start a record company and that was it and we would have been out of business if Jerry Garcia hadn't walked in.

M.S. Why exactly was that?

D.G. Simply because he provided sales. Even though the first record I made Dawg Night was nominated for a Grammy and did well, I don't think we would have lasted. I decided that there were two problems with having a small independent record label, one was getting paid for your CDs from distributors and the other was that I thought most labels put out way too many records. We decided right from the beginning to have COD , no returns policy which was just about the kiss of death. But we did it and we managed to do it thanks to Jerry. He came by one day and said "let's make a record" and his involvement generated sales.

M.S. Do you have any idea how many it sold?

D.G. That one is well over 200,000 now although it was eclipsed by Not For Kids Only that's our biggest seller. The sales have been over time and of course the kids record they have had three or four books come out connected with that, kids books based on those songs. People will always buy it, or they have until now. That helps provide the resources for all the projects that don't sell.

M.S. You have put some esoteric stuff out that you obviously believe in.

D.G. Right, but I couldn't have continued to do that and survive without the sales of these other albums. Jerry knew that and he was into all this other stuff and he was very encouraging about it. Actually the first royalty for Jerry I wanted to give him myself. It was like $21,000 and I gave it to him and he wouldn't take it. So then his manager got real pissed off and made us send the checks to him (laughs). He thought I was trying to pull a fast one, but that was just Jerry.

M.S. It seems like you had a really special relationship with Jerry. When did you first meet him?

D.G. I met him in 1964 in West Grove, Pennsylvania at a place called Sunset Park. We were both there to hear Bill Monroe.

M.S. It’s funny how different your musical paths were during the interim and yet in the end they ended back at the beginning.

D.G. Yes. In 1973 when Old and in the Way dissipated, well Jerry played a few gigs with the Great American Music Band, and I don't know we just got out of touch. For about seven years I didn't get any royalties for Old and in the Way and I got a little upset about that. It really wasn't Jerry's fault but I thought it was and that really didn't want to make me want to communicate with him and we got out of touch and it lasted for about 13 years. Then one day we were both down at a session for a guy named Pete Sears. (note: They played on Pete Sears excellent album Watchfire). I was kind of nervous. In Grateful Dawg my son Monroe describes that meeting, but it was like nothing had ever happened and we talked for about three hours. Do you know about the Rex Foundation?

M.S. Yes.

D.G. They were giving out an award each year called the Ralph J Gleason award for a musician. Well, I go to the mail box and there is a check for $10,000. They'd given me this award. I called up and found out that Jerry was the guy that sponsored it, so I called him up to thank him and that's when he said we should get together and do some playing.
So I invited him over.

M.S. So, when you made most of these recordings that have come out did you really set out to make recordings for albums or was it just jams and playing that you just decided to let the tapes roll on?

D.G. It was like nothing else I have done before or since. We decided to record things but it wasn't a formal thing like you fill out your W4 forms. It was just free-form. We were conscious that we recording and we were recording in multi-track. It operated like "are you ready to do another take." We had a lot of focus on it because it was being recorded there was a certain amount of striving for a good take, but we had a kind of interesting role reversal. I'm usually more of a perfectionist than Jerry. The kind of material we were playing wasn't for the most part difficult. It was very casual for me and it loosened me up because I am used to playing this arranged stuff, my scene which is a lot of detail and is more difficult kind of music. And this was just coming back to all these different styles and songs that we used to play and to me it was more fun and I could be looser with it. I think Jerry just wanted to get it right.

M.S. Right, Sometimes Jerry’s electric playing was all over the place. I think once in an interview Mickey Hart said something like Jerry hits so many bad notes but when he hits it right he is amazing.

D.G. Well he shouldn't talk. If he'd had notes attached to them drums he wouldn't even have been in the category. I personally don't think any of them guys [the Grateful Dead] are in Jerry's league at all. They ought to be very grateful. I don't think any one of them would have made it without Jerry, perhaps with the exception of Phil.

M.S. Jerry had such a wide musical vocabulary….

D.G. Don't even get me started. They do him a big disservice. They dump on him a lot. They ought to be grateful. He gave them a life.

M.S. Going back to the sessions you did with Jerry. The songs are so diverse. How for example did you come up with the idea of doing a James Brown song next to a traditional seafaring song?

D.G. There are about four or five songs on this new album that were only done one time, period ever and that was one of them. And it was like he started playing it. I didn't even know the song.

M.S. I was going to ask you that.

D.G. Most of the time we both knew them, I'd heard that song but I had never played it. We had a lot of common interests. Chances are if I suggested a song Jerry knew it and liked that song. They came up. I have a huge record collection and I'd dig out the original version and I'd type out the words and then we'd be doing it.

M.S. On these recordings were any parts added afterwards or is it pretty much as it went down?

D.G. I replaced the bass part on the first song as he (the bass player) had never heard that song and we didn't have a chart or anything. He missed a lot of changes. I was going to just patch up his mistakes but then when I soloed the bass track I thought this one is a little weird. But that's the only thing that has been added to any of this. I've been tempted to add things but it is what it is. I think that there is enough there without developing it into something else. That's not to say that I didn't fix little things like if Jerry blew the words of a chorus I could edit a word out of a chorus and dub it. There are little things like that but they are all organic being either out of that take or another take. In fact most of this material was mixed about four years ago. I knew this was the stuff.

M.S. It’s certainly an impressive album. Is there anything musically that you would have liked to have done with Jerry Garcia that you never got to do?

D.G. Well, I think just more would have been good. Jerry would say we'll do this for the rest of our lives but unfortunately in his case it ended. But I am grateful that we got together. It was very low key. It was a kind of private thing. Jerry for the most part was surrounded by people, a lot of whom had nothing to do with music, you know that scene, which this was apart from. He would come over. He'd be just by himself. We didn't do a lot of hanging out that wasn't playing. This was how we got together.

M.S. Well, you had a lot of foresight to record it and film it.

D.G. That was my daughter doing the filming. There actually wasn't that much filmed. The day that the film got finished she found a whole other tape of that living room stuff and she just sent me an email the other day saying she had finally looked at it and it has like 13 songs and she wants to make it into a DVD. We'll see, she and her boyfriend at the time had these video cameras and they had access at the time so they were just having fun.

M.S. It worked out perfect really.

D.G. Yes, but there wasn't a lot wasted energy. It's like the songs, I'm telling you the truth they were like one time and they are good. Lots of bands play for years and do tons of recordings and you can't listen to it. I think it was also because it came after we had been playing a long time and we revisited these songs that we'd played 20 and 30 years ago. Now we knew how to play them but we weren't playing them all those years but we were playing everything else, but when we came back to this stuff it was rendered well, like "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" we did three takes of it and that was it. We never rehearsed anything.

M.S. You always seem to have a lot going on. What else do you have planned for the future?

D.G. I've got a number of projects that I am working on. I am starting on a Vassar Clements blues album. He wanted to do some recording and I said is there anything that you want to do that you've never done and he said "make a blues album." I've got another project with Andy Statman, that's some Jewish music. I am also working on a project that's a corollary to the Tone Poems things. The Tone Poems was two guys playing 30 or 40 instruments. This one is 30 guys playing two instruments. It's the same mandolin and guitar and different players playing them. It is part science project. It will be interesting to see because it is proving the same thing that the other CD did which is the difference in the musicians.

M.S. What do you think of the music industry these days?

D.G. It's an abomination. I call it the entertainment industry. It's been a steady deterioration of musical aesthetic values. Even if people have aesthetic values it is very hard to make a living at that. When they first started recording music, music was an art or it was something that people played to ease their burdens, their everyday lives. It was a real thing. When they started recording blues and country music, it was very pure and there were all these individual styles. In old-time music there is no one style. Through the years the record companies started noticing that this' sold real big, and it was play like that. Can you give me another that.' As soon as somebody had a hit immediately there'd be someone covering it or trying to imitate it. So the whole purpose of music got turned around to we are going to play the kind of music that sells records, what is that? Nobody knows what that is. I've always had an argument with the music business. I once had a long conversation with Jerry Wexler, he maintained that "we are just giving the public what it wants." I was saying no, you are telling them what to want.

I truly believe that good music, great music would sell just as many if they did the promotion on it. People love the stuff that I do when they hear it, but how are they going to get to hear it? By and large big corporations have all the venues sewn up, I can't get on TV, they have the economical muscle to be able to buy their way into peoples homes. It's very frustrating. I don't listen to popular music. I kind of hate it. It's gotten so far away from musical values, but I must say that along with that there is more great music available now. It all has to do with marketing and that disturbs me, and most of the stuff that they are marketing is like fast food, they have made music into a disposable commodity. Great music, great art is timeless but they are not treating it that way. In my company that is my criteria but it is hard to survive.

M.S. Have you listened to any of the up and coming jam bands like String Cheese Incident?

D.G. I have. They are nice guys but those bands are not doing anything musically that appeals to me….what can I tell you a band like Yonder Mountain String Band, they are not doing anything that Sam Bush or me didn't invent years ago. Nickel Creek are talented musicians. Chris Thile is an awesome player, that kind of stuff I notice but let's face it, I'm a guy that listens to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, the Stanley Brothers, and Howlin' Wolf and all the real shit. There's not too much of that any more because there is not an environment that will create that.

Unfortunately a lot of great art and music comes out of suffering. I mean Wynton Marsalis grew up watching Sesame Street, he doesn't have anything to say to me. If I want to hear jazz trumpet playing I'll listen to Clifford Brown. A lot of the music that is coming out today is just regurgitation or somebody's attempt at trying to sell a record. You can hear that. When the main purpose is just to sell a record, unfortunately that has permeated the music. Alison Krauss, very talented but to me that is pop music, if I want to hear bluegrass, Flatt and Scruggs from 1953 gets it. For today's bluegrass the Del McCoury band is about as good a band you can get. Most bands are just too aware of now we're making our DVD. When the great music was being made that didn't exist. I went to see Bill Evans in a club in New York around 1978 and there was a blizzard. Me and two buddies were the only people there. Bill Evans offered us $10 to split. What are you going do! I'm sorry, Bill Evans rules. There aren't too many piano players like Bill Evans. There can't be, they grew up watching Sesame Street or worse. Modern life has turned into a strip mall. They are all the same wherever you go it the same stuff. It's just a basic deterioration of culture. Culture came out of individuals.

Bill Monroe wasn't like Ralph Stanley or Earl Scruggs. They were individuals.

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