Acoustic Music, Bluegrass Music, Saturday Soundtrack
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The trailblazing acoustic music of David Grisman

When the Birchmere Music Hall announced that David Grisman’s Dawg Trio would be playing at the legendary Alexandria venue this November, I knew it was time to feature David Grisman in a Saturday Soundtrack. My wife asked, “What took you so long?”

She knows that I’ve been a huge fan of the 76-year-old mandolin player, composer, musical producer, and lover of all things acoustic ever since the needle went down on the first track on side one of the 1977 album The David Grisman Quintet and the pulsating rhythms of E.M.D. exploded through my speakers.

I still love to listen to that album and the amazing musicianship of Grisman, the late Tony RiceDarol AngerTodd Phillips, and Bill Amatneek. The cover of the album told you this record was all about the instruments and their players.  It looked like a bluegrass-influenced album, but from the opening notes of E.M.D. (Eat My Dust) the listener was quickly dispelled of that notion.  Grisman, Rice, and Anger — taking the leads — were playing a type of string jazz influenced by gypsy, blues, and bluegrass music that had a beauty and clarity I certainly hadn’t heard before. At the time it was so unique that it was jaw dropping in its inspiration. Now, 40+ years later every acoustic musician worth his or her salt can work their way through similar tunes, but the originality of Grisman’s vision in the 1970s reminds me of the breakthrough of bluegrass when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the 1940s and a whole new American music was created.

In a similar fashion to Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, many of the famous acoustic musicians of the late 20th century cycled through Grisman’s band with members including Rice, Anger, Phillips, mandolinist extraordinaire Mike Marshall, Joe Craven, Enrique Coria, Matt Eakle, Jim Kerwin, John Carlini, George Marsh, and Frank Vignola. One of the most famous and prolific was Mark O’Connor, who had stints as both the guitarist (following Rice) and the violinist in the DGQ.

O’Connor’s incredible musicianship as seen in the video of Dawg’s Rag from an Austin City Limits performance may require some explanation:

Notice at 6:37, as O’Connor begins his guitar solo, his string snaps and one can hear this audibly. The high E string of the guitar came lose from the end pin and dropped all the way down to where it was flopping. You can see O’Connor attempting to figure out what to do as he continued his solo on national television. Beginning on the lower strings, he mutes some with his right hand, then gestured towards David Grisman as if he was going to give his solo back to him. Grisman does not respond and continues to play rhythm not really knowing what happened. Then O’Connor turns away from the mic and within a period of three seconds (from 7:01 to 7:04) the high E string is perfectly back in tune for the remainder of the solo. This very moment back in 1980 helped solidify O’Connor’s reputation as a young star whose ability as a great young musician was growing. These few seconds were the talk of the show to many guitar players watching at the time.

By the time the DGQ band was formed and the album released, Grisman had been around for some time in acoustic music circles. He emerged…

…as a mandolin visionary from New York City’s Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. He first played with local bluegrass bands and then professionally with the Even Dozen Jug Band, Red Allen and the Kentuckians and Earth Opera. He became a record producer and session player on recordings with Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and many others. In 1969, Jerry Garcia invited David to play on the Grateful Dead’s classic American Beauty. Garcia famously dubbed him “Dawg” and their musical friendship led to the legendary bluegrass band, Old & In The Way.

Over time, as Grisman and Jerry Garcia both gravitated to the Bay Area, they maintained their musical friendship. Both my children can attest to the fact that we listened to There Ain’t No Bugs on Me from the Grisman/Garcia album Not for Kids Only many a day in our car when they were very little. We all still laugh as we remember the first time Claire sang out the line “How in the hell can the old folks tell / If it ain’t gonna rain no more” from her car seat, with gusto! The old B.B. King tune The Thrill is Gone is from another of their Acoustic Disc collaborations.

David Grisman has always shared the stage with some of the world’s great musicians, people like guitarists Les Paul, Enrique Coria, Martin Taylor, and Doc Watson. In the early 1980s Grisman recorded and performed with legendary jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. There’s a wonderful video from the old Tonight Show vaults where they play two tunes, in a seven-minute- plus set, that clearly brings joy to Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show Band. I also love the version of Grappelli and DGQ playing the standard Sweet Georgia Brown from the great interplay first between Grappelli and Grisman, and then Anger and Mike Marshall. Grappelli is a legend, and the playfulness on the faces of all the musicians joining in his slipstream is wonderful to watch.

Others who came into his orbit can be seen in the following three videos. A Frets magazine Music Awards all-star jam session includes O’Connor and a very young Alison Krauss; New Grass Revival band mates Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and Pat Flynn; dobroist Jerry Douglas, and bassists Edgar Meyer and Mark Schatz playing the Grisman tune Dawgs Bull. Check out Fleck’s banjo break as well as Meyer’s bowed bass turn in the spotlight.

Grisman’s Acoustic Disc record label (tagline: 100% Handmade Music) has produced several albums highlighting the sound of vintage acoustic instruments played by the masters. This audio track features Seldom Scene founder and Dobro master Mike Auldridge on the Saint Louis Blues — one of my father’s favorite songs.

And Grisman remains active into his 70s, playing here with guitar master Tommy Emmanuel on Tipsy Gypsy.

Throughout his career, Grisman has stayed in touch with his bluegrass roots. One of the most satisfying collaborations in this vein has been with Del McCoury and the Del McCoury Band.

The Birchmere performance of David Grisman’s Dawg Trio will feature Grisman, his son Samson Grisman on bass, and banjoist/guitarist Danny Barnes. But I want to end by featuring the trio with the always tasteful Jim Hurst, playing his lovely Gallagher guitar, on Swang Thang from a 2016 Bluegrass Underground show on PBS.

Thank you, David Grisman, for bringing so much joy into my life over the past four decades. I hope you, dear reader, will find something to enjoy here as well.

More to come…


Image: Publicity shot of the 1977 David Grisman Quintet with Darol Anger, Tony Rice, Grisman, Bill Amatneek, and Todd Phillips from AcousticDisc.dom


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