The Art of Dawg Music with David Grisman
Old & In the Waywas in this musicians’ world inside the show business worldwhere nicknames were conferred like badges, as in a tree house or fort run by ten-year-oldsthat Jerry seemed to feel most at home. Peter Rowan was “Red” for the song he wrote called “Panama Red”; Grisman got the name “Dog,” or “Dawg,” at this time from Jerry; and Jerry was “Spud Boy.” – Sweet Chaos, Carol Brightman
Mandolinist David Grisman represents a body of work that is steeped in tradition dating back to times when music wasn’t recorded but shared over candlelight, an open fire or a cavernous bar where sea shanties, tone poems, and adventurous tales came alive as living communal history. His Acoustic Disc label has recently released a trio of bluegrass records which each feature the various range of the Dawg’s different tangents within a framework_David Grisman Bluegrass Experience_, New Shabbos Waltz with clarinetist and mandolinist, Andy Statman and Dawg’s Groove with the David Grisman Quintet. Step inside Grisman’s world as Jambands.com discusses the three new releases, the state of the music business, his Old & In the Way bandmates, Vassar Clements and Jerry Garcia and that eternal desire for most musicians to create art without compromise in a world which sometimes values currency over merit.
RR: Let’s begin with a discussion about the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience.
DG: I’ve always loved bluegrass, enjoyed playing it and for the past five or six years on a continuing basis, I get together with a lot of the younger musicians who live not too far away. They get in touch with me and they like to play bluegrass. My son, Sam is a pretty accomplished bass player at 16 years old. He loves bluegrass music as well as everything else and we started putting together various aggregations. I’ve actually been doing this since 1987 when I formed the Bluegrass Experience with the Del McCoury Band and sort of hired his whole band and went and played bluegrass for a few weeks.
RR: I was fortunate to get a chance to interview Del McCoury a few months back. Would you like to talk about him?
DG: Sure. I’ve known Del since 1962. I saw the first gig he played with Bill Monroe; Ralph Stanley played on banjo. We’ve been friends for many years. I played a gig with Del and his brother Jerry and my good friend, a great banjo player, Winnie Winston back in 1966 in Troy, New York. I made a tape of that concert and that became a record called Early Dawg. I maintained a friendship with him all through these years. He’s a fantastic singer, guitar player and bandleader. It’s just a great thing for him to have done this with his sons and whenever we can get together, we do.
RR: Del McCoury’s new spiritual album, Promised Land is sort of a sturdy bookend to New Shabbos Waltz. Was that a sequel to Songs of Our Fathers?
DG: It was kind of a sequel. We worked on it off and on for around four years. We knew it would be a similar project and have it be as powerful, which is mostly a matter of getting the strongest material and that all comes from Andy [Statman, Grisman’s collaborator on both projects]. He’s the rabbi and that’s another long-term friendship. He came to me for mandolin lessons when he was 14 years oldaround 1965 or 4 or 3. I often tell people that if I did nothing else except give Andy Statman his first mandolin lesson than I consider my life to have some purpose. (laughs) We’ve maintained a friendship ever since then and we’ve explored a lot of different musical territory together and, of course, separately. Andy’s my connection to my Jewish heritage. I just love that music and I love playing with Andy so it’s a natural thing to do.
RR: I listened to the three new releases in one sitting and loved hearing the Shabbos songs after the bluegrass album but how did you get the Experience into the studio?
DG: I’ve formed various versions of Bluegrass Experiencean umbrella for anything bluegrass with a number of Bay Area bluegrass musicians. A couple of years ago, it kind of solidified around a certain group of musicians. We usually just play one or two gigs a year because Sam’s in high school. We generally play a gig around Christmas at the Freight & Salvage Club in Berkeley. This past summer, I had some gaps in the DGQ schedule and I decided to try to book some gigs for the Bluegrass Experience.
We ended up doing 13 or 14 gigs and we had developed a neat repertoire. Jim Nunally and Keith Little are great singers and players and Keith knows all the vocal partshe’s really the gold standard bluegrass musician. Chad Manning is a very talented, young and energetic fiddle player. Of course, Sam’s really got the bluegrass groove going so I decided to take it on the road and since we had developed a repertoire of bluegrass chestnutsnot just things I had recorded in the pastI decided to crank out an album real quick to sell on this tour. We went into the studio for two days and recorded that.
The mechanism for putting out records is a laborious one. The distribution company requires that I finish a record three months before its so-called street date. I recorded the album over Memorial Day weekend. If I had gotten it together, I still couldn’t get it out until October, you know? I just decided that three months is too long to wait nowadays so I just pressed them up and started selling them on the road. We sold almost a thousand of them on that tour. Of course, it got [officially] released in October while I had also been working on the DGQ project for a number of months, rehearsing and recording material. I like recording live to two track, which requires that everything happen at the same timethe mixing, the engineering and the playing. We had been working on that and a few weeks after the bluegrass recording, we went in and recorded [DGQ]. It was just the way it worked out.
New Shabbos Waltz was something we had been working on for three or four years and we released that in August so none of it was really planned [three simultaneous releases]. We figured, “Why not release two records on the same day?” Tim O’Brien did that and got nominated for a Grammy Cornbread Nation and Fiddler’s Greennot that I’m looking to get nominated for a Grammy. We thought we could promote them both.
RR: You’ve got Flatt and Scruggs on the Bluegrass Experience record who were also a big influence on Del McCoury among many other musicians. How did you choose your cover selections for the live dates and the record?
DG: They’re all bluegrass classicssome of them may be lesser known. “Down the Road” is fairly well known. The arrangement we did is more like an arrangement that the Greenbriar Boys used to do, where they added that little chorus on Flatt and Scruggs’s version. One thinga lot of bluegrass repertoire came out of earlier repertoires like the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and a lot of the old time bands, which provided material for bluegrass bands to take up. It’s a natural extension of those styles and an incorporation of them. “Engine 143” is on _Anthology of American Folk Music_the Harry Smith collection; everyone had that in the Sixties. I’ve always loved that song. “The Baltimore Fire” is a Charlie Poole song. The New Lost City Ramblers did it but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone do it bluegrass; same with “Engine 143.” “I’m Rollin’ On” is a Monroe Brothers song. I’m sure someone has done these songs bluegrass but I never heard it. I like to take older songs and do them bluegrass.
I don’t know if you’re hip to that project called _Retrograss_that’s kind of the opposite. We took newer songs and did them in older styles. That was an interesting project. You’re always looking for something that is not like anything else that is out there. I brought in a bunch of these songs to our shows since we do “Old & In the Way” and “Soggy Mountain Breakdown”that song’s been out of print for about twenty years, same as “Old & In the Way.” I don’t know if that original album is still in print or not. [Author’s Note: It is in print]. There’s just a lot of great tunes in a bluegrass repertoire; I love to revisit that; I don’t really believe that you have to leave something that you did; bluegrass is kind of a perfect little art format least what I would call bluegrass. Nowadays, terms get very polluted. It’s all beginning to sound like pop music. Unfortunately, the American music machine is grinding up all of these elements and pulverizing them into some kind of homogeneous, boring, slick product, which is the total antithesis of what I consider to be bluegrass or traditional music. All great music is a product of individuals and that is being very deliberately eliminated by modern culture.
RR: That process also ruined a lot of country music for me. I ask this question often because I get such various responses. It is obvious that the Coen Brothers film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou had an impact on the periphery of the American music scene. Do you think there was any positive impact on bluegrass from the film?
DG: Well, sure. I mean I didn’t think it was a very good film. I was very disappointed in the film. I think the Coen Brothers have done some great filmsto me that was one of their worst films. This is not a new phenomenon. This happens maybe every ten years. It happened with Bonnie and Clyde. It happened with the Beverly Hillbillies. Every ten years movies or T.V. will discover traditional music. (laughter) Guess what? People will buy it but my question is how many people went on to buy the Carter Family? How many Charlie Poole records got sold the next day? It just seems like another trend because people are so used to “what’s the latest thing this week?” They’ve made music into a disposable commodity and I don’t think art is disposable. I don’t think it should even be a commodity but, to me, that’s why I loathe the music business. I wouldn’t even dignify it by calling it the music business. I call it the entertainment business.
When they started recording traditional music or country music, it was a new idea, actually, that a guy named Ralph Peer latched onto. He was working in Kansas City as a fifteen-year old shipping clerk for Victor Records in the early 1920s, which primarily was releasing classical music. A lot of small, independent companies started springing up to record regional, ethnic music that people played in their homes and dancesPolish music, Ukrainian music and all of these different American rural styles. They were all entirely differentthe Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole and Gid Tanner. Every one of these groups or musicians was entirely different. If you went down the road five miles, you had a different style of banjo playing and that is what Ralph Peer noticed and he thought it would be a good thing for Victor Records to latch onto. Hencehe’s a very clever guy, he convinced them to allow him to go out and record these people. All he wanted was the publishing rights and he made millions of dollars during the Depression. He had the famous Bristol sessions where the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, the Stone Family and a lot of other people made their first recordings. For two days, in I believe it was a hotel in Bristol, Virginia, on the border there, people drove their little jalopies from miles around to record.
Wind ahead through the years, it just became more about “geezthis record sold 200,000 copies; how can we duplicate that?” It just went to a business machine and those factors really started controlling what the music sounded like. Musicians came under the pressure of record companies to make music that sold records. That, of course, was the interpretation of a lot of buffoons who happened to be record executives. That continues to this day and that’s very depressing to meany art form can be reduced to bullshit.
RR: Let’s talk about the third and final new release, Dawg’s Groove which could be the antithesis of your final comment.
DG: I hope it is. We’re all trying to make a buck; we’re all trying to make a living. I mean the only reason to make a record is to sell that record. I don’t really need to make records for any other reason but I’m also trying to be an artist. My whole attitude is that record companies should learn how to market art to people that appreciate it. Hopefully, I’m doing that.
RR: How did you develop the multiple colors on Dawg’s Groove?
DG: A musician once told mea very good musician“write for the people that are going to play the music,” which I always felt that consciously is done anyway. George Marsh [drummer] rejoined the quintet a year ago in April. He’s a great drummer and percussionist with an extensive jazz background. Our guitarist, Enrique Coria, is Argentinean and well-versed in Latin styles. It’s always been a mix of different styles or influences. I’ve always enjoyed all kinds of music. Duke Ellington said, “There’s only two kinds of music: good and bad.” I agree with that so, basically I like tunes that my band can play well and it fits into the bags that we live inmore or less. In the back of my mind that is what it’s for unless I get an assignment to write something else. All the tunes that I wrote on Dawg’s Groove were geared towards my band. “Blues for Vassar” was something I came up with for a record session with Tony Rice for Tone Poets.
I like arranging pieces. I’m just as much an arranger as a composer. I wanted to make a new quintet album. Initially when George rejoined the band, I thought I would redo a lot of material that has been out of print for years but I started writing some new tunes. It just sort of happened. I don’t really try to force that; I find my best work is whatever you would call itinspired or whatever, it just happens. We took a bunch of time during the winter to learn these tunes and play them. We tried to record them but they weren’t ready yet so we went out and played them on the road for a couple of months; then, we came back and recorded them again.
RR: “Blues for Vassar” is quite moving. I wanted to ask you about your feelings regarding the continuing legacy of Clements and your good friend, Jerry Garcia.
DG: Both of them are great individuals. They kind of threw away the molds for both of those guys. I think they made big contributions and impressions on a lot of people in many ways. Hopefully, that will inspire new generations of musicians in certain ways. Everyone, ultimately, has to find their own voice but those are two that really found theirs and could recognize it. Of course, they were both close friends and associates. I miss them but I feel like they are part of me, they’re part of my background, what I’m trying to do musically. I don’t steal their licks but it’s in there somewhere.
RR: Your daughter, Gillian Grisman directed the film Grateful Dawg, which is an excellent document about your personal and musical relationship with Garcia. What is the status of Gillian’s current work?
DG: She actually made a great film on Robert Randolph.
RR: That’s right. I just saw him play again two nights ago in Las Vegas.
DG: Yeah, they won’t let her put it out. It’s really stupid. It’s an example of what I’m talking about because it’s all about his background in the churchthe really interesting part of his story aside from he’s a great musician. Press On is a wonderful film. [Author’s Note: The film debuted at the 2006 SXSW Festival in Austin and centers on the spiritual upbringing of the pedal steel guitarist as his music built upon its church foundation and entered the mainstream with Robert Randolph and the Family Band.]
For the past three years, she’s been working on a film with the ex-lead singer from Matchbox 20, Rob Thomas. I think she’s trying to finish that up. She has her own company called Eleventh Hour Productions and I’m very proud of her. She’s like her dad; she’s a rugged individualist.
RR: Apparently like her dad, she knows what to leave in and what to take out.
DG: Uh huh, great, yeah. Well, you know (laughs), she’s got her own take on things.
RR: I think you’d be disappointed if she didn’t.
DG: Yeah, I would. She’s doing what she loves but I think the film business is even tougher than the music business.
RR: When you were with one of your original groups, The Kentuckians, did you think you’d still be hitting the notes forty years down the line?
DG: No. I’ve pretty much been living in the moment. (laughter) I didn’t really have ambition to do what I ended up doing. I started writing tunes as sort of an exercise because I noticed that my mandolin-playing heroes did that, tooFrank Wakefield, Bill Monroe, Bob Osborne and Jesse McReynolds all wrote original mandolin tunes. I never really thought to develop that into anything like it has. History makes strange bedfellows. (laughs) I wasn’t looking ahead or behind and I’m still not.
- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com.