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Grisman led the way in acoustic revolution

Stewart Oksenhorn

David Grisman was not born with a mandolin in his hands, though it may seem that way. In fact, given Grisman’s incredible facility with the eight-string instrument and his enormous output of recordings, it can seem as if Grisman was born with the mandolin in his hands and has never put it down.Instead, Grisman was born with a mandolin idol down the block. Though Grisman’s hometown of Passaic, N.J., is the furthest thing from a bluegrass hotbed, Grisman’s neighbor down the block was Ralph Renzler, a significant music folklorist, record producer and mandolinist with the Greenbriar Boys. Grisman never took formal lessons from Renzler, but “I hung around him a lot,” said Grisman. “He was my mentor.”Looking back more than 40 years, Grisman is as impressed with his mentor’s musical discoveries as with Renzler’s mandolin abilities. Grisman notes that Renzler discovered singer-guitarist Doc Watson, that he brought bluegrass founder Bill Monroe to prominence in the ’60s, and that he bought the culturally important Folkway Records for the Smithsonian Institute.Significant accomplishments all. But when Renzler’s achievements are tallied up, inspiring David Grisman to play acoustic music will be among the most important. For it was Grisman, and the pioneering, genre-bending quintet he formed in the mid-’70s, that broke down the walls of acoustic music. It was Grisman’s vision that paved the way for such influential acts as New Grass Revival, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones and bassist Edgar Meyer’s various combos.As much of an influence as Renzler was in steering Grisman toward acoustic string music, equal credit goes to the rebellious streak that is innate in Grisman, and sheer circumstance. After getting turned on to bluegrass by Renzler, Grisman ditched the piano he had studied since the age of 7, and formed a neighborhood bluegrass trio. But he didn’t gravitate immediately to the mandolin.”In bluegrass, the banjo first caught my attention,” said Grisman. “But we were three teen-agers who wanted to play bluegrass, and one had a banjo and one had a guitar. So I picked up the mandolin.”The match was love at first sight: “I was always a nonconformist, and mandolin was as nonconforming as you could get,” said Grisman. “And I was able to do the basic technique right off the bat.”Grisman fell into what he calls “a small but healthy bluegrass scene” that was centered in the “bluegrass corner” of Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. Grisman played in a series of traditional bluegrass bands through the mid-’60s, until he and singer-guitarist Peter Rowan, a former member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, founded the folk-rock group, Earth Opera. He also did a lot of session work, “at least for a mandolinist,” he said.In 1970, Grisman relocated to the oceanside town of Stinson Beach, just north of San Francisco. One of his neighbors was Jerry Garcia, best-known for his electric guitar playing with the Grateful Dead. But Grisman knew a different side of Garcia: The two had first met at a bluegrass festival featuring Bill Monroe in West Grove, Pa., in 1964. It was a time when the Dead had yet to be formed, and Garcia was mostly enamored of the five-string banjo, and traditional folk and bluegrass sounds.By 1973, the Dead was a full-blown rock phenomenon. But Grisman and Garcia still jammed regularly on acoustic instruments in Stinson Beach. Eventually, the idea hit to form a bluegrass band that would play between Dead tours. With Garcia playing banjo, Grisman pulled in his old friend Peter Rowan on guitar. Garcia brought in bassist John Kahn, with whom he played frequently in various side projects. The coup for the group came when they convinced top fiddler Vassar Clements to join the band, and Old & In the Way was formed. The quintet would prove short-lived – a few gigs in California and a brief tour of the East Coast – but significant. The band’s self-titled album, recorded live at the Boarding House in San Francisco, would become the top-selling bluegrass record ever.Old & In the Way came to an end, but Grisman was just getting started. In 1974, Grisman began doing gigs with fiddler Richard Greene, who had played with Monroe, with Renzler in the Greenbriar Boys, and with Rowan in the jazz-rock outfit Seatrain.”Neither of us sang. So we put together an instrumental format – two guitar players, bass, mandolin and fiddle,” said Grisman. “I had been writing instrumental tunes for at least 10 years, but I never had an outlet for it.”That first instrumental quintet with Greene, the Great American String Band, would quickly fold, but Grisman stuck with the format. In 1975, he formed the David Grisman Quintet, with guitarist Tony Rice, bassist Joe Carroll, mandolinist Todd Phillips and fiddler Darol Anger. Grisman’s vision for the combo was as broad as music itself, encompassing jazz, South American sounds, Indian music, bluegrass and folk. Grisman’s contract with promoters carried a telling stipulation: “The word `bluegrass’ couldn’t be used to advertise the band,” said Grisman.The musical blend was something new in the tradition-respecting world of acoustic music. “I kind of thought that way,” said Grisman. “I thought it was really cool music. I thought I had found my special purpose.”As players like Mark O’Connor, Ratdog bassist Rob Wasserman and string ace Mike Marshall passed through the DGQ and went on to diverse musical paths, it became apparent that Grisman’s ensemble was a breeding ground for innovations in acoustic music. And Grisman is not reticent about saying so.”It’s not just me seeing it that way. That’s the truth,” he said. “I knocked down the door and a whole bunch of people came through it.”The DGQ now is now a stable group, including fiddler-mandolinist Joe Craven, guitarist Enrique Coria and flutist Matt Eakle. Longtime bassist Jim Kerwin is on temporary leave, and is being replaced for a spell by Sam Bevan.Even if there were not a whole lot of musicians pointing to Grisman and his quintet as pioneers, Grisman has the tapes to prove it. Few, if any, musicians have been as prolific as Grisman in recording music and making it available to the world.The last several years have seen the release of “Retrograss,” a set of various tunes played old-timey style by the trio of Grisman, Mike Seeger and John Hartford; “Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza,” a two-CD summit of eight of the top mandolin players, co-produced by Grisman; and “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” a set of acoustic jazz duets with Martin Taylor. Also in the catalog are “Tone Poems I” with Tony Rice and “Tone Poems II” with Taylor, “Songs of Our Fathers” with Andy Statman, and “Doc and Dawg” with Doc Watson.Grisman has also reached deep into his tape archives to release a variety of his jams with Garcia. Over the last few years, Grisman/Garcia collaborations such as the bebop album “So What,” the folky “Shady Grove” and the diverse “Garcia/Grisman” have been released, as have two additional live Old & In the Way discs, “That High Lonesome Sound” and “Breakdown.” Earlier this year, the notorious “Pizza Tapes” – a trio recording by Grisman, Garcia and Rice, so named because it is suspected that a pizza delivery man swiped the tapes and circulated them some years ago – was made officially available.”Ralph [Renzler] also inspired that,” said Grisman of his taping proclivities. “He was a record producer, and he went on recording field trips. So that’s how that got started.”All the recordings have been released through the Acoustic Disc label, founded by Grisman in 1990. Through the label, Grisman has also released archival recordings by mostly forgotten acoustic players like Jethro Burns and Dave Apollon.Grisman may have dug deep to release all that music, but he is hardly scraping the bottom of the barrel. Acoustic Disc releases are as high-quality as they are numerous.”I have my own studio, and it’s set up to do what we do,” said Grisman, who lives in the North Bay’s Marin County. “We sit down there and the sound is already dialed in. It’s always up and running.”Back To Home Page Comments about this article? Send them to mail@aspentimes.comLooking for a particular article? Search our Daily ArchivesPosted: Friday, July 21, 2000


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