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David Grisman
Mandolin marvel: David Grisman's friendship with Jerry Garcia proved a mainstay to the ailing Grateful Dead guitarist before his death.

Secret of David Grisman's success

By Greg Cahill

CALL IT SHELTER from the storm. When Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia--bloated from junk food and racked by heroin addiction--sought solace in 1994 from his demons shortly before years of abuse finally felled him, the rock icon retreated to the cramped basement studio at David Grisman's Mill Valley home, and the high lonesome bluegrass sound both men revered.

"We just really enjoyed playing together, and it wasn't something that he'd been doing for 30 years," says Grisman, whom the New York Times once hailed as the Paganini of the mandolin. "It's hard to keep a band going that long and not get burned out. I think he needed a rest. He's got one now."

Those sessions rank as some of Garcia's best and are among Grisman's "fondest musical memories," he says by phone from his home. The relationship between Grisman and Garcia--the latter had grown up listening on his grandmother's radio to Hank Williams, Flatt and Scruggs, and other country acts--started 30 years earlier when the two first met at a roadside rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike while returning to New York from a Southern bluegrass festival. "Our collaborations were an ongoing thing over the past five years, and we always got into something interesting from our roots, whether it was bluegrass, jazz, country, or rock," Grisman explains. "Now they're memories. It's a bittersweet thing, but to me he's still around from listening to these tapes."

Some of those many basement tapes yielded the newly released Shady Grove, a collection of laid-back acoustic-based tracks, featuring Garcia and Grisman and evoking all the quiet ease of a front-porch summer outing between a pair of old friends.

The stunning Shady Grove is the third disc this year on Grisman's San Rafael­based Acoustic Disc label, which already had released DGQ20, a three-CD retrospective of Grisman's classical, bluegrass, and jazz hybrid known as dawg music; and That High Lonesome Sound, a collection of outtakes from the legendary Old and in the Way sessions, featuring Grisman, Garcia, guitarist Peter Rowan, and fiddler Vassar Clement, among others.

That Garcia plays a key role in two of those three releases is only fitting. In the last years of his life, Garcia had grown somewhat weary of playing with the Grateful Dead--or more accurately, of the whole sideshow and cottage industry that revolved around the band--but he lit up in interviews whenever he discussed Grisman and their mutual love for bluegrass. That passion burns brightly on Shady Grove and several other Grisman-produced discs.

Three weeks before his death, Garcia called one last time on Grisman to produce a track for the upcoming Bob Dylan tribute to singing brakeman Jimmie Rogers in what proved to be Garcia's last recording session.

After Garcia's death, it fell on Grisman to finish the track. In honor of his friend, he added a New Orleans funeral-style brass band.

A remarkable intimacy--seldom found even in the plethora of "unplugged" sessions--marks all of Grisman's Acoustic Disc releases. Those include two volumes of Tone Poems, solo and duet instrumentals recorded on a dizzying array of rare and vintage guitars and mandolins. The first teamed Grisman with bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice; the more recent set features the incredible fretwork of Scottish jazz guitarist Martin Taylor.

"Martin is one of the greatest jazz guitar players of all time, and he knows all those tunes!" Grisman marvels.

The heart and soul of those Tone Poem projects is the interplay between producer and instrumentalist Grisman and his various collaborators. "It's good to be able to identify somebody's personality and not have lost it because there's too much stuff going on. That's just the way those projects were set up," he says. "And they're all very special. I mean, playing a duet with somebody is a unique form of expression that allows those two people to lock into whatever they have in common."

The secret of that success is the very nature of Grisman's basement studio, which has played host to bluegrass legends from Red Allen to Doc Watson. "It's a small room and generally most of these albums involve only a few people, which makes for that intimacy. There's a little secret that the fewer instruments you have on a recording, the bigger they sound. So it's intimate, but also full-sounding."


David Grisman and Martin Taylor perform Friday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m., at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $17.50. 546-3600.

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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