Pulling Strings

With David Grisman, it’s never been about making any kind of socio-musical statement, but more just satisfying his own demanding and far-reaching musical leanings.

He has raised eyebrows with his forays into fusion, turning the blue into newgrass with drums, horns and world beats at times, and his Dawg Music has brought the mandolin into thousands of homes. “I’ve tried to use the mandolin as a voice for playing lots of different things that I like,” he says. “And I think if you do something well, people will like it.”

It was luck that first brought Grisman and the mandolin together, when noted folk musician and historian Ralph Rinzler visited Grisman’s high school in New Jersey. “His cousin was a teacher at my high school, and he came in to give us a demonstration of folk music. I heard him play the mandolin, and some little screw got turned,” Grisman laughs, “and it’s been like this ever since.”

Ralph Rinzler was a member of the Greenwich Village folk group Greenbriar Boys, as well as a Grammy-winning producer and folklorist. Rinzler’s efforts helped bring musicians like Bill Monroe and Doc Watson to the public eye, and he ended up as a folklife curator at the Smithsonian. “I met all these people traipsing through his house in Passaic, New Jersey,” Grisman recalls. “The Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe. Two friends and I formed a little group in high school, and we used to go over and help Ralph work in his backyard. He’d have tapes playing, like Bill Monroe shows from 1956. One day he drove me down to an outdoor country music park in Rising Sun, Maryland, called New River Ranch, and that’s where I first heard Bill Monroe in person.”

When he switched from piano to mandolin at age 16, Grisman’s piano teacher told him his new 8-stringed love wasn’t “a real instrument.” “We were the odd men out,” Grisman recalls.

They first emulated the mainstream folk group, The Kingston Trio, then graduated to more traditional roots artists like Monroe, Frank Wakefield, Bob Osborne and Jethro Burns. “We got into real folk singers who were sitting on their back porch in Kentucky for 50 years playing the banjo. You know, the sources. People like Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley, Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb. I was a purist then. Ralph showed me where a lot of the stuff came from, and I found that more interesting. The real ‘Tom Dooley’ is vastly different from what the Kingston Trio recorded, you know. It’s more primitive, but it’s more real. I got a good appreciation for roots, and then the instrumental flash of bluegrass sort of drove me crazy. The first time I heard a bluegrass record, it had an immediate impact — the banjo largely. It was Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys doing ‘White House Blues,’ which is real fast, on a record called Mountain Music Bluegrass Style.”

After attending New York University and shuffling around the folk-grass circuit with the Even Dozen Jug Band and Earth Opera, Grisman settled in San Francisco. It was there that the first David Grisman Quintet formed, featuring Darol Anger on fiddle, Joe Carroll on bass, Tony Rice on guitar and Todd Phillips on second mandolin. The progressive bluegrass that became known as ‘Dawg’ music (from a nickname of Grisman’s) caught on with Deadheads, jazzers and old school pickers. “I guess I’ve just been around long enough, sticking with it,” Grisman suggests.

He’s been hired by the likes of James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Jerry Garcia, Maria Muldaur, Dolly Parton, Dan Fogelberg and Bonnie Raitt, and embraced by the jazz world and players like violinist Stephane Grappelli. “I played with a lot of other artists on their albums, and maybe the sound crept into peoples’ consciousness. Jazz is a big influence. I sort of like all kinds of music — the secret is out,” he explained after the release of his 1984 album Acousticity. “I used to listen to Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley and The Platters and The Five Satins when I was in high school. I like all kinds of music — rock’n’roll, classical, Indian music, jazz.

“I like all styles, and I think they all are something a musician could benefit from learning. There are jazz musicians who look at bluegrass and say, ‘That’s just boom-chick boom-chick.’ And there are bluegrass purists that say, ‘Hey, jazz is just a bunch of random notes.’ Those are both narrow-minded viewpoints. Somebody should be able to play like Wes Montgomery and Lester Flatt and Freddie Green and Laurindo Almeida and Andres Segovia and Jimi Hendrix, you know. I’m attracted to people that are interested in all those things, because they’re all good.”

In 1990 Grisman co-founded the Acoustic Disc record label, and has produced some 70 albums to date. “I get bored with anything if I listen to too much of it,” he says. “If you just listen to John Coltrane Quartet from 1961, I mean that’s great, but then I might want to listen to some Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs right after that, or a Bartok violin duet, or a Vivaldi mandolin concerto or Miles Davis from 1958 or ’63 or ’84. There’s so much great music around, and I like it all. The best of it all.”

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