David Grisman on record
July 31, 2006
David Grisman calls it a “confluence of events” that dragged him into the recording business in 1989. Grisman, who had led the accomplished, influential David Grisman Quintet since the mid-’70s, was ready to release “Dawg 90” when his label, MCA, threatened to drop him. At the same time, two friends, Harriet and Artie Rose, had just moved to California, where Grisman lives, and wanted to start a business.The three, along with Craig Miller, founded the Acoustic Disc label. The company released “Dawg 90,” and looked ahead to a modest existence of releasing Grisman’s own recordings and some other low-profile projects. “I thought maybe I’d put out some older, out-of-print music,” said Grisman, from his home in Petaluma, in Sonoma County, California.Grisman doesn’t believe much in business plans. Beyond a pair of projects revolving around his own groups – “The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience,” the debut CD by his on-and-off bluegrass combo, and the DGQ’s “Dawg’s Groove,” both slated for release this fall – he is uncertain what will be forthcoming from Acoustic Disc. Grisman says he likes to maintain an element of spontaneity in his business decisions.But even in his most ambitious moments, Grisman probably didn’t imagine how extensive his label would become. The catalog counts 66 titles, which feature such acoustic icons as Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, Vassar Clements and Doc Watson. Acoustic Disc also deals in music by far lesser-known musicians, whom Grisman feels are entitled to wider recognition: Jacob do Bandolim, the father of Brazilian choro music; jazz guitarist George Barnes; Czech mandolinist Radim Zenkl. Beyond the names and numbers is the quality of the product. Acoustic Disc releases are generally packed with liner notes and photos that belie how small the operation is. The sound is consistently superb.For all that, Grisman credits the third in that confluence of events. A few months after Acoustic Disc was founded, Jerry Garcia walked into Grisman’s home recording studio, then located in Mill Valley. Grisman and Garcia had been pals and picking partners years earlier; the two were central in the short-lived but significant bluegrass band Old & In the Way. But there had been virtually no contact between Grisman and Garcia – “Dawg” and “Spud” in Old & In the Way parlance – since, and Grisman had no reason to think that the spiritual leader of the Grateful Dead would be the savior of his fledgling business.
“He literally walked into my living room; we hadn’t played together in 13 years,” recalled Grisman. “The first thing he said was, ‘We should make a record, and that will give us an excuse to play together.’ We walked downstairs and started.”And he said I should release the record. It was that easy.””Garcia & Grisman,” featuring takes on the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” Grisman’s “Dawg’s Waltz” and B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” was the result of that session, and the second release on Acoustic Disc. Garcia made periodic visits to Dawg Studios until his death in 1995, and the music the two made together, accompanied sometimes by members of Grisman’s quintet, was released on a series of casual, experimental, but rewarding CDs: the folky “Shady Grove” and “Been All Around This World,” the jazzy “So What.” The duo’s children’s album “Not For Kids Only” is the company’s bestseller, racking up more than 200,000 copies sold.Acoustic Disc has also released two live Old & In the Way albums, culled from the band’s one year of existence, in 1973, and “Grateful Dawg,” a soundtrack to the documentary film. Garcia also appears on “The Pizza Tapes,” a long-lost jam session by the trio of Garcia, Grisman and Tony Rice, the original guitarist from the DGQ. (The album is so named because, as myth and suspicion have it, a pizza delivery guy swiped the tapes from Garcia’s kitchen counter.)”That’s the reason we’re still in business,” said Grisman of the titles that feature Garcia. “They account for most of our sales.” Instead of simply estimating the profits that could be reaped from Garcia’s contributions, Grisman and company have plowed the money into more music. Grisman, a 61-year-old New Jersey native, has been a recording producer as long as he has been a professional musician. In the mid-’60s, he produced a series of albums by Red Allen (who would later have albums on Acoustic Disc), and later produced the original Old & In the Way record as well as his own recordings. Over the years, he stockpiled ideas; he actually kept a file labeled “Projects,” of ideas he’s like to produce.
“The big problem was always convincing a company to do a project,” said Grisman. “With that problem by the wayside, because it was my company, the floodgates sort of opened.”The third release on Acoustic Disc was vintage recordings by Bandolim. Though Grisman had been listening to him for 15 years, it was the first time the Brazilian mandolinist could be heard on a U.S. release. The releases over the years have been a hodgepodge of acoustic music: new DGQ albums; vintage recordings by swing guitarist Oscar Aleman; Grisman-led collaborations focusing on old-timey songs and Jewish melodies; collections that feature Del McCoury, John Hartford and Ralph Stanley; the debut by the young band Old School Freight Train. The artists have been offered an attractive financial model that is an alternative to the normal way the record business works: instead of the artist bearing all the initial expenses, those risks are shared by the artist and Acoustic Disc. When an album begins to make money, both sides begin to profit simultaneously.One of Acoustic Disc’s ongoing projects has been the “Tone Poems” series. The CDs focus on the instruments Grisman has collected, rather than the artists who play them.”I felt no one was paying much attention to, what do these things sound like?” said Grisman. “It’s always, it’s valuable because it’s got this inlay style, for instance. The things most collectors are interested in aren’t the musicality.” The first “Tone Poem” releases had Grisman and a guitarist – Tony Rice on the first, Martin Taylor on the second – playing a series of precious mandolins and guitars. The new album “Tone Poets” has an array of players on a series of instruments. The idea was to show how much it was the picker, not the instrument that dictated the sound.The “Tone Poems” CDs are also an example of how Grisman approaches record-making. “I like concept albums,” he said. “Most of the entertainment business is a new record every nine months. For me, it’s: What purpose does this have besides being the artist’s next record? I’ve tried to find a musical purpose behind each record.”
Grisman likewise has precise ideas about sound. He calls himself “an analog guy in a digital world,” and uses what he calls a close-miking technique that emphasizes the sound of the instrument. It is a break with even the standard classical music device of hanging a pair of mikes in the room. “Because that usually sounds like you’re recording the room. I pretty much eliminate the sound of the room,” said Grisman, who has employed engineer “Decibel” Dave Dennison since the founding of Acoustic Disc. (Grisman called Dennison out of the blue to record that first session with Garcia. “I told him I had a guitar player here. He just about fainted, because Jerry and myself were his two favorite musicians,” said Grisman.) The financial boost provided by the late Garcia could be near an end. Apart from some live material, or a box set with alternate takes, another Garcia project is unlikely. Grisman said the tracks on 2004’s “Been All Around This World” were the final scraps. Another album “would be the bottom of the barrel. The cover would be looking down at tapes in the bottom of a barrel,” he said.Of course, Grisman has more than old tapes of Garcia to fall back on. For one, he said most of the Acoustic Disc titles make money.For another, Grisman is himself a top figure in acoustic music. The DGQ’s 1977 debut, a groundbreaking mix of bluegrass and jazz dubbed Dawg music, is revered by progressive acoustic pickers.”I kicked down the door and a lot of people came through,” said Grisman, who brings the latest version of the DGQ – with original drummer George Marsh, who rejoined the group last year – to Belly Up Sunday, Aug. 6. “They’re still coming through. And they don’t even know how the door got open.”It was impossible to top the sheer innovation of that first album, but Grisman remains artistically vital, touring with both his bluegrass group and the DGQ, and aiming to release new CDs by both.
“I think I’m a lot better than that,” he said of the DGQ debut. “But you can’t remake the same thing. On the other hand, I’m glad there are people who like something.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org