Hold On, We’re Strummin’ – Sam Bush and David Grisman
Acoustic Disc 54
Sam Bush and David Grisman remind me of a pair of French philosophers:
virtuosos who ventured into unmarked territory early in their professional
lives and were able to create wonderful new spaces for future generations,
but who never really got beyond the major breakthrough, never had a second
wave (like Picasso, Coltrane, even Madonna) that matched the first in terms
of its revolutionary quality. Nevertheless, the work these two have been
turning out ever since the canonization of "newgrass" and "Dawg music,"
respectively, has been diverse, playful and often brilliant. And yet,
though it's been grounded, it's not been groundbreaking. They've been
adding branches and leaves to the trees they planted decades ago rather than
moving on and plating another one. Such is the case with their first,
long-awaited collaboration, Hold On, We’re Strummin’.
But just because they're not lighting new fires doesn't mean the burning one
can't provide warmth. The album begins with "Hartford's Real," a
beautifully buoyant track co-written by Sam and Dave (as 11 of 16 tracks
herein are) in memory of, and inspired by, their late friend and fellow
picker John Hartford. For the first six minutes of the album, it is as if we
are in the company of two animate and well-traveled codgers, stowaways on
some southbound train, swapping stories of days gone by and sharing whiskey,
bread and smokes, while the sun sets outside.
It's a nostalgic feeling, to be sure, and it permeates the album. "The
Weeping Mandolin Waltz," "Old-Time Medley," and "The Old South," for
example, speak from (and of) a different time and place, like much of the
reverent acoustic music being made today, which begs the question: are these
guys out of touch? One look at the album cover makes me lean towards
answering "yes": a sepia-toned picture of our heroes is surrounded by a
graphic design that might have been appropriate for a children's album in
the late 1960s, when the cultural residue left by the psychedelic generation
allowed day-glo colors and bubbles to be thrown together in a hodge-podge
and marketed to consumers. These days, though, no one in a record store
under the age of 45 and unfamiliar with Bush and Grisman would give this
album a second thought. It's just not a cool cover.
Which is unfortunate, because there is some enjoyable music on Hold On,
We're Strummin'. "Jamgrass 741" finds the two using what I like to call
the jamband "climb" to explore a theme: Bush and Grisman build momentum,
taking individual turns and moving in unison, until the point of ecstasy
(and no return) is reached. Yet when it is, the listener is rewarded not
with orgasmic rupture followed by collapse, but with a moment of nirvanic
subtlety, like sweet nothings whispered in the ear. How else could they
keep you listening for twelve more songs?
My favorite tracks – those that I would return to on those occasions, like
driving to work, when you know you can only make it through so many songs – are Grisman's Dawgish international numbers like "Intimo" and "Sea Breeze,"
but yours just as easily could be "Swamp Thing," on which Sam breaks out the
slide mandolin and digs up some musical dirt. There's some hokum here to
match the album cover – "Cept Old Bill," a Jethro Burns tune about seMonroe, just isn't funny, and the pseudo-title track, the other Sam & Dave's
"Hold On, Im Comin'," is as memorable for the image it gives of Bush and/or
Grisman en coitus as for the acoustic soul-cum-spasgrass treatment it
receives. But whereas the former is quite dorky in its humor, the later is
subversively hip — for the wordplay on its ownership and predicating verb,
supplemented by the musicality (read: groove) of the track. Who knows;
maybe Sam and David still do have a few tricks up their sleeves.