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|August 21-27, 2008
Little big man
Mandolin pioneer David Grisman headlines at NedFest’s 10th Anniversary
by Dylan Otto Krider
David Grisman is a man who defies categorization. On purpose. “I do pride myself at being a non-conformist, which was one reason I took up the mandolin,” he admits. “As Bob Wills once aptly put it while introducing Tiny Moore, the mandolin is ‘the world’s biggest tiny instrument.’” Which is just as apt a metaphor for Grisman.
Look at his biography, and you start to realize Grisman is the musical version of Woody Allen’s famous protagonist Leonard Zelig, always lurking in the background of the big events. He has collaborated with the likes of Artie Rose, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Del McCoury and Dolly Parton.
Grisman has been around for 40 years, playing his marginalized instrument for just about anyone who’s willing to jam, but he is best known as one of the icons of the bluegrass fusion revival known as “newgrass,” which has earned him, among other things, the penthouse spot on the NedFest marquee for his David Grisman Quintet.
This writer suspects the term “Dawg Music” (the nickname longtime friend Jerry Garcia gave him when they were in bluegrass group Old and In the Way), used to describe his eclectic hodge-podge of jazz, swing, gypsy and bluegrass, is really just Grisman’s way of saying, “Dawg is as Dawg does.”
“I don’t like labels,” Grisman told Digital Interviews. “I’ve always had a sound of everything I’ve done, and I think that’s the way most musicians look at it — I just hate to be typecast.”
So we shouldn’t be shocked that he met the legendary folk musician Ralph Rinzler in his home state of New Jersey, and started playing with the Even Dozen Jug Band while attending New York University in 1963. If the siren song of the Delta calls, Grisman isn’t going to waste precious calories fretting over his lack of Appalachian pedigree.
Ask him about the mandolin, and you know the music’s in his blood. “I found and still find the mandolin to be one of the most delightfully intriguing sounding instruments on the planet. Not to mention the music that has been created for/on it by many geniuses for centuries, from Vivaldi to Dave Apollon, Bill Monroe, Jethro Burns and today’s Andy Statman, Hamilton de Holanda and Chris Thile.
“The mandolin is plucked like a guitar and has the range of the violin, yet with its own distinctive magic, due in part to its double courses of unison-tuned strings. These attributes enable it to combine many great qualities of either of those instruments with its own very unique sound. It can be hauntingly beautiful and also very powerful and penetrating.”
So no, he wouldn’t be happier playing one of the more traditional lead instruments like the fiddle or guitar. Like the instrument he covets, he likes to operate in the borderlands.
He has navigated the eternal conflict of art vs. commerce by starting his own label, Acousticdisk.com. As fate would have it, the champion of unplugged music is a tech-geek.
“I’m very excited about the new technologies now available for music distribution, and have been very busy for the past year, re-inventing our business. It will be a download-only site called AcousticOasis.com and will enable me to make available huge amounts of music that would have been impractical to make into CDs. Fortunately, I’m sitting on a mountain of music that I’ve been recording and accumulating for over 40 years,” Grisman says. “The future looks very bright from my perspective. Though the medium changes every few decades, it’s still all about music. My iPod is full.”
Not that he isn’t above a more high-profile project. You may have noticed the proliferation of albums on iTunes offering bluegrass versions of popular rock bands like Nickelback. Grisman’s version of “Hot for Teacher” appears on Strummin’ With the Devil: The Southern Side of Van Halen, featuring David Lee Roth (a sure sign your career is waning is when you’re reduced to covering yourself).
He hasn’t heard any of the tribute albums, so he can’t comment, but he’s not opposed in principle. “Like Duke Ellington once said, ‘There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.’” He says, “Usually the intersection of art and commerce leans heavily to the commerce side.” Since the Van Halen project was well received by the critics, his particular project appears to lean toward the former.
Right now, Grisman is exactly where he wants to be, making a living, but not rich, playing with the greats, but not famous, able to keep the houses packed without having to worry about his place on the charts. Use whatever terms you like. By becoming the littlest, big man in the biz, he’s managed to chart a course that insures it will always be all about the music.
NedFest Schedule www.nedfest.com
Friday, Aug. 22
3:00 p.m. — Onda
4:00 p.m. — Bill Kopper
4:30 p.m. — Tony Furtado Band
6:00 p.m. — LYNX & Jamie Janover
6:30 p.m. — Kyle Hollingsworth Band with Keith Moseley
8:00 p.m. — LYNX
8:30 p.m. — PRAANG featuring Steve Kimock, Michael Travis, Jason Hann & Jamie Janover
10:30 p.m. — Saskia Laroo with members of The Motet
Saturday, Aug. 23
11:00 a.m. — Oakhurst
12:00 p.m. — Mountain Standard Time
12:30 p.m. — Swingset with YMSB’s Dave Johnston and guest Cecil ‘Pnut’ Daniels
2:00 p.m. — Special Guest Pete ‘Dr. Banjo’ Wernick
2:30 p.m. — Jeff Austin & Friends
4:00 p.m. — Patrick Latella
4:30 p.m. — New Monsoon
6:00 p.m. — Saskia Laroo
6:30 p.m. — The Motet
8:00 p.m. — Arnie Green
8:30 p.m. to 10:30 PM — Melvin Seals & JGB w/ Steve Kimock
10:30 p.m. — Late Night @ Black Forest: Saskia Laroo w/ members of The Motet
Sunday, Aug. 24
11:00 a.m. — Elephant Revival
12:00 a.m. — Danny Shafer
12:30 p.m. — Larry Keel & Natural Bridge
2:00 p.m. — Shanti Groove
2:30 p.m. — Split Lip Rayfield
4:00 p.m. — Taarka w/ Nathan Moore
4:30 p.m. — Great American Taxi featuring Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman
6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. — David Grisman Quintet
8:30 p.m. —Double Bill with WhiteWater Ramble and Taarka with Nathan Moore
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