t's often said that sequels seldom live up to the originals that spawned them.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Only time - perhaps more importantly, some very picky, eclectic fans - will tell whether David Grisman, Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements made the right move by daring to record Old & in the Gray, a follow-up to the seminal 1975 bluegrass-folk classic "Old & in the Way."
That album featured a banjo-picking, high-lonesome crooning Jerry Garcia, who had forged a fanatical following as the leader of the Grateful Dead.
Old & in the Way, like most anything Garcia touched, turned legions of Deadheads in a new musical direction. Naturally, Garcia, Grisman and Rowan didn't set out to record what in a short period of time became one of bluegrass music's most influential records.
Yet, within several months of its 1975 release, the album, which had been pared down from two nights of live recordings at the Boarding House in San Francisco into a single 10-song disc, hit the pop charts and sent thousands of Deadheads rifling through record bins searching for the music of Bill Monroe and Ralph and Carter Stanley.
In the same sense, this year's Old & in the Gray doesn't pretend to be a groundbreaking record. Grisman, Rowan and Clements recruited veteran banjo picker and vocalist Herb Pedersen to replace Garcia, who died in August 1995. They also needed a new bassist, since John Kahn died 10 months after Garcia. The choice was Bryn Bright, who along with brother Billy Bright, plays alongside both Rowan and Tony Rice. For the record, she isn't gray or necessarily old, but she does thump a fine stand-up bass.
Old & in the Gray's 14 tracks offer a rather free-spirited collection of tunes - several penned by Rowan, a fiddle tune from Clements and, like the original, a selection from the Rolling Stones.
While it may lack the spontaneity of Old & in the Way, Grisman, Rowan et al go to great lengths to retain the musical and vocal qualities that made the original album so endearing.
As much as Kahn was a part of Old & in the Way, it was Garcia's contribution that created the legacy. And Rowan acknowledges the contribution.
"Jerry was a one-man universe," says Rowan while he was on the road, headed for a gig with Grisman, Clements, Bright and Rice in north Florida.
"Jerry allowed us to be part of his universe. We all had a love for music and for each other. But ultimately, we each had to consider our own musical growth. The Dead was the band that owned our banjo player. Jerry just grew faster and sooner than everybody else."
Rowan became familiar with Pedersen's music in the late 1960s through Grisman, who'd picked in various ensembles in the Bay Area with Pedersen several years earlier. But it wasn't until the mid-'90s that Pedersen and Rowan finally performed on stage together during the earliest stages of Old & in the Gray. He was pleased Pedersen took the challenge of filling Garcia's rather large shoes along with a musical legacy few have attained.
"Herb was part of Dave's early bands in the '60s," Rowan says. "Our first gig together was in 1996 at one of Dave's Birthday Bashes. Jerry had just died, and Dave had wanted to put out more of the Old & in the Way tapes. We wanted to memorialize Jerry, but we also wanted to carry on Old & in the Way.
"Dave suggested Herb. He's a brilliant singer. He hit the tenor parts, and his banjo playing was so..." Rowan pauses to find the words, "right in there. He has timing like Earl Scruggs. To be part of Old & in the Way, you have to have roots. What gives Old & in the Gray its pedigree is who we stood next to."
Pedersen likewise admires Rowan's talents.
"Dave and Pete go way back to (Bill Monroe's) Blue Grass Boys," says Pedersen during a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. "Pete's the consummate Irish tenor. He has a wonderful voice, but he's not just stuck in bluegrass. And Dave has his jazz talents."
After Old & in the Way fell apart, Grisman's quintet began its lengthy run of Dawg music - the name Garcia gave him in Old & in the Way - which over the years included the likes of Mark O'Connor, Tony Rice, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Richard Greene, Todd Phillips, Russ Barenberg, John Carlini and Rob Wasserman
After Garcia died, Pedersen got a call from Grisman to gauge his interest in Old & in the Gray.
"I was a logical choice," he says, "since Jerry and I came from the same background both musically and geographically."
Pedersen and Garcia ran in ' the same musical circles in the early '60s, though Pedersen was from Berkeley, and Garcia had grown up across the San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto. Grisman ultimately joined that same circle after moving to Berkeley in the early 1960s.
"I met first Dave when I was in the Pine Valley Boys in Berkeley," says Pedersen, who joined Grisman's Smokey Grass Boys and went on to be a key member of Southern California's early country rock scene, playing on two of The Dillards' most influential albums - "Wheatstraw Suite" and "Copperfields." "We started our friendship back then, and we've been in touch all those years."