The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience headlines the American River Music Festival Saturday, Sept. 14 at 4:30 p.m. in Henningsen-Lotus Park, 950 Lotus Road.
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The band includes Georgetown’s own Keith Little on 5-string banjo, guitar and vocals, his longtime friend and collaborator Jim Nunally on guitar and vocals, Chad Manning on fiddle, Samson Grisman on bass and the big Dawg himself, David Grisman, on mandolin and vocals.
They shorten the syllabically intensive “David Grisman Bluegrass Experience” to “DBGX,” preferring the acronym to “The experience,” which sounds a little too retro-psychedelic to describe this band — which isn’t retro anything.
This is just plain bluegrass, plain and simple, not “new acoustic,” “newgrass,” “progressive bluegrass,” or any derivation thereof.
DGBX isn’t an evolution of the form, it IS the form. And that’s part of the challenge.
In a recent interview Grisman explained that it can be frustrating.
“Bluegrass music has been perfected … You can’t play better than Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and Stanley Brothers,” he said.
“So when I do bluegrass,” he continued, “I try to get the feelings right. Bill Monroe taught me to be myself. If I were to play like him, I would be out of business.”
Little grew up in Georgetown and by the time he was in high school, had developed a fanatical devotion to traditional bluegrass. He’s a perfect fit in DGBX.
“I appreciate being able to play what David calls ‘hardcore bluegrass,’” said Little. “He appreciates where music came from and he can really play it.”
DGBX has its origins in a 1989 bluegrass project named “Home is Where the Heart Is.” Grisman did periodic benefit concerts through the 1990s under the same name, often with his son Sam on bass. When the boy got serious about bluegrass a few years later, Grisman created the band as a vehicle to share the music with his son.
He recruited Nunally, who brought along his long time friend and bandmate Little, just back from several years in Nashville and Washington, D.C., where he worked with Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton and the Country Gentlemen.
“Keith is one of the most knowledgeable bluegrass musicians on the planet,” said Grisman. “Not only can he play all the bluegrass instruments, but he’s a genius when it comes to knowing bluegrass harmony singing.”
Grisman particularly loves Little’s banjo playing, “steeped in the hardcore drive of Earl Scruggs yet very uniquely creative within the often-narrow confines of this great tradition,” said Grisman, adding “He’s also one of the nicest guys I’ve ever played with.”
When Little returned to California in 2004 he missed the vibrant Nashville music scene and the informal music sessions that occur nightly around kitchen tables, like the one in Placerville he shared with bluegrass pioneers Vern and Ray in the early 1970s.
“That’s how musicians keep their chops up and also connect,” he said. “If you aren’t working that’s what you have to do.”
A couple of months later Nunally introduced him to Grisman.
“David’s idea of bluegrass is a lot like Vern Williams, that 1940s, 1950s style where the players have a repertory in common they can draw from to make their own music,” said Little.
In terms of the sheer power, Grisman also rivals Williams, who was known for his penetrating tenor, said Little.
“David plays loud and sings loud,” Little continued. “It reintroduced me to the traditional style, which requires projection, playing your part and playing it powerfully.”
The dynamic also drops at times. “Sam enjoys soloing, which is kind of unusual for a stand up bass player, but it really helps vary the dynamic.”
When Chad Manning signed on to play fiddle, Grisman had a bluegrass that would play it straight, “as good a bluegrass band as any I’ve played with,” he said.
The band does a lot of three-part harmonies, and sings them the way Bill Monroe did, gathered around a shared microphone. “That’s the way it was done by all the classic bluegrass bands,” said Grisman, “and in my opinion, the best way.”
“It seemed very natural to me,” Said Grisman. “If you wanted to be heard, you played louder and moved closer to the mic. When someone else was playing a solo, you backed off and softened up a bit. That’s how I developed dynamics.”
The band uses monitors, but keeps them low. They don’t use pickups on their instruments however, playing instead to microphones on stands.
He still records on analog tape, using microphones and recording techniques he learned a long time ago. This is a guy who produced his first album at age 18.
David Grisman was born in Hanckensack, N.J. in 1945, and was old enough to realize that rock and roll was exploding in the mid 1950s. He loved it — at first.
In a recent e-mail exchange he said that his tastes changed by 1960. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Frankie Lymon were no longer exciting.
Folk music was exciting. He recalls loving the Kingston Trio and The Weavers, a passion he’s rekindled in a side project with John Sebastian.
In the early stages of the folk revival, it was a short hop from Pete Seeger to Bill Monroe.
“When I heard bluegrass for the first time, I totally flipped out,” he said.
Mandolin player and folklorist Ralph Rinzler was a friend of the Grisman family. He lived near them in Hackensack and had taken art classes from Grisman’s mother. Rinzler was later credited with discovering Doc Watson.
He took the boy under his wing, took him to see Bill Monroe in 1961 and taught him bluegrass.
Grisman studied the great mandolin players of the time, including Monroe, Frank Wakefield, Jesse McReynolds and Bobby Osborne, and started writing his own bluegrass songs.
He studied mandolin with bluegrass pioneer Red Allen, and in 1964 produced “Bluegrass” a classic of the genre by Allen, Frank Wakefield and the Kentuckians.
As the 1960s wore on, he heard other music he liked: classical, jazz, fusion, eastern Indian and yes, rock. Some of those influences crept into his songs.
He continued to play bluegrass and moved to the Bay Area, where he was recruited into a 1973 Jerry Garcia side project called “Old and in the Way.” Garcia hung the nickname “Dawg” on Grisman during the project, which played only a handful of gigs, from which an album was released in 1975.
That album sold well and has sold steadily ever since. The band reunited in various configurations in later years and released a couple more albums from the original 1973 live sessions.
Grisman formed The Great American Music Band in 1974 with master fiddler Richard Greene, one of the first non-southern players in Bill Monroe’s band.
Green was returning to his acoustic roots at the time. Neither man was a particularly strong singer, so they made the fateful decision to defy bluegrass tradition and leave off the vocals.
The result came to be known as “new grass.” The band fizzled out after a time, but Grisman kept writing the music, encouraged by his friend Tony Rice, who moved to the west coast in support of the new music, which Grisman decided to brand “Dawg music.”
He and Rice assembled a collection of talented local musicians who performed Dawg music to great acclaim as the David Grisman Quintet.
Since then he’s formed his own record company and produced dozens of projects for and with other players. The Quintet lives on with new generations of personnel. One of the longest running members is Joe Craven, who also runs the RiverTunes Roots Music and Creativity Camp each summer in Coloma.
At times Grisman has had to defend his return to bluegrass, his “first musical love as a mandolin player,” he said. “Although I have my own style of music, I never felt I had to ‘leave’ bluegrass.”
A glance at the depth and breadth of his catalogue confirms that he’s managed to both stay and stray the course.
Sam Grisman, 23, recalled growing up in the Dawg house. Yes, it was very musical, but nothing was forced.
Family lore holds that his first word, “bass,” was uttered after witnessing a jazz bass solo in a South Lake Tahoe restaurant.
A friend heard the story and provided a quarter-sized Kay [upright acoustic] bass when Sam was about 18 months old.
“I grew up looking at this thing in the corner and wanting to play it,” said Sam.
But a bass guitar, like a Porsche 911 or a McCullough chain saw, is not something a toddler can manage. When he was about 4, his father got him a cello and tuned it up an octave to match the bass guitar.
It was still a bit like dancing with a linebacker but he was able to play a few notes and begin his musical journey, graduating to an actual bass guitar the same year he graduated kindergarten, “and we kept playing,” said David.
Sam recalls his father schooling him in bluegrass basics and teaching him simple songs. More importantly, especially for a bass player, “he hammered the rudiments of rhythm into me,” said Sam.
David Grisman beams with pride when he talks about his son’s playing. “He’s a fine bass player who loves the music … and he turns out to be one of my kids.”
“I formed the band (DGBX) largely as a vehicle for us to play together,” said David.
Sam also plays in the Deadly Gentlemen, a Boston-based acoustic string band assembled by Crooked Still’s Greg Liszt which is not bound by the same traditions. All prodigy musicians, they barely seem bound by the law of gravity.
“I think they’re a terrific group — all great young players with an original style with lots of groove,” said David.
Little called Grisman “a benevolent Jewish grandmother … who loves and supports the people he works with.”
“It’s not like he’s a front artist and we’ve learned his material and are now playing it,” Little continued. “We’re all part of the package. He really values each of our contributions. That’s why this thing has stayed together this long.”
That attitude extends to the listener.
“David wants the audience to experience the feeling and color of the music,” said Little. “Every show … he talks about where the music came from.”
The bluegrass history lesson varies from show to show but Grisman is known for adding an oral tradition to the music DGBX celebrates so persuasively.
He’s also created a record label, Acoustic Disc, to preserve the integrity of acoustic music and give lesser-known players a chance to be heard. Its continued success has helped make artist-owned independent labels a viable force in the modern music business.
But his lasting legacy will be Dawg music, a new genre which advanced his instrument’s improvisational vocabulary, injecting a heavier, more harmonically complex jazz diction, which he used to attract and nurture a generation of acoustic players.