Mandolin Reign 

David Grisman on bluegrass, newgrass, and Grateful Dawg, a film about his musical relationship with Jerry Garcia

Of all the people to have the quasi-religious devotion of Deadheads transferred upon him following Jerry Garcia's death, David Grisman seems like the most unlikely candidate. Sure, he and Garcia palled around for the better part of four decades, changing the course of bluegrass music by making several records together in the early 1990s. And Grisman is actually the guy playing mandolin on "Friend of the Devil," one of the staple classics in the Grateful Dead canon. The two even grew to resemble each other in their middle age -- husky, grizzled, gray-haired -- "beards of a feather," as mutual friends called them. Yet even with this shared history, it still comes as a bit of a surprise when Grisman's live shows begin to swell with refugee Deadheads -- lithesome, undulating dancers who now rub shoulders with his more sedate, sit-down folkie crowd.

"When it first started happening," says Grisman with a laugh, "there was a controversy among my fans, where they were complaining about these Deadheads coming to the shows. [The Deadheads would] get a little out of control and make a little too much noise, dancing around and stuff. It still happens. I saw people at a recent show in Eugene, Oregon getting pissed off about these people dancing in front of their seats."

Grisman is a mandolin player's mandolin player, an innovative performer who is almost single-handedly responsible for revolutionizing bluegrass music. Originally from New Jersey, he began his career in the early-'60s Greenwich Village folk scene, playing alongside urban folkies such as John Sebastian and Maria Muldaur in a series of influential bands such as the Greenbriar Boys and the Even Dozen Jug Band. Like many young Americans, Grisman came to folk music almost by default, searching for something vital and engaging to fill the void after the first wave of rock 'n' roll fizzled out in the late 1950s.

"There were a whole bunch of us who were really into rock 'n' roll when it was first happening," recalls Grisman, speaking by phone from his Marin County home. "Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, y'know -- the real deal that was happening around 1956 to '58. Then all of a sudden it kind of disappeared, because some of 'em ODed, some of 'em went to jail, some of 'em went to the Army. By 1960 there was nothing left. Then the Kingston Trio came in and we were all taken by folk music, and as a byproduct of that we stumbled onto bluegrass.

"You had to be really hip [to be into bluegrass]," he continues. "There were little groups of kindred spirits around the country that were aware of each other, because different musicians would travel around. I was in the New York scene, but there was also a Cambridge scene, and a Berkeley, California scene, and an LA scene and a Chicago scene. We were all members of the bluegrass club."

By the 1960s, only a handful of traditional bluegrass stars had successfully weathered the commercial onslaught of rock 'n' roll, among them the acknowledged creator of the style, mandolinist Bill Monroe. Grisman was first introduced to Monroe's music by his friend and mentor, folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who was one of the first promoters to stage old-time music shows for the urban folkies in New York City. Ironically, when David Grisman first got into bluegrass, he was anything but smitten by Monroe's style.

"Ralph had played Bill Monroe's records for me, but it was too strong," says Grisman. "I didn't really like his singing, or even a lot of his records. At first, the banjo is what sucked me into bluegrass -- it's just more virtuosic, more mind-blowing; that Earl Scruggs style of banjo playing, it's just otherworldly! It didn't sound like anything I'd ever heard. [But] one day in 1961 Ralph called me up and invited me to go down with him to a place called New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland to hear Bill Monroe. When I went down and [heard] Monroe's voice [actually] come out of a body, it kind of turned me around. Plus, the opening band had Frank Wakefield in it, and in 1961 he was pretty much the closest thing to Bill Monroe on the planet. I got the mistaken impression that all mandolin players sounded like them, which wasn't really true, but it made a big impression on me."

Another member of that far-flung old-timey in-crowd was the young Jerry Garcia, who Grisman first met at a parking-lot jam session outside another Bill Monroe show. The two hit it off, and later, when Grisman made his first trek out to the West Coast in 1965, he visited Garcia and friends who were living in a large house in Palo Alto. Garcia had already graduated from the bluesy jug band scene and had formed a hard-rock band called the Warlocks, which eventually mutated into the Grateful Dead. Years later, while working as a session musician, Grisman was invited to play mandolin on the Dead's breakthrough album, American Beauty.

Thus began the musical relationship that is the subject of a new feature-length documentary, Grateful Dawg, opening this month. The film was produced by Grisman's daughter, Gillian, who painstakingly pored through hundreds of hours of archival footage and hippie home movies shot during the years when Grisman and Garcia collaborated onstage and in the studio. Prominently featured is the legendary stoner bluegrass band, Old & in the Way, which Grisman and Garcia formed in 1973. The group was short-lived but quickly stirred up ripples in hippie music circles. Simply by dint of Garcia's participation, Old & in the Way created a durable bridge between the Deadhead hordes and the newly booming bluegrass scene, inspiring countless fledgling pickers and fiddlers to delve into old-time mountain music.

Grisman, meanwhile, had been developing a radically different kind of acoustic music. It was a new style that would draw on a new generation of bluegrassers, hotshot pickers like himself who had apprenticed in older, established bands and had gotten the nod from elders such as Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin.

A series of projects led to the formation of the David Grisman Quintet around 1977, a group that left many bluegrass fans with their jaws agape. In his new ensemble, Grisman fused bluegrass instrumentation with classical-style composition, jazz improvisation, and a rock-like intensity. The dynamic "gypsy jazz" acoustic swing music of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli was a direct inspiration: In addition to covering songs from their 1930s Hot Club sessions, Grisman also worked with Grappelli on a number of recordings. Although numerous "newgrass" crossovers had been attempted in the early '70s, nothing as innovative or accomplished as Grisman's sleek, expansive "dawg music" had been heard before.


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