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David Grisman just keeps on pickin'

By Greg Cahill

IT WAS A VACANT LOT tucked deep in the seedy heart of New York City, debris-strewn and choked with weeds, and it seemed like a perfect resting place for David Grisman's collection of rock-'n'-roll records. The year was 1960 and Grisman, a 16-year-old high school student, dumped several cardboard boxes filled with once-treasured 78s by Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis--platters that had lost their luster in the eye of the budding bluegrass fan.

Back in Passaic, N.J., Grisman and two classmates, charter members of their high school folk-music club, whiled away the hours huddled around an old FM radio, listening intently to the "Oscar Brand Show" and marveling at the speedy three-fingered picking style of banjo player Roger Sprung.

"One of my friends kept telling me about something he'd heard called bluegrass," says Grisman, recalling the events that led to the transformation of a middle-class white boy from the 'burbs into a born-again hillbilly. "One day, he returned from a trip to New York with a record on the Folkways label called Mountain Music: Bluegrass Style. I remember the first cut that he played. It was "White House Blues," by Earl Taylor with a guy named Walt Hensley playing the banjo. It was the fastest thing I'd ever heard.

"I was just floored."

Call it an epiphany with a mandolin accompaniment. A few days later, Grisman--who picked up a Grammy nomination this year for 1999's star-studded Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza, on Grisman's San Rafael-based Acoustic Disc label--informed his music teacher that he was switching from classical piano to mandolin. The instructor said the mandolin wasn't a "real" instrument. "I called him back that same day and resigned," says Grisman with a wry smile.

The change paid off.

Two years later, Grisman was performing at Carnegie Hall, appearing on the Hootenanny network-TV show and recording with the Even Dozen Jug Band, featuring guitarist John Sebastian (of the Loving Spoonful) and singer Maria D'Amato (Muldaur). In 1973, Grisman teamed up with Jerry Garcia (banjo), Peter Rowan (guitar), Vassar Clements (fiddle), and John Kahn (bass), recording Old and in the Way at the now-defunct Boarding House nightclub in San Francisco.

The album is the all-time bestselling bluegrass album.

THESE DAYS, the 55-year-old Grisman--once dubbed by the New York Times as the Paganini of the mandolin--has come full circle. It's been three decades since his mongrel mix of bluegrass, jazz, Latin, classical, and other musical influences--also known affectionately as dawg music--first struck a chord with audiences.

Now Grisman--a musical maverick whose innovative work has brought him critical and popular acclaim while putting him at odds with the mainstream entertainment industry--is fostering straight-ahead bluegrass and classic South American swing guitarists as an influential recording industry force in his own right. His Acoustic Disc label has just celebrated 10 years in the business, releasing its fifth CD sampler--Acoustic Disc: 100% Handmade Music--featuring such bluegrass heavyweights as mandolinist Sam Bush (a regular sideman of Emmylou Harris), guitarist Martin Taylor, and banjoman John Hartford, as well as fusion pioneer Bela Fleck and Indian classical percussionist Zakir Hussain.

A bonus track on the CD features 12-year-old Santa Rosa jazz guitar prodigy Julian Lage, who recently received a standing ovation from music-industry luminaries after a showcase performance last month at the nationally televised Grammy Awards.

You might say Grisman is godfather to a new breed of instrumentalists. Mandolinists Fleck, Mike Marshall, Ricky Skaggs, and Mark O'Connor are among those blurring the borders of country jazz, classical, and bluegrass. All owe a debt of gratitude to Grisman's adventurous stylings and are, to paraphrase music writer Larry King, the vanguard of rugged individualists marching into the vicissitudes of mass culture with their heads and mandolins held high.

Commenting on that assessment, Grisman says facetiously, "Right, they've got an identity crisis, and I'm sure they don't want to be cast in my mold."

He smiles, contemplating his unlikely role as father figure to a group of musical renegades. "But it's fine, you know--as long as these guys show me the proper respect."

The mandolinist, who once found himself at odds with major labels because he couldn't produce enough "tonnage" (a music industry term for the kind of sales that pop acts like the Backstreet Boys generate), now is content to release quality product.

It hasn't been hard attracting talent.

"Actually, if you're me and you just hang out a shingle and let people know you have a record company," he says with a smile, "people start sending demo tapes."


The David Grisman Quintet, plus special guest Julian Lage, perform Saturday, March 18, at 8 p.m. Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $22.50. 546-3600.

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From the March 9-15, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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