Thinking of Grisman as strictly a bluegrass player doesn't do him justice anyway. Dawg Music encompasses swing, jazz, classical, gypsy and, yes, bluegrass.
Though he grew up in New Jersey, a place not generally recognized as a hotbed of the genre, Grisman's earliest musical forays were into bluegrass, courtesy of neighbor and family friend Ralph Rinzler. A musicologist as well as a player, Rinzler founded the Folk Life Institute at the Smithsonian, discovered Doc Watson, and ran the Newport Folk Festival. "I couldn't have had a better mentor," Grisman says.
Grisman spent several years trying to copy Bill Monroe's style, then started trying to think like Monroe, so he could not only copy what he did, but keep that going in a new direction. "But at some point, if you get close to being able to duplicate something like that, you naturally get to the point where it seems ridiculous," Grisman says, "because Bill Monroe is already there, playing like Bill Monroe. About the same time, these other things started to emerge that were my own ideas, and my own way of hearing something."
Those ideas led to collaborations in the mid-60s with Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements and Jerry Garcia, with whom he would form the bluegrass group Old And In The Way in the early 70s. A stint with folk-rock group Earth Opera in "67 sparked an interest in jazz, resulting in Grisman's befriending Hot Club of France violinist Stephane Grappelli, who toured and recorded with Grisman. Co-founding The Great American String Band in "74 developed Grisman's trademark improvisational style. He set up his first version of the David Grisman Quintet the following year, which has continued with a rotating cast ever since.
Grisman started his own label, Acoustic Disc, in 1990, partly because he was ready to make a record and didn't have a contract, and also because he wanted an outlet for producing records. But a main consideration was to have artistic freedom. "As the record business/music business has evolved, it's gotten more and more concerned with making a product to sell until that is the prime focus -- the first question, the last answer. Sales -- most companies, that's what it's all based on -- trying to record something that's marketable."
Grisman's solution is to try to record something he thinks is important, and then try to market it well. As an example, he cites the new Vassar Clements release, Livin' The Blues, due out in August. "Vassar wanted to do a recording project, and I said, "is there something that you've always wanted to do that you've never had a chance to do?' And he said, " yeah, there is one thing -- a blues album.' So I thought that was a great idea, because to me, Vassar is the bluesiest of all the bluegrass fiddle players, and that would be a natural thing." Grisman thinks that if Clements had taken his request to a musical conglomerate like, say, Sony, the label's main focus would be what big names they could get. "If you could get Snoop Doggy Dog on the record, they'd be for it."
Big corporations have pulverized music into the lowest common denominator type of material, Grisman believes, and he's trying to rectify that situation. "Basically I agree with Duke Ellington, who said there's only two kinds of music: good and bad. If something is well conceived and put together, it'll work."
To that end, Acoustic Disc makes and markets a variety of material including Grisman's collaborations with artists from Garcia to Doc Watson to Sam Bush, jazz mandolinist Jethro Burns of Homer and Jethro, and Riders In The Sky.
"I've always tried to produce things that were meaningful to me and also that have a meaning beyond somebody's next record," the mandolin expert explains. "If there's a template for success, I feel like it's a deep appreciation for musical history and tradition."
David Grisman plays the Neighborhood Theatre Thursday at 8pm