David Grisman and half a century of unabashedly acoustic music
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David “Dawg” Grisman has fiercely defended the resonating bodies of acoustic instruments for half a century. His great advocacy for acoustic music even brought friend and legendary rocker Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead to record folk songs at Grisman’s home in the early 1990s (immortalized by the intimate documentary Grateful Dawg).
Grisman lightheartedly speaks of only two major breaches of his acoustic-only career. Once, he lost a battle with the elder statesman of European string jazz, Danish fiddler Svend Asmussen (who turned 100 years old in February), who insisted on plugging in his electric violin on their 1987 record Svingin’ with Svend. And during his experimental early years, Grisman performed on an electric mandocello with his psychedelic rock band Earth Opera. The remainder of his half-century career has been devoted to tunes that spin and spit from the wood and steel of acoustic instruments.
Grisman compares his love of acoustic music to a well-crafted fiddle. “Somebody built this violin 200 years ago,” he says, “and it was a real piece of wood. It was a real tree. There's nothing attached to it but somebody's hands, and it allows their personality to come through, as well as the personality of the instrument. It's almost a prerequisite for real music.”
When questioned about “real music,” and his dogged stick-to-your-guns averseness to “innovations” involving electronic musical instruments, pick-up systems, and amplification, Grisman laughs: “I have to say it. I may be going down with the ship, but it’s true. Believe me, a lot of guys have come to me with pick-ups and instruments; there's a reason I never picked up on any of it. Because it just didn't sound as good.”
As earthy and simple as Grisman’s music has sounded throughout the four decades his own quintet (now a sextet) has been active, it is also informed by strains of gypsy music, jazz, world music, classical, rock, pop, and bluegrass. Grisman’s albums and projects are always Velveteen-Rabbit-real, and no matter whether a melody is a new original, an old standard, or a traditional tune, Grisman’s arrangements and deft performances digest notes and regurgitate a new, shiny sound that shouts all kinds of primary and secondary colors, sometimes Coltrane, sometimes Monroe.
While Old and in the Way – his groundbreaking 1973 bluegrass project with Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, John Kahn, Richard Greene, and John Hartford – was touring, Garcia christened Grisman with the nickname “Dawg,” and in January 1976, when Grisman performed his first gig with the David Grisman Quintet, the name “Dawg music” stuck. Four decades later, “Dawg” music is here to stay.
Just as sweet treble stylings spill out of the f-holes of his ancient-toned mandolin, Grisman fingers note-paths across his fretboard and carves concert tours through the backroads of the country with great joy and fervor. After thousands of appearances, countless records, and having shared stages with countless greats – from Doc Watson to the Grateful Dead – Grisman is still touring at age 70, and loving it.
Of touring, Grisman says, with palpable excitement, “I feel like I've still got something to contribute. And there's nobody else that's doing it quite like I do. … I’m trying! I think I'm still louder than Chris Thile.” Then, under his breath, he adds, “Unless he plugs in, man.”
The Artistic Side
In 1947, at age two, David Grisman was brought by his mother, Fanya, to her middle school classroom in Passaic, New Jersey, where she taught art to an excited group of students, including Ralph Rinzler, who was then 12 years old. Toddler David didn’t remember their first meeting, but years later, his friend Rinzler recounted the experience to him. Fourteen years after first crossing paths with Grisman, Rinzler became known for bringing Doc Watson into the public eye and managing both Watson and Bill Monroe through much of the 1960s.
Grisman grew up in a conservative Jewish household and, like many children, started learning to play the piano during elementary school. He had a fairly normal childhood, but then he lost his father at age ten, and as he recalls, “I had a tough time with my mom; she was kind of overbearing a little bit, for me.” He turned to music as an outlet. At first, he listened to the same things that other kids did, like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly, until he heard the call of something different: The Kingston Trio, with their big hit “Tom Dooley” in 1958.
“Ralph Rinzler called me up, and he said, ‘I’m going down to Rising Sun, Maryland, to hear Bill Monroe, do you want to come?’ And you know, I didn't need a second invitation. And that changed my life, you know. That changed my life.” - David Grisman
Then, Grisman remembers, “When I was 15, and developing an interest in folk music, I asked my favorite high school teacher, Elsie Rinzler, to help form a folk music club.” She agreed and soon invited her cousin Ralph to her English classroom at Passaic Junior High School. Grisman and his two friends, Frew Weisz and Jack Scott, were amazed by this “professional” folk musician, with his guitar, banjo, and mandolin and his “dissertation and demonstration of folk music.” With a twinkle in his eye, Grisman recalls, “Hearing him speak about folk music, sing, and play guitar, banjo, and mandolin that day obviously changed my life.” Rinzler soon became a “guru in many things, musical and otherwise.”
Grisman remembers clearly how drawn he was to folk music in his teenage years, after the seeming collapse of rock and roll. “In the ‘50s,” he says, “the rock and roll explosion happened, and we were all caught up with that, but it kind of evaporated in the end of the ‘50s, you know. Elvis went into the army. Buddy Holly got killed. Frankie Lyman OD’d. Chuck Berry went to jail. Jerry Lee Lewis got caught in a scandal. Little Richard found the Lord. It all evaporated around 1960. But there was the Kingston Trio, and for me, that was the birth of the folk movement.”
Today, Grisman draws an even deeper connection between his beginnings in folk music and his late friend Ralph Rinzler. “Years later, in 1990, when Ralph visited me in California, he revealed that it had been my mother who ‘opened up’ the artistic, aesthetic side of his nature, by the way she taught art. He couldn't paint or draw, but the way she taught art turned a screw in his head. The thing is, I was never able to get that from my mom. I got it from Ralph instead. And so I received a gift from my mom through Ralph.
“I learned so much from him,” Grisman adds. “He took us under his wing, and we would go over to his place. He lived two blocks away from me, and one block away from one of the other guys. At the time, right around 1961, Ralph was working for British Overseas Airline Company. He'd come home from work late, and we’d go over there at around 10:30 at night. He turned us on to all kinds of music, playing tapes and playing music with us. At midnight, without fail, the phone would ring. It would wake up Ralph’s dad, who was a doctor, and he would get mad, and I’d have to go home.”
The boys’ drive to learn was not easily satiated, and Grisman and his friends “all started getting interested in the real stuff.” Grisman recalls, “We might have heard the Kingston Trio first, but it wasn't too long before we heard – and were digging – Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and people like the New Lost City Ramblers. We could go hear this music, and it was amazing. All these kindred spirits, all these young kids like me, were gathered in the same places, interested in various aspects of American roots music.”
Rinzler was a powerful force in Grisman’s life for all of his teenage years. One highlight was the day when Rinzler returned from a trip to Shouns, Tennessee, with a tape that he played for 15-year-old Grisman. “He was really excited about having rediscovered Clarence Ashley, who had made records in the ’20s, you know,” Grisman says. “I was sitting there listening, saying, ‘Who's that playing the guitar?’” It was Rinzler’s first recording of Arthel “Doc” Watson, who was playing rhythm and lead guitar for Clarence “Tom” Ashley’s small ensemble at the time. When Watson later visited New York City, Rinzler gave Grisman the all-important job of guide, and Grisman remembers spending hours with Doc.
Most importantly for the young mandolin player, Grisman recalls one morning in 1961 when the phone rang at his mother’s house. “Ralph Rinzler called me up, and he said, ‘I’m going down to Rising Sun, Maryland, to hear Bill Monroe, do you want to come?’ And you know, I didn't need a second invitation. And that changed my life, you know. That changed my life.”
The Youngest Guy in the Band
While still in high school, David Grisman and his friends Fred and Jack discovered what they called “The Square” on Sunday afternoons. The fountain in Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, had played host since the late 1940s to an incredibly diverse collection of folk musicians. “They had all these musicians gathered around the fountain,” Grisman remembers. “There would be old-time musicians, ragtime fingerpickers, political protest singers, bluegrass guys, blues guys, and old Italian guys sitting there playing chess.”
Maria Muldaur, then a teenager, also frequented the Square. “In 1962,” she recalls, “I ran into a young mandolin player in Washington Square Park one day named David Grisman. His mom was still bringing him from New Jersey to the Park to play, and we formed a group called Maria and the Washington Square Ramblers. We actually got a little gig every Sunday at a funny Italian restaurant on Long Island whose owners had decided that folk music was the new biggest thing, and they wanted to present what they called ‘folk music’ to draw people into the restaurant. Wow! Our first paying gig!”
Later the same year, Grisman remembers, “Doc Watson was the first professional musician to ever invite me onto stage. It was during one of Doc's early engagements at Gerde's Folk City, and I think Ralph's younger cousin Richard put a bug in Doc's ear about me having a mandolin with me. In any case, he invited me up on stage to play a song or two. I remember playing ‘In the Pines’ and perhaps another tune. It made a profound impact on me.”
That year, Grisman also started attending NYU, and spent all of the time he could outside of class playing music. He also got a job working at Israel “Izzy” Young’s Folklore Center, which was arguably the most important hangout for folk musicians in New York at the time. Grisman remembers, “Bob Dylan was sleeping on Israel Young's floor sometimes. And I used to sell things, like one guitar string to Richie Havens, who would run in there in between sets, and had been playing on five strings. It was a great time.”
During his second year of college, he rented a little walk-up apartment for $58, at 80 Thompson Street. “It had DC current and a bathtub in the kitchen,” Grisman remembers, but his memories are nothing but fond. “It was just a wonderful time, a wonderful place, and I met a lot of people that I am still friends with.”
Grisman started to form a group of peers who were all talented musicians, and they began to explore various genres together. “David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Jerry Garcia, and others,” he says, “we were all around the same age. Some were a little older, and some were a little younger, but we were all World War II babies.” He also connected with what they called the “older generation” that his mentor and friend Ralph Rinzler belonged to. “Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and those guys were kind of the older generation of folk musicians. Some of these guys, as years went on, became more like peers and friends. But, back then, we were young kids to them.”
Alongside his classes at NYU, Grisman started to study music very seriously. “You have to study,” he says. “For something to come out, you have to take a lot in. And it's got to be the correct stuff.” He worked hard on his instrument of choice, and he went as far as he could to the source of the music, with the help of Rinzler and other new friends in the folk music scene. He soon had a chance to sit and study with some of his heroes, but he started with tapes. “I hung out with Frank Wakefield, the great mandolin player, and he showed me a whole bunch of Bill Monroe solos that he’d learned, note-for-note, by slowing down records, and showed me that that's what was necessary. And I learned those Bill Monroe solos.”
"You can't just pick up the baton and carry it on; you've got to do some research and study." - David Grisman
It didn’t take long until Grisman started passing the knowledge he had gained along to others, as he has now done time after time, over his half-century-long career. “When a 14-year-old Andy Statman came to me for his first mandolin lesson, I saw he had great talent, and I said, ‘Here are a bunch of tapes. Learn the stuff that's on these tapes!’
“If you're going to learn an instrument,” he adds, “you've got to learn what's been done on that instrument, at least in a certain area.” His own explorations went beyond one area, and he notes that even at the beginning of his career, “I tried to incorporate a lot of areas; I tried to do a thorough study of bluegrass mandolin playing in the 1960s, of my heroes, Bill Monroe, Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, and Frank Wakefield. You can't just pick up the baton and carry it on; you've got to do some research and study. And every great artist, I feel, does that in one way or the other. I think it's a necessary process to prime your own voice.
“It’s been a lifetime of listening, really,” he adds. “It's all about processing everything you are taking in, drawing on all these influences, whether you are figuring out what Bill Monroe played, what Jesse McReynolds played, learning a Billy Strayhorn tune, a Django Reinhardt tune, learning a Django Reinhardt tune from Stephane Grappelli, learning a Django Reinhardt tune from Svend Asmussen, or whatever other situation you find yourself in.”
On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1964, Grisman first met Jerry Garcia in West Grove, Pennsylvania, where they were both jamming in a parking lot between sets of a Bill Monroe show. They became fast friends, and influenced one another in many ways over the coming years. Grisman remembers, “He knew American music. He knew bluegrass, he knew rock and roll, he knew rhythm and blues, and he knew jazz. He turned me on to a million things.”
Garcia, like many of Grisman’s other collaborators, friends, and mentors, was older than he was. “I have always tried to be the youngest guy in the band, but it's getting more difficult,” Grisman quips with a playful laugh. “It’s been a great process, and now I find myself surrounded more often by younger people.”
Grateful to still be playing the music he loves alongside players often 50 years his junior, Grisman continues, “I’ve got something for them, and I can also learn something from them. You've got to keep an open mind.”
"The greatest ingredient in music is time. Not just rhythm, and not just the keeping of time. I mean the cumulative effect of a lifetime of experience." - David Grisman
Tradition Starts as Heresy
Like J.S. Bach, whom he mentioned three times in an interview about his closest influences, Grisman started his career studying at the feet of master composers and performers. Like Bach, Grisman is a master of classical styles of his art form – in his case, bluegrass, jazz, and other forms of music. But, also like Bach, he has always pushed the boundaries, while never losing the heart and soul of the tune and harmony. What is Grisman’s take on Bach and all his other disruptive forebears in music? “Tradition starts as heresy,” he says.
Grisman was drawn quickly into the heretical haunts of bluegrass and old-time music. Admittedly a history buff, he recounts the story of how Bill Monroe broke boundaries with his rollicking music on the Grand Ole Opry stage. He then talks excitedly about the power that groups of autonomous, ingenious, and like-minded musicians are able to wield. “It was really revolutionary for Bill Monroe to hire Earl Scruggs on banjo in 1946. But he heard something in his playing that he could use.”
Through the process of configuring and re-configuring his quartet and other ensembles, Grisman has similarly sought out such revolutionary souls. “Once they show up, you use them,” he says. “I heard something in Tony Rice, Darol Anger, Todd Phillips, and Mike Marshall. In a way, my quintet started a revolution.”
Despite the clear innovation that Monroe, Grisman, and other band leaders have brought to their music, their roots are still firmly planted in traditional soil. Grisman respectfully notes, “These were all elements that had been around for years.” Regarding his own mandolin styles, he credits some of his predecessors. “Jethro Burns recorded jazz on the mandolin, Dave Apollon recorded everything on the mandolin,” he notes, and Grisman is always careful to cite his sources, as he stands on the shoulders of giants.
However, he remembers that, for his late mentor Bill Monroe, the legendary mandolinist and “father of bluegrass,” “bluegrass was ‘it,’ the greatest music on the face of the Earth, and he would never admit to being influenced by anything else.” Grisman doesn’t fault his teacher for this. “People will get interested in a style: rock and roll, grunge, swing, bebop, bluegrass, or old-time music. Then they kind of get entrenched. That’s it. They don’t really explore other styles.” Grisman closes this thought by saying, “That’s fine.” But that “entrenched” place is certainly not where he or his bandmates and collaborators reside.
Dawg music lives on a tightrope between genres and represents a spectrum of melodic styles, from fast to slow, soft to loud, and ancient to modern. And Grisman’s music gets better with age, like a Lloyd Loar mandolin. “Music is an old art form, you know,” he says. “And the greatest ingredient in music is time. Not just rhythm, and not just the keeping of time. I mean the cumulative effect of a lifetime of experience.”
Grisman came to an important conclusion in the 1960s: “I recognized that the mandolin was something that could probably play anything, if the player could figure out how to do it. It doesn't have to be Italian music. It doesn't have to be bluegrass. It could be a ballad by Billy Strayhorn, or it could be ‘Happy Birthday,’ J.S. Bach, or anything. It took me a while to realize this. Once I got into jazz, I went out and bought an alto sax. I figured you had to play a jazz instrument to play jazz. But I had no ability on the alto sax.”
After laughing, admitting he never took a lesson on the saxophone, Grisman recounts what he learned from his attempt: “It informed me that I should go back and become a mandolin player!
“It kind of forced me to do the work on the mandolin,” he explains, “to try to play the same melodies on the instrument that I had some ability with. For some reason, I was able to make the mandolin sound good.”
And one of the great musical partnerships Grisman’s mandolin ever forged was with the unsurpassably talented guitar of Clarence White. He speaks of a break he was given when he was still a teenager. “I had a great opportunity in 1964,” he says. “The Kentucky Colonels asked me to play a weeklong gig at the Gaslight Café, because Roland White's wife had just given birth.” The members of the band slept on the floor of Grisman’s apartment, and they performed two or three sets every night. When they returned to the apartment late at night, David would “sit up with Clarence until the wee, wee hours, just jamming.”
Many mandolinists and guitarists would love to have been a fly on the wall for the meeting of those young minds in that Greenwich Village walk-up, on those long nights. “You know, I was 19,” Grisman recalls, “and he was about 21.
“He would fuck with time, you know,” he continues. “He really opened me up to a lot of things that are articulated certain ways. He would displace a melody over the bar line, and he did some other really unusual things. But he did it with such precision that you would never get lost.”
For the next nine years, Grisman had many more opportunities to play alongside White, before the brilliant guitarist’s tragic death in 1973 at the hands of a drunk driver. “I was fortunate to really get to know Clarence musically. And personally. And I really felt, after he was gone, that there was this kind of vacuum for several years.”
Then, in 1967, singer and guitarist Peter Rowan, who had just left his tenure with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys after two years, joined his friend Grisman for a new joint project, Earth Opera. Rowan remembers, “It had bluegrass feeling in it, but we were playing it all in what was legato, arpeggio chords rather than strummed chords, so that every note would ring out in a chord, rather than just the rhythm part. David played mandocello and mandolin and I played guitar, and we wrote all of the songs.”
Rowan recalls that they were mentored by Grisman’s old friend Ralph Rinzler. “We used to see Ralph on a daily basis,” Rowan says. “I had moved up to Cambridge after I was with Bill Monroe, and I wanted to be among whatever was going on with my contemporaries – kids in their mid-20s. And Ralph came and listened to us in the little bedroom where we were rehearsing. He said, ‘More dissonance.’ He said, ‘I want to hear more dissonance.’
“We did what Ralph said,” he adds. “We threw it all in there. In fact, we got to the point in dissonance where we couldn’t even handle it, we fell apart. He was definitely a father figure for us. You know, he was a mentor.”
Grisman’s ears are still ringing from his years playing with Earth Opera. “We used to open shows for the Doors,” he says. “I'll never forget it. One time in Toronto, we used the Doors' amplifiers, and the notes were like trees. I had this ringing in my ears all night long.” Grisman laughs as he describes the feeling of the temporary deafness in his ears. “It makes you question your existence,” he says. “But you know, evidently there are a lot of musicians who can handle that, but I'm not one that ever wanted to.”
Taking the Bull by the Horns
“My friend, the great banjo innovator Bill Keith, who sadly just passed away, hired me for his first album in the spring of 1975,” Grisman says. “I flew into Washington, DC, late at night, and we immediately went to a friend’s house and crashed. At eight in the morning, he woke me up. He said, ‘Come on out here! You’ve got to meet Tony Rice!’ I had never heard of Tony Rice, and I guess he had flown in early that morning. We sat down on the living room floor of these people’s house, I took up my mandolin, and he had his guitar. He hit his first few notes, and I said, ‘Clarence is back.’”
Grisman’s friend and bandmate Clarence White had been killed only two years earlier. “It’s not that [Tony] was exactly like Clarence,” he says, “but he had that same kind of phrasing and exactness.
He continues. “Tony was sitting on the floor in the living room, and he said, ‘So, what have you been up to lately?’”
Grisman pulled out a tape he had recently recorded with his group, The Great American Music Band. He remembers, “There were a bunch of people there, but Tony was the only one listening to it. He heard one or two tunes, and said, ‘I would give my left nut to play that music.’”
At that time, Rice was playing with Ricky Skaggs and J.D. Crowe and the New South but was listening to jazz on the side. Grisman recalls, “I kind of bridged the connection for that. He insisted that I change my itinerary and go back to Lexington, Kentucky, with him, so that I could start teaching him these tunes. I did that, and stayed several days there.
“[Then,] Tony kept calling me up and asking, ‘When’s the gig?’ I said, ‘What gig?’ I didn't even have a band. John Hartford was the first one to tell me that I was going to have my own band. I didn't really see it.”
Grisman didn’t go looking for the band this time; the band came to him.
“I had this mandolin student, Todd Phillips,” he says. “He was the ace student in my Sausalito class. And one day he brought over this violinist, Darol Anger, who had tapes of all of our Great American Music Band stuff, and had learned all of Richard Greene’s solos to my tunes.” The David Grisman Quintet started to form, but they didn’t have a guitarist – only two mandolins and a fiddle.
“Later that year, J.D. Crowe’s band was going on a Japan tour,” Grisman says, “and they had a gig in San Francisco the night before they were going to leave. I told Tony, ‘Well, why don’t you come out here a few days before that, and we’ll rehearse?’ Well, he came out, we got together, and then he played the gig in San Francisco. They went off to Japan the next day.
“A week later, the phone rings, and it was Tony Rice. I could tell he had a few sakes under his belt. And he told me he just gave J.D. his notice. He wanted to play my music; there was no stopping him. I never asked him to leave J.D. or anything like that.” Grisman chuckles. “I thought, hey, at that point, I better take the bull by the horns. These guys have all volunteered.”
After a brief pause for breath, he adds, in a playful voice, “You know, Tony Rice named my band. I expected him to sing, you know. Here's this guy who is not only the world’s greatest bluegrass guitar player, he also sings like a bird. I just figured it would be more of a collaboration. But he said, ‘No, I came here to play your music. This is the David Grisman Quintet.’”
Good Music and the Other Kind
Since his experiment with Peter Rowan in Earth Opera came to a close in 1969, Grisman has rarely picked up an electric instrument. He founded Acoustic Disc Records in 1990, with the intention of putting out “100% handmade music.” This has included some of the great players of several generations, and continues to be an important record label for acoustic music. The company’s AcousticOasis.com features downloads of remastered versions of legendary recordings, including their latest release: the remastered version of the seminal 1991 album, Bluegrass Reunion, featuring two previously unreleased tracks that include vocals by Jerry Garcia.
With respect to his record company, Grisman talks about the new reality of music sales. “With YouTube and streaming services, nobody really needs to buy music anymore,” he says. “I mean, you can pay ten bucks a month and have access to however many millions of songs. And that's certainly enough for most people, and I understand that. But I have had to try to reinvent my career.
“I can't even call this the ‘music business,’” he adds. “I'll call it the ‘entertainment business.’ Unfortunately, the commercial end of this thing has proliferated and had its effect on the music. It's not rooted in music, it's rooted in sales.
“One myth they have promoted, and in many cases have accomplished, is that music is disposable,” he adds. “This week’s music is like a hamburger. Next month, forget about it. It will be gone and replaced by something more current. And that's bullshit. J.S. Bach is just as valid today as he ever was. So is Uncle Dave Macon. Unfortunately, the business end of music has mandated that in order to keep selling music, they have to get rid of the old music, downplay it, or ignore it.
“The truth is, the world doesn't really need any more music,” he continues. “There's so much great music that is available on recordings now, that you, I, and ten more people couldn't listen to it all in our collective lifetimes. So why do we need a bunch of guys with crazy hair and fucking rings coming out of their noses on some late night TV show playing a bunch of garbage? We don't need that. We should be listening to Duke Ellington. They should have Sonny Rollins on there, man. They should do a tribute to Bill Monroe. They should do a tribute to Earl Scruggs. They should do a fucking tribute to J.S. Bach. Instead you get some bunch of lame crap.
“Some of this music I’m talking about is, I believe, perfected. You know, perfect singing and all the rest. But it’s soulless stuff, man. And we really don't need it. But the people who sell this stuff need to keep making millions of dollars on something, and they have to perpetuate the myth that this is something new, this is current, and this is what won the Grammy this year.”
Grisman concludes, “They say a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Well, a lot of knowledge can also be dangerous. You know there's good and bad to all of this. It's a wonderful thing now that there's so much music available. You can just search the internet for Svend Asmussen, and if you've never heard of him, you can find out all about him. And if you get to hear his music, that's enough.”
The Humanity of Acoustic Music
David Grisman started out like many of his peers did, hustling for gigs wherever he could find them. He worked with Richard Greene, a fiddler, at the time, and neither of them was a singer. “You know, I didn't have this vision that I was going to make up a style of music called Dawg music, and that it was going to be instrumental, and that it was going to be my life's work,” he says. “It kind of happened in an accidental way. … At some point, [Greene and I] decided that maybe we could make a go of it playing instrumentals.”
Greene and Grisman explored their repertoire via a series of gigs and discovered that they would be able to craft great sets of music together. “We figured out right away that we just couldn't play fast fiddle tunes for 90 minutes, so we had to mix it up,” Grisman says. ‘Of course, that's what jazz musicians had been doing for years. It was nothing new. But it had never been done that way with bluegrass instruments.”
That was the beginning of what soon became Grisman’s unique acoustic style of music. “Everybody's got a different take on what they want to accomplish. I basically wrote a lot of music,” he says. “And guys like Tony Rice, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, and others all dug that, and saw that as an outlet for their own expression.”
Grisman has chosen to devote his career to the intricacies of acoustic music. “I love the sound of acoustic instruments. They are rooted in very old traditions. They've taken centuries to develop. And they were developed in a musical fashion.”
He continues his melodic line of explanation: “If I go and buy Gibson's latest electric guitar, they won't even let me tune the damn thing; they've got these automatic tuning devices. The sound of that probably has a lot more to do with a computer chip from China than my touch. In fact, you can't hear it unless you plug it into an amp. Then, you're not hearing it come out of something you're holding. You're hearing it come out of a box that’s somewhere else.
“It's so far removed from the humanity that is the most necessary ingredient in the making of music. … Real music is not a bunch of guys cutting an instrumental track, and then two months later, carefully putting a vocal over it,” he adds. “To me, [that’s] not music. … It's kind of sad to me that most of what's called ‘acoustic’ isn't really acoustic, it's more like semi-acoustic – it's plugged-in. It’s all about acoustic instruments with a pick-up on them, or some kind of attached microphone. And that, really, is all about volume. Unfortunately, we've gotten used to music that is really so loud, it's painful.
“I don't get why music should be painful. Maybe I have sensitive ears. But think about this, when it’s that loud, it’s crazy: why would a musician whose ears are finely tuned put stuff in their ears to protect them from the music?” Grisman laughs. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
All Who Have a Large Vocabulary
In February 2002, in the lobby of a convention center, Grisman was standing with his mandolin strung around his neck, enraptured by the tunes that he was sharing with a small boy half his size. The boy was trading licks with his new mentor, to the delight of the informal crowd that had gathered around. In the tradition of his own teachers, Ralph Rinzler, Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield, and so many others, Grisman has been a mentor and a father figure to generations of mandolinists and acoustic musicians.
He recalls meeting one of the world’s greatest mandolinists, Chris Thile, when Thile was just eight years old, in 1989. Twenty-seven years later, Grisman still calls him a kid. “He’s bringing the mandolin places it’s never been before,” Grisman says. “Chris Thile is a monster talent.”
After noting that each generation has more technical ability than the previous, he says of Thile, “He’s very curious, and he is also very thoughtful. He knows that he can play a million notes, but that's not what makes music.”
Making a play on words based on Chris Thile’s 2001 album Not All Who Wander Are Lost – which Thile took from a poem in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Grisman speaks about musicians who have chops but no soul: “I would rephrase Chris’ album title and say, ‘All who have large vocabularies aren’t necessarily poets.’
“Years ago, Chris asked me, ‘How do you always sound like you?’ Because he was kind of searching for his own sound,” Grisman says. “I told him, ‘It’s inside you. You just have to come to that point. I didn’t always sound like me either.”
With that, Grisman summarizes his full and ongoing career. “I’ve kind of always looked at the big picture,” he says. “And I've just made it through. I'm 70 years old and I'm probably working more than ever. I've hung in there and I've stayed true to what I do.
“I think music is a joyful experience, even if you're playing something sad,” he adds. “It's an emotional experience. You can't take emotion out of music. It's part of it. No matter what else is involved, we're all doing something that we love to do.”
So many mandolin players and instrumentalists have been influenced by Dawg and his music that it would be difficult to neatly trace his picking progeny. The branches of his musical family tree look more like alveoli, carrying oxygen through tiny capillaries, into the blood cells of the giant, breathing organism of acoustic music.
After dozens of records over a half-century in music, David Grisman’s Sextet is celebrating four decades of Dawg music, and they are releasing a new recording with some of their best, unreleased material: “It's the 40th year of my ensemble,” he says. “Nine original tunes will be on the record that have never been recorded by the band.
“My sextet now consists of George Cole on guitar and Chad Manning on fiddle, two relative newcomers compared with our bassist, Jim Kerwin, who has been playing with me for 30 years. Matt Eakle, our flute player, has been with us for 25 years. George Marsh, our percussionist, has played with me over two centuries now – he was in the band during the 1980s, and he’s been with us for a decade during this century. This is a band that includes both Dawg veterans and relatively new guys.
“I think this is a realized sound – the culmination of what I've been doing for the past 40 years.
“Not that it's going to stop anytime in the near future,” Dawg quickly adds. “I certainly hope not.”