For over three decades, David Grisman has defined
contemporary mandolin music. He has collaborated
with a "who's-who" of the music industry; everyone
from Doc Watson and Stephane Grappelli to Bela Fleck
and Jerry Garcia. He has been a tireless advocate
for acoustic music as a performer, composer, and bandleader.
In the early 1970s, Grisman formed Old and In The Way
with Garcia, John Kahn, Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements.
Although together only a short time, the group's debut
release stands as one of the top-selling bluegrass
recordings of all time. Later that decade, he
established the David Grisman Quintet. The DGQ is still going strong
20 years later, performing to those fans eager to experience "Dawg Music".
Digital Interviews: Where and when were you born?
David Grisman: I was born on March 23, 1945, in Hackensack, New Jersey,
a town that had a tune named for it by Thelonious Monk ten years later.
DI: When did you first get interested in music?
DG: My dad had been a professional trombonist before I was born,
and he kind of forced me to take piano lessons when I was seven years old.
But Iíd always loved music. I always remember liking music, liking good music.
Iíve probably been influenced by everything Iíve ever heard. In the early 50s
I heard the beginnings of rock 'n' roll. That was the first music that I really
got excited about - pop music.
DI: When did you switch from piano to mandolin?
DG: My dad died when I was 10, and I drifted away from piano. I took it up
again when I was about 13 or 14. But then I discovered folk music through the
Kingston Trio. There were three friends in high school or junior high school,
and we got interested in traditional folk music. We met a man named Ralph
Rinzler. I was living in Passaic, New Jersey, at the time, and he lived there
too. He was a genius - folk musician, folklorist, a world expert. Later went
on to run the Newport Folk Festival. The last 20 years of his life he spent
working for the Smithsonian Folklife. He was the head of it. He was also a
bluegrass and folk mandolin player. He was a former art student of my momís,
who was an art teacher in Passaic. I met him when I was 15 years old, and
that turned everything around.
DI: Early in your career, you worked in a band called Red Allen and the
Kentuckians. Was that the first time you recorded any music professionally?
DG: In 1963, I made my first record, both as a producer and artist. I was
in a band called the Even Dozen Jug Band; made an album for Elektra in 1963,
and also produced it. [I did] a Red Allen and Frank Wakefield session for
Folkways in 1963, but didnít play with Red Allen and the Kentuckians until 1966.
DI: In the late '60s, you continued to cultivate your unique sound. How would
you characterize what you were playing at that time?
DG: Well, I was playing bluegrass in the '60s. In the late '60s I got into
a rock band with Peter Rowan called Earth Opera. I donít know what youíd call
that -- folk-rock? I donít like labels. Iíve always had a sound of everything
Iíve done, and I think thatís the way most musicians look at it - I just hate
to be typecast. But I got interested in listening to jazz in the late '60s,
or the mid-to-late '60s.
DI: As we move into the 1970s, you were in The Great American Music Band.
DG: I was in Old and In The Way, I was in a lot of bands, but 1974 through
'75 was The Great American Music Band. Thatís the first band that was an instrumental
band; utilized a lot of my original music.
DI: Then in 1976, you started the David Grisman Quintet.
DG: Actually, I started it in 1975, but we didnít play our first gig until 1976.
DI: Youíve done solo shows with other guitarists, but youíve played with the
Quintet ever since, and youíve had some good alumni come out of the group.
DG: For a little brief while it was a quartet, but basically I played with my
own group -- because who else would? [laughs]
DI: Who are the members of the group now?
DG: Jim Kerwin plays bass -- heís in his 14th year. Joe Craven plays percussion,
violin and mandolin, and heís in his tenth year, as is Matt Eakle, who plays flute
and bass flute. Enrique Coria, from Argentina, has been in the band going on six years.
DI: In the early '90s, you started an independent record label, Acoustic Disc
Records, and you maintain your own state-of-the-art studio.
DG: Thatís right. It gives me a lot of freedom if I want to make a tape. Or put
out a record. Iím free to do so.
DI: Or take a break...
DG: Yeah, right. Or not -- or refrain from doing that. That kind of came
together about nine years ago through a series of coincidences. I was building a
studio in my house because I was offered a studioís worth of equipment for almost
nothing. It came from a studio that I had made a lot of my earlier records in.
It was very good sounding, so that was an opportunity I couldnít pass up.
So, I was building a studio in my house. I didnít have a recording contract,
I was a free agent, and I was ready to make my next record. Two good friends of
mine were moving to the Bay Area looking to start a business. These three separate
events kind of collided, and we decided to form a record company. And basically,
that record was the first Acoustic Disc release, ACD1, called Dawg 90.
DI: Your record company gives lesser-known players a chance to be heard. Youíve
got the Acoustic Disc Archive Series.
DG: Right. We have an Archive Series, and Iíve also released several projects
by obscure players from the past: Oscar AlemŠn, an incredible Argentinian swing
guitarist; Jacob do Bandolim, the father of Brazilian choro music; Dave
Apollon, a mandolin virtuoso; the late Jethro Burns, who was a great jazz mandolin
player; and projects that I do with other musicians and my band, like Doc Watson,
Martin Taylor, Tony Rice.
DI: And you also released some of the old tapes of Old and In The Way?
DG: Right, two volumes of that.
DI: One of the latest big releases on your label was the Quintetís DGQ20
DG: Right. Itís 3 discs. It was the 20th anniversary of my band, and I thought,
Iíll put out a CD, a 20 year retrospective. I started going through my tape archives,
which Iíve got, you know, a lot of stuff. I had started dubbing off stuff that I
thought would be worth considering, and I had about six hours and I hadnít gotten
past 1978. [laughs] It kind of became, you know, probably more
stuff than one CDís worth. Even if I did a cut per year, itíd still be more than
could fit on a CD. Then I settled on three CDs, 38 tracks. A lot of people got the
mistaken impression that itís a retrospective and itís a compilation of things that
have already been released, which it isnít. It was all never released before.
DI: If somebody was just becoming aware of Acoustic Disc Records, what releases
would you point them to? If thereís a couple of CDs they could get, what suggestions
would you make?
DG: It depends really on what they like. I think theyíd probably enjoy almost
any of them. Thereís Songs of our Fathers, a beautiful record of traditional
Jewish music. Thereís the Tone Poems records that are kind of documents of the
sounds of vintage acoustic instruments, and they both have period music with guitar
and mandolin duets. One was with Tony Rice -- a lot of people like that for the
folk/bluegrass instruments. The other is with Martin Taylor, the great Scottish
jazz guitarist, and thatís with jazz instruments. They might like the record I
did with Doc Watson, Doc & Dawg. If they like the DGQ, they can get DGQ20 or
Dawganova. Enrique Coria has two really beautiful albums - Latin guitar music
that I say no bedroom should be without. [laughs] Matt Eakle has Flute Jazz.
Then there are these several double-CD compilations - one of Oscar AlemŠn - thatís
fantastic music. The same with Dave Apollon. There are two volumes of Jacob do
Bandolim. They should check out dawgnet.com,
because they can sample a cut from each record.
DI: Where did the nickname "Dawg" come from?
DG: It came from Jerry Garcia. He gave me that nickname in 1973. In Old and In
The Way we all had nicknames, and that became mine.
DI: Youíve played with Tony Rice in the past...
DG: He was my original guitarist.
DI: Then he left to go on his own, but yet you still do projects with him.
You still work with people on and off throughout the years.
DG: Thatís right.
DI: It seems like you have a great relationship with your old bandmates.
DG: Well, most of them. [laughs] I try to remain friends with most of my
DI: Youíve gathered quite a collection of instruments over the years. Tell us
about some of the rarer instruments that you have, for the audiophile who may
be reading this.
DG: Well, Iíve got quite a few rare instruments. They used to call them used
instruments when I started, but now theyíve become vintage collectibles. The
kind of mandolin that I use is kind of the Stradivarius of the contemporary
mandolin. Theyíre made by the Gibson Company -- theyíre called Lloyd Loar Model
F-5s. Iíve got a few of those. I have a Lloyd Loar cello, Lloyd Loar viola,
Lloyd Loar guitar, and a lot of unique mandolins and related instruments.
Only mandolin maniacs would probably relate to a lot of this stuff. I have
some interesting guitars, too.
DI: What does the future hold?
DG: Tenor banjos. [laughs] The whole world is going to adopt the tenor banjo.
Itís a combination entertainment/weapon.
DI: Whatís on the horizon for the Quintet, and Acoustic Disc Records? Do you
have some Garcia sessions that you want to release?
DG: Well, we did over 40 sessions the last five years of Jerryís life. Iíve been
kind of taking my time putting it out, but I think thereís maybe a couple more CDs
worth of really good stuff. Perhaps a CD of what youíd call alternate tracks,
you know. There may be one out in 2000. It wonít be this year.
DI: What other releases are you contemplating?
DG: I just recorded three more projects this winter, and weíre about to release
our most ambitious project, a double-CD called the Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza,
which features eight great bluegrass mandolin players - Jesse McReynolds, Bobby
Osborne, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Buck White, Frank Wakefield,
Ronnie McCoury, whose idea it wasÖ
DI: Youíve also been touring with Doc Watson.
DG: We play a certain amount of dates every year for, you know, the past
couple of years.
DI: And the Quintet is still going to be playing into the millennium?
DG: [to band members] Well, I was going to let them know that, actually,
after these five days... [laughs] No, no, the Quintet, long live the Quintet!
The Quintet is the greatest! [laughs] No...
DI: Thatís been your house band through the years...
DG: [continuing]...yeah, I can go to the union. Iíll call up the
musicianís union... [to band member] Whatís your name again? [laughs]