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Grisman wants to be your dawg

By Brian Baker, December 1999

Bluegrass has always had its share of stars, but until the advent of folks like Bela Fleck and Alison Krauss, it didn't have many innovators. For more than a quarter of a century, though, one name has dominated any discussion of the cutting edge of bluegrass and its various permutations: David Grisman.

Grisman's passionate pursuit of the fringe elements of bluegrass music has made strange and wonderful bedfellows since the debut of the David Grisman Quintet in the mid-1970's.

Prior to DGQ, Grisman apprenticed in the Even Dozen Jug Band and formed the Great American String Band in 1974 with Seatrain violinist Richard Greene. His collaborations with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli blurred the lines between jazz and bluegrass, while his work with proteges like Mark O'Connor and Darol Anger established his reputation as not merely a talented musician, but a major influence.

In a genre that can sound very familiar very quickly, Grisman has expanded the concept of what can be considered bluegrass and constantly explored the edges of mountain music in its many varied and unique facets. He understands all too well the limitations that exist once his music reaches the world at large.

Years ago, a journalist asked Grisman what he would call his music if he didn't call it bluegrass. Dawg music, his rather flippant response, has come to be the accepted appellation for what Grisman does better than anyone.

"For the past 50 years, people have called bluegrass music anything that has a banjo in it," Grisman says from a Portland, Ore. tour stop. "That's the problem with having these generic terms. It's so broad that it's meaningless."

After a number of major label releases and many industry accolades, Grisman decided to take the plunge and start his own label.

2000 will mark the 10th anniversary of Acoustic Disc, which has grown from a vanity label carrying just Grisman's work to a functioning, if not quite conventional, indie label with a vision and a stable of artists, all of which has netted Grisman and Acoustic Disc a total of three Grammy nominations, a feat with which Grisman is casually unimpressed.

"I don't really pay that much attention to that stuff," Grisman says. "I don't respect the Grammys, so it would wrong for me to be excited if I got one. Real music has always gotten short shrift there. What I call real music...jazz, classical, bluegrass. Stuff that gets the attention is popular music, manufactured music."

Grisman and Acoustic Disc manage to release about six discs a year, and this year has been no exception. AD's even half dozen this year have included New Lost City Rambler John Cohen's first solo album, Grisman's jazz duet album with Martin Taylor, and the star-studded double CD "Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza," featuring the likes of Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Ricky Skaggs and Bobby Osborne.

The label's last two annual releases are certainly the year's pinnacle. The first is "Retrograss," Grisman's collaboration with old time music greats John Hartford and Mike Seeger featuring an odd assortment of traditional bluegrass tunes ("Windy Mountain," "The Old Home Place") alongside some fairly well known pop standards ("Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," "When I'm Sixty-Four").

It's a fascinating concept that is just as good in practice as it is in theory, but still in all, not every track attempted was a success.

"Any strong tune it will do it," Grisman says of the bluegrass translation. "But there were tunes that we checked into that it just didn't hold up. A couple of Rolling Stones tunes didn't work out. Mike Seeger wanted to do 'Ragg Mopp.' It proves the point that styles can be interpreted in lots of different ways. It was a lot of fun."

Seeger, Hartford, and Grisman all brought songs to the "Retrograss" sessions to translate, but only a select few would make the final cut. And, of course, everyone had different ideas about what should be used and why.

"I kept pushing for the more obvious ones, the big mainstream pop tunes," Grisman remembers. "There were some more obscure tunes there, where the lines blurred, like 'Rocky Road Blues' or 'Windy Mountain.' Taking the '50's back to the '40's, that's not much of a stretch. Take the '60's back to the '20's."

The last release this year for Acoustic Disc is another star drenched affair. "Dawg Duos" features Grisman one on one with an amazing array of bluegrass, country and jazz talents, including banjo virtuoso Fleck, bass genius Edgar Meyer, jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin and 11-year-old guitar prodigy Julian Lage. Grisman has been stockpiling duet material for a number of years in anticipation of this kind of release and has another one planned, possibly in the new year.

"I did a lot of duets with singers, and I decided to make this one instrumental," says Grisman. "I considered making it a double CD. Usually if I recorded with someone, I recorded more than one tune. I really agonized with it, if I should I put out twice as much stuff. But I decided that might look too self indulgent. There's more. There's always more."

2000 promises to be an even bigger year for Grisman and Acoustic Disc, with plans in place to release yet another vault recording with Jerry Garcia, a selective reissue of old timer Jody Stecher's two out-of-print gems as well as a brand new and recently completed recording with the Quintet, their first in over five years. As usual, Grisman and company navigate uncharted musical territory.

"It runs the gamut from Middle Eastern to South American to bluegrass influenced," Grisman says of the new material. "There's a jazz waltz...I don't know what you call this stuff. One of the tunes is dedicated to Charles Sawtelle (the Hot Rize member who passed away this year), called 'Slade,' and somebody commented that if there's a definition of 'dawg music,' that's it. Maybe someday somebody will know what it is."

The beauty of David Grisman's old time musical art is that it doesn't require a pigeonhole to achieve validation. The fact that Acoustic Disc has maintained a presence for nearly a decade and has expanded its focus and depth to encompass like-minded artists is validation enough for Grisman.

His philosophy on Acoustic Disc is as simple and direct as the music he loves.

"I record a lot of stuff just because it's worth recording," Grisman says. "I'm not a normal record company."