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Rainy Day Dawg

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
June 12, 2008 - 2:30 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

I would not feel so all alone, if everyone played the mandolin.

But few do, especially with excellence.

So as dark clouds spit out lightning and thunder echoes across a Kansas ridge, I stand with diehards under a titanic white tent and wait for the Dawg onstage.

Beautiful young women dance and spin hula hoops outside the tent, on a ridge where several thousand scene makers in bohemian garb stroll past other music stages, food booths, a Trojan condom giveaway, ATMs and scattered strings of little blue rooms with lines of people waiting for their potty break.

The Wakarusa Festival near Lawrence, Kansas, features off-the-wall electric bands, local indie groups, semi-acoustic jam bands and in general music that salutes being young, rebellious but thoughtful, freedom seeking and the ability to never miss the party.

Leftover Salmon has finished their electrified-acoustic set.

As the stage changeover begins, the most devoted David Grisman Quintet fans are able to find spots closer to the stage at the "Revival Tent," up against the cattle fence that separates us regular folks from the VIP section.

You would think since Grisman has played or produced music since the early 1960s, been an acoustic superstar since the 1970s, and a legend on multiple musical trails for decades, most of the crowd would be on the downhill side of prime.

But on my right, shirtless and in shorts, stands guitarist Phil Kilmer, 25, waiting for a musical hero.

"This is my first time to see Grisman," said Kilmer, of McPherson, Kansas. "I got into his old bluegrass stuff first, then the collaboration with Jerry Garcia and then the jazz stuff. I got here early because I've been waiting a long time to see him live."

George Marsh, the Quintet drummer, is adjusting cymbals and drums onstage. Bassist Jim Kerwin removes his instrument from a fiberglass flight case.

"I really like this percussionist," said Patrick Suckiel, 26, a drummer from Kansas City.

A stage hand approaches a microphone and the crowd starts shouting for the band.

But first.

Those black and blue clouds are too close and there will be a delay until the storm passes, the stage hand says. Then he orders the crew to shut anything off that uses electricity.

So we wait protected by the tent from the rain, but not the lightning.

Steel poles rise 100-feet skyward on an otherwise barren hilltop to hold the tent up.

Then the rain begins falling hard, then harder, then double that amount, turning the tent top into a roaring drum. People pack under it, Grisman fans or not.

Water two inches deep (I'm not exaggerating) begins running in a steady lake-like flow on the sloped ground.

We're all one lightning bolt away from eternal life's next stage of cosmic consciousness when the rain eases and stage hands shuffle gear into place.

Quickly, the bearded man with the life-is-fun smile, shoulder-length silver blue hair, and a modernistic Giacomel mandolin appears onstage and speaks into the microphone.

"How ya' all doing," Grisman said.

The crowd roars.

A few chops on the Giacomel and Dawg begins firing five-note bursts as the Quintet launches into the tune, E.M.D. from the first DGQ album in 1977.

Matt Eakle follows with a fine line on flute, and guitarist Frank Vignola plays oh so pretty on a vintage Martin OM 18. Marsh and Kerwin swing rock steady on rhythm.

"Oh my God, phenomenal," Kilmer says of his first Dawg dose.

The mandolin and the music are center stage.

That's all a swaying and dancing crowd cares about.

"We'll do a tune from a little thing we did called Grateful Dawg," Grisman says to strong applause. "We'll send this out to Jerry Garcia."

Now there is wild applause.

Grisman at 63 fully looks like Garcia's brother. That and the fact that he and the Grateful Dead's lead guitarist were bluegrass soul pals adds oomph for this crowd.

The spirit of Dawg's music is similar, too.

It's rooted in American bluegrass, blues and jazz, with strong Latin American influences, too. There's a good-old-folks sensibility paired with an anything goes search for new sound and rhythm combinations.

"Dawg's Waltz" though is wistfully simple and blue, tremolos and bent notes. The woody sound of string instruments fully resonant, something I've always loved about his music.

More swing follows. Grisman announces the show will be short and is almost at end, the stage manager's orders.

They launch into variations on "Opus 38" which morphs into "Shady Grove," and mandolinist Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon joins in the jam. The Dawg even steps to the microphone for some vocals.

The final notes fade into a crowd roar. They raise fists. Dawg smiles broadly and salutes them with raised mandolin.

But his night is far from over. Dawg's work is never done.

Scott Tichenor and I wade through mud and night's descending darkness, past more fences and gates until we arrive at a small white backstage trailer.

Quintet members are waiting for the van ride to the motel. They've sat through delays, severe storms, missed supper, played and then waded through mucky mud to get back to the trailer to wait some more.

"Ah, life on the road," Eakle says.

The Mandolin Cafe creator finally gets to meet his hero, and it becomes so.

"I blame you for everything I've done," says Tichenor.

Grisman won't have it.

"Don't blame me, blame Bill Monroe," he says with a laugh.

This is a busy time for a proud Daddy Dawg. His son, Sam, graduated from high school the day before this concert. His daughter, Gillian, is getting married soon.

And so it goes. A little banter, an inspection of the Giacomel, and finally a van arrives and we all pile inside for a long, slow drive over muddy park roads to the middle of nowhere in the Wakarusa River valley so the road manager can go inside the main trailer and get paid.

There's ongoing talk among the band about a terrible mix in the monitors, they could barely hear well enough to play, and glitches on tunes and so forth.

Eakle explains that Wakarusa is a Native American word meaning up to your ass in water.

He's mostly correct. It's derived from the Potawatomi Indian language and means "knee deep in mud," which we've proved accurate.

Dawg confesses a preference for performance venues.

"I don't really care for the 3-ring circus approach," Grisman says of multiple-stage festivals. "I like a nice concert hall or room with good sound."

But he plays them, and I think that's where he'll find the young fans.

They're looking for the adventure and freedom that a weekend festival with camping promises.

And they seek an artistic cool not so unlike what Grisman found when he moved from New York to San Francisco in 1969 to try and make a living for his family as a record producer.

"I've always done other things to pay the bills," he said. "You couldn't just be a bluegrass mandolin player then. Jethro Burns had to be a comedian. Bill Monroe had to be a singer."

After some more driving and drop offs, 2008 jolts us out of 1969.

We're all very tired and hungry and file into the hotel's restaurant.

But to eat, we have to sit in a chain restaurant that covers almost every square foot of wall space with giant television screens, most set on different noisy channels.

We're told we can't go into the quiet and dark side because it's after hours and no seating is allowed there, even though it's only 20 feet from the TV-skewered tables where seating is allowed.

We settle in and order, but the whole situation is among the reasons that Grisman holds the following view about politics, the environment and society in general.

"We're f*****," he says.

Tichenor begins a rally by ordering locally-brewed beers for all.

Conversation sways from why the food hasn't arrived to the genius of 1960s jazz saxophone player Albert Ayler, a thoroughly outside player even by Quintet standards.

When you watch the Dawg play and consider that he'll go down as one of the most significant figures in American musical history, it's hard to imagine that he worries. But he does, such as how great young musicians are going to make a living and still maintain their aesthetic values.

"The general public is not listening to this music," Grisman says. "When you turn on the TV, you don't see any of the great stuff."

Dawg in the 60s and 70s played commercials, small gigs, recording sessions with rock bands, bought and sold instruments, produced—anything to keep going.

"I've been lucky," he'll say over and over.

I'd say he's also been creative, smart and hard working.

The Old and In the Way band and album, followed in the 1970s by the first David Grisman Quintet lineup with the unparalleled guitar flatpicking of Tony Rice, propelled him into bluegrass stardom and gave rise to his own stamp as a Dawg/Grass/Jazz creator for acoustic stringed instruments, with the mandolin at center.

But to still be cranking today he's had to manage bands, negotiate the turbulent recording biz and keep a healthy personal family life intact. That isn't easy.

Grisman worried whether people would like an all instrumental band with swing and his original tunes when the Quintet first formed. They did. He worried that people would still accept them when Tony Rice left, even with Mark O'Connor as the replacement.

They did.

"I realized then that it didn't matter as long as it was good music," Grisman said.

His own Acoustic Disc recording label brings a tremendous variety of acoustic music to people who might not otherwise have heard the style, such as the early mandolin recordings of virtuoso Dave Apollon.

"Fortunately, my recordings with Jerry (Garcia) made it possible for us to make enough money to pay for some other things," Grisman said.

The food finally arrives and we all chomp on burgers or stuff we can't identify. Band members finish eating, get their hugs and handshakes and then drift away.

They fly in for these single-day jobs the day before and then practice that night at the motel, for the job or on new material.

After the show and some sleep, they're in the jets homeward bound.

We finish eating and rise to leave the table.

The guy who was cheered by the multitude earlier has been ignored by the college frat types bellying up to the bar.

"Are you guys a band at the festival or something?" the waitress asks.

"Yes," the Dawg humbly replies.

"What's the name?" she asks.

"The David Grisman Quintet," he says.

"Oh, I think I've heard of that."

Grisman has a laptop computer set up on the desk in his motel room.

"I've been converting all my archives to digital," he said, and he shows us a list of files.

When he started this process, listening to a tape of the late Stephane Grappelli's incredibly beautiful playing on violin with the Quintet years ago brought him to tears.

Dawg began recording shows of bluegrass greats in the early 1960s and never stopped. And he's kept the audio tape rolling at his own shows, studios or at home. Plus he has video.

"I'm sitting on a mountain of music," he said. "Cuts that didn't get used for albums. We've got Martin Taylor and John Hartford playing duets and half-hour living room jam sessions that will never happen again. There's nothing like that out there, and I'm going to fill our new download website with things like that."

Dawg's work still involves horse trading vintage instruments, and he admits a collection that's pretty high on the pyramid. Besides F5 mandolins old and new, he's got various other styles and makes in the mandolin family, assorted guitars and odds and ends.

"Whatever is out there, if I don't own it now, I likely did at one point or may in the future," he said.

He looks at his hands, moves his fingers and says he'll play for people "until the pistons won't fire."

Dawg's in love with jazz, folk, blues and bluegrass from a long-gone time before the Vietnam War.

Yet he's still thinking about the future, developing the new web site and looking forward to making more music available directly through digital downloads rather than manufacturing cassettes or CDs.

He's thinking the complete "Pizza Tapes" (170 minutes) can be marketed that way. Or complete live performances of Old & In the Way, the original DGQ or 50s & 60s Bill Monroe and other bluegrass masters that he has on tape.

"I've got tapes of Tony Rice singing like a bird," Grisman said.

He's a full participant in a digital world deluging eyes and ears with music and information.

Yet such easy musical gratification also worries him.

"Maybe," Grisman said, "they're not taking the time to absorb it the way it should be absorbed."

Perhaps, yes, probably for many.

But I prefer to think of people with intense musical souls who are soaking it up, and those like them who will come later and marvel at Dawg's dedication and contributions to music.

"That," he said, "is my passion."

Dawg Bones

Websites: and But also coming at a future date, a new venture called Also, check out the wonderful paintings of musicians by David's wife, Tracy Bigelow Grisman, at

On vintage instrument prices: "We all laughed at Butch Waller when he paid $800 for a Loar F-5 years ago. Then I kind of noticed that this (price rise) was starting to happen."

Dawg's take, "it kinda ruins the fun of collecting just as monetary goals stifle creativity in the music business. But there's two different perspectives, based on whether you've got one or whether you don't."

On Crusher: he likes to think that no mandolin is worth more than $250, the price of a new F-5 in 1923. When he acquired the 1922 Loar F-5, fondly nicknamed "Crusher" by Steve Gilchrist, it was in perfect condition so he didn't take it out and play it.

"Then I thought, what's the point?"

So Crusher hit the road.

"Now it's all banged up."

The Giacomel-Eastman-Dawg mando collaboration: "I have great hopes for the Eastman Giacomel and all of the models that I have been discussing with them. I believe that the quality will be extremely high. The Eastman folks seem very dedicated to building quality instruments, and the prototypes they sent me of both the Giacomel and the Bacon Artist were very impressive. I will receive two more within the next month, which I hopefully will approve for manufacture."

Digital cyber worries: That so much musical cross-pollination via computer will lead to less deeply ingrained soul than music sung plowing dirt behind a mule or playing onstage for flesh and blood people.

"I'm glad I was able to see jazz masters like Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins as well as bluegrass legends Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers in somewhat their natural environments. And of course, to have played with Clarence White, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia and Red Allen as well as Stephane Grappelli, Svend Asmussen, George Shearing and Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, not to mention Jethro Burns, Chet Atkins and Les Paul."

Did Jerry play the mandolin: "He played a little. A few years before he died, I gave him a white A3. He owned an F12 in the early sixities. He fooled around with a lot of instruments. But I think he really loved the banjo."

Reads the Cafe: Yes. "I've got a morbid curiosity to see what's going on in the minds of contemporary mandolin maniacs," says the onetime publisher of the Mandolin World News.

His take on message board postings: "I wish there was more discussion about the music itself, and less about what kind of binding or inlay a mandolin has—but it's certainly a great example of cyber-democracy in action."

Dawg up close: friendly, thoughtful, not pretentious, gracious, earthy, real, always thinking, emphatic, emotional. If I had no idea what a mandolin was I'd still like him for a next-door neighbor.

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