PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
November 7, 2006

Dawg-Gone Good

by Jim Newsom

Hot Dawg. Dawgwood. Dawganova. Dawgnation.

There’s been a constant theme running through the titles of David Grisman’s albums and songs for the last thirty years. The theme song for the NPR show, Car Talk, is his “Dawggy Mountain Breakdown.” You can’t help but wonder who let the “Dawg” out.

“Jerry Garcia gave me that nickname,” Grisman said in a recent conversation. “When I started my own group, people would say, ‘What do you call this music?’ I figured if I had a generic term, then people wouldn’t ask me to describe it. But now people ask me ‘what’s dawg,’ so it didn’t really work!

“It’s a double-edged sword because it’s good to have your own little niche, but in the larger macrocosmic record selling world, you get lost. So it’s a constant challenge to market this stuff.”

Grisman is probably the best known mandolin player in the world, and he has one of the best bands around, an acoustic quintet with a repertoire that runs the gamut from traditional bluegrass to hot club jazz to classical motifs, Celtic beauty, breakneck virtuosity and intoxicating “new acoustic” arrangements. The David Grisman Quintet brings its musical magic to the Granby Theater Friday night on the heels of a new CD release, Dawg’s Groove, celebrating the band’s thirtieth anniversary.

“It was an idea that was ready to happen,” he told me remembering the beginnings, “bluegrass musicians wanting to explore the instrumental side a little deeper than the normal bluegrass gig would allow. I called it ‘dawg music.’ It was a vehicle for players of that caliber to explore their instrumental ability.”

By the time he formed the first version of the DGQ, Grisman was already a veteran of the music scene. He played on the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty (that’s his mandolin on “Ripple”), and he and Garcia collaborated on several projects, including Old and in the Way, the 1975 album that made bluegrass acceptable to college educated Deadheads. I first saw his name on a record I bought in early ’69 by a Boston-based band called Earth Opera. I liked the name of the band and the album cover.

“You thought that looked cool?” he laughed. “It was terrible! They unveiled this cover and we all said, ‘What?’”

David Grisman’s musical life started at an early age when he was growing up in New Jersey.

“I got inspired by another nice kid from New Jersey,” he explained, “a guy named Ralph Rinzler. He was a neighbor of mine and a family friend, and he came into my junior high school English class and played the mandolin, and that was it!

“I studied piano starting when I was seven. My dad had been a professional trombone player, but he died when I was ten and I kinda drifted away from piano playing.”

After hearing Rinzler on the mandolin, though, the teenaged Grisman became obsessed with the instrument and quickly became proficient. It was the early ‘60s, and the folk boom was exploding.

“I could do the basic stuff right away,” he said. “That’s sorta why I got into it; it was easy, at least the basic idea of it. It was like jumping in a swimming pool and swimming. I could do the tremolo pretty well—all I had to do was find melodies with my left hand and I could play.

“My first band was called the Garret Mountain Boys; Garret Mountain is in Paterson, New Jersey, and I used to go camping there when I was a Boy Scout. We used to go to Washington Square Park every Sunday, and there’d be bluegrass guys, there’d be political folk song guys, there’d be finger-picking blues guys.

“I was in a bunch of bands—the New York City Ramblers. We used to go to Gerde’s Folk City on Monday nights and they’d let you play there. It was hootenanny night. It was the folk process; Dylan got his first review in the New York Times there opening for the Greenbrier Boys. I used to see him all the time and I worked for Israel G. Young at the Folklore Center.

“I was in the traditional end of it with the Even Dozen Jug Band. I went to school at NYU down in Greenwich Village, and I was kinda in the middle of all of it. It was an amazing time.”

He befriended another traditional music enthusiast named Jerry Garcia:

“I met Garcia at a place called Sunset Park in West Grove, Pennsylvania, where they used to have bluegrass shows every Sunday. We were both there to hear Bill Monroe one Sunday afternoon in 1964.”

The current edition of the David Grisman Quintet continues the exploratory path that its leader has been following since those early days in the Village. Alumni include Tony Rice, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall and Mark O’Connor, but the current lineup is an equally gifted one—longtime bassist Jim Kerwin, drummer George Marsh, acoustic guitarist Enrique Coria and outstanding flutist Matt Eakle.

“I met him when I was looking for a bass player,” Grisman said of Eakle. “I had three auditions set up in one day, and I went over to one of the guy’s houses and Matt was there. The bassplayer didn’t get the gig, but I was impressed with Matt and I liked the way the flute and the mandolin worked together.

“Pretty much everybody that’s ended up in my band showed up because of the music, from Tony Rice on down. They’re in there for the right reasons. You can’t really buy somebody’s interest, and all these guys were interested; they weren’t necessarily looking for a job, they just liked to play.”

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.