Tao of the Dawg

David Grisman
Beware of the Dawg: David Grisman isn’t afraid to mix genres.

30 Years of Dawg Music. That’s the subtitle for Dawg’s Groove — one of two new albums David Grisman is releasing simultaneously this month.

Yes, 30 years have passed since Grisman first formed the David Grisman Quintet — the pioneering acoustic-string ensemble that took bluegrass instruments (and sometimes woodwinds) and used them to play a unique, eclectic mix of bluegrass, jazz, Latin, blues, classical, Gypsy, new-acoustic and world-music styles – a mix that Grisman would later dub “Dawg Music.”

“Yeah, 30 years, it really is a little difficult to grasp — but, you know, time waits for no man,” quips Grisman with his usual dry humor.

Affirming Grisman’s idiosyncratic spirit, he is, at the same time, releasing The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, a CD that celebrates his roots with a hotfooting collection of classic bluegrass covers, original tunes and pre-bluegrass mountain music.

“Yeah, in addition to the Quintet, I’ve also had this bluegrass band in the Bay Area for a few years, but we only do a handful of gigs a year,” says Grisman. “We don’t tour that much, because my son is in the band, and he’s still in high school, so we can only get out on the road during the summer and over the holidays.”

But the Quintet — which comes to The Orange Peel on Saturday — remains Grisman’s primary gig and his first love. Grisman describes starting out as “just this Jewish bluegrass mandolin player from New Jersey” who helped launch the progressive-bluegrass movement in the early ’70s as a member of Old & In the Way, a group that included Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. But Grisman soon felt a bit hemmed in by straight bluegrass.

So he formed the Quintet, and dreamed up the “Dawg Music” moniker as a way of fending off the endless inquiries by fans and critics who kept asking questions along the lines of “what the hell do you call this?”

“I figured if I gave it a name, I wouldn’t have to define it,” says Grisman with a laugh. “I remember Bill Monroe once saying to me, ‘Okay, you’ve proven you can play my music, now go make your own music.’ But when I did, he didn’t like it much — when I first began composing, I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t bluegrass, this is more samba or swing music’ — but I never tried to stifle my composing impulses: I just kept following my own muse.

“I eventually decided that Monroe had already created and perfected the bluegrass style, and that there was no point in just copying him — and this other stuff came out of me, and people responded pretty enthusiastically.”

Along the way, the Grisman Quintet has been the training ground — and launching pad — for musicians who would become some of the most valued contributors to the newgrass/new-acoustic scene, including Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Darol Anger and Mike Marshall. Bela Fleck and Euro-jazz violin legend Stephane Grappelli also did guest turns with the Quintet.

On Dawg’s Groove, the Quintet flexes its eclectic spirit in its usual heady, genre-crossing fashion. The leadoff track, “Limestone,” mixes traditional and contemporary jazz by synthesizing tunes from two different eras. The drolly-titled “La Grande Guignole” is a Latin-flavored bit of melodrama “that really has no relationship to anything most people would listen to,” deadpans Grisman, while the Celtic-infused “Ella McDonnell” was written by Quintet bassist Jim Kerwin as a tribute to his Irish grandmother.

“Zambola” pursues one of Grisman’s passions, the samba, and the 12-minute-long melodically and rhythmically morphing “Blues for Vassar” is a tribute to fiddler Vassar Clement, who died last year. Clement was a longtime friend who played with Grisman, on and off, for more than 35 years.

“Vassar just meant so much to me, musically and personally — that piece was written the day after the last time I played with him, and shortly after that, he became ill. When he passed, I began playing that piece at every show. Part of me doesn’t really accept that he’s gone — I feel like his spirit is still here with me.”

Since he has his jazz/world-music bases covered on Dawg’s Groove, the Bluegrass Experience album allowed Grisman to cut loose on some bluegrass classics like the Carter Family’s “Engine 143,” Carter Stanley’s “Say Won’t You Be Mine,” and Flatt & Scruggs’ “Down the Road.” They rework “Old & in the Way” for a new generation and throw NPR listeners a bone with a new version of “Dawggy Mountain Breakdown,” which the goofballs on NPR’s “Car Talk” use as their theme music. Grisman also has some anachronistic fun by taking tunes like Charlie Poole’s “Baltimore Fire” and the traditional “Rollin’ On” — two songs from before the bluegrass era — and recasting them as chugging bluegrass numbers.

Although Grisman is revered on the new-acoustic scene as one of the pioneers of that movement, he’s better known to the larger audience as the guy who helped show the world a different side of Jerry Garcia. Together, Garcia and Grisman rummaged through the trad-music canon and emerged with an armload of folk, bluegrass, country, jazz and gospel nuggets that gave Garcia a chance to show that he really was born to sing traditional music.

Between 1991 and 2004, Grisman’s label, Acoustic Disc, released a series of Garcia-Grisman discs culled from informal sessions they recorded in the early ’90s. (The strongest of the lot are probably “Shady Grove,” “The Pizza Tapes” and “Been All Around This World.”)

“Yeah, by the time we started recording these tunes, I think touring with the Dead had become sort of a burden for him, because it had become this huge organization by then. I like to think that, by that point in his life, the Dead was his job, but this was the music he really loved.”

Grisman values the Garcia recordings on two levels — personal and professional. “It was always fun, rediscovering and playing those tunes with Jerry,” says Grisman. “Those sessions gave him a chance to delve into music he was really into. It was a universe he didn’t get to visit very often, and it was fun to help him go there.

“And from a financial point of view — well, those were all big sellers for us, and they allowed us to stay afloat and put out records we probably wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. Without the revenue from those releases, the Acoustic Disc label probably wouldn’t still exist today.”

[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom first interviewed David Grisman in 1997. He can be reached at KevinRansom@comcast.net.]


WNCW presents an Evening with the David Grisman Quartet at The Orange Peel on Saturday, Oct. 7. 9 p.m. $30. 225-5851.

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