Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Wild Roots

By Michael McCall

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  David Grisman chuckles at the irony. After a lifetime of pushing boundaries and setting new standards for progressive acoustic music, his best-known project features some of his most traditional work. But the guru of modern string-band jazz readily accepts this odd twist of fate. After all, the tradition-steeped bluegrass music he created as a member of Old & in the Way meets his primary criteria: He thoroughly enjoyed himself.

"We didn't at all realize we were doing something that special," Grisman says of the short-lived quintet he founded with Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn. "We were just a bunch of guys having fun. We never thought about anything much coming of it, other than a good time."

Grisman's greatest artistic contribution comes as the creator of "Dawg Music," a flashy yet swinging form of acoustic music that draws on folk, bluegrass, jazz, and gypsy stylings. The David Grisman Quartet is also noteworthy for having introduced many of the world's greatest acoustic musicians, including Mark O'Connor, Tony Rice, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Richard Greene, Todd Phillips, Russ Barenberg, John Carlini, and Rob Wasserman.

But Grisman wholeheartedly endorses his time spent in Old & in the Way; in the last couple of years, his own record label, Acoustic Disc, has made much more of the band's unique music available to the public. In 1996, Acoustic Disc put out That High Lonesome Sound, a 14-song batch of previously unreleased live songs. And on Nov. 18, the label issues a third collection, Old & in the Way: Breakdown, 18 more live songs drawn from the same San Francisco club dates that provided the tapes for the band's previous two albums. Remarkably, the second and third collections are every bit as enjoyable as the famous first release.

As Grisman admits, the group's mythical pop-culture status is due to the participation of its shaggy-haired banjo player, Jerry Garcia. Everything Garcia recorded has become collection fodder for the millions of Deadheads who worship him. As side projects go, Old & in the Way may indeed be the most exciting and most credible music Garcia created outside of the Dead.

"I'm sure the reason there's so much interest in that music is all due to Jerry's popularity," Grisman says. "So many people have said that [Old & in the Way] was their first exposure to bluegrass. And a lot of those people then went back and listened to Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers because of that exposure. It's a good thing, for sure."

The group's formation was a happy accident. By 1970, Grisman already owned a reputation as a hot-shot mandolinist willing to test the limitations of acoustic music. Garcia, whose first instrument was the banjo, had jammed with Grisman several times before inviting the mandolinist to contribute to American Beauty, the Dead's return to roots-rock. A New Jersey native, Grisman moved to California after working on the album, settling into the hippie community that had gathered in Stinson Beach, just north of San Francisco. Garcia resided nearby in a cliffside home on Mount Tamalpais, and the two regularly stayed up late playing old-time music together.

Dawging around David Grisman, forward-thinking musician with a love of tradition. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

In 1972, multi-instrumentalist Peter Rowan joined the Stinson Beach flock. Like Grisman, Rowan started his career as a bluegrass traditionalist, but he too had begun to merge his old-time skills with new-fashioned music. Grisman and Rowan had both been members of a folk-rock group, Earth Opera, and of a more traditional group, Muleskinner.

After Rowan arrived in Northern California, Grisman took him to a jam session at Garcia's house. In the liner notes of Breakdown, Rowan recalls his first trip up the magic mountain. Garcia met the two young musicians at the front gate under a sign that read, "Sans Souci," French for "no problem." Grisman and Rowan roared with delight as Garcia greeted them by playing Earl Scruggs' "Pike County Breakdown" on the banjo as he walked down the pathway. Before they got in the house, all three musicians had their instruments out. "In no time, Old & in the Way was born," Rowan says.

Garcia, who named the group, was also the member who suggested they set up a short tour during a break in the Dead's schedule. He brought in bassist John Kahn, while Rowan suggested the addition of Clements, who became the elder of the group. Clements had joined Bill Monroe's band in 1950, so he had the deepest bluegrass roots. "Getting to play with Vassar was such a big thrill for me," Grisman recalls.

Early group rehearsals often found the band roaming through Garcia's house. A song would begin in the living room, then everyone but Kahn would take off in different directions. "Our rehearsals were hilarious and full of infectious spontaneity," Rowan writes. "We'd wander around and meet back in the living room in time for the next chorus. If we were still 'in time,' we were doing all right!"

In all, Old & in the Way performed 18 club dates, four auditorium concerts, three school performances, a radio show, and a bluegrass festival. It was never meant to last, Grisman says. "Everybody in the band was bent on their own direction. Bluegrass was something we each had done already. No one wanted to make a career out of it."

While together, however, they created some great music. And the albums prove that they indeed captured the fire and precision of bluegrass. At the same time, they also added a distinct flavor of their own, derived partly from Garcia's unusual picking style and partly from their choice of material. Among the tunes they adapted were The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" and Rowan's pothead anthem "Panama Red"--which, as the group says, celebrates being high but not lonesome.

To heighten the air of surrealism already surrounding the group, Garcia gave each member a nickname: He was "Spud Boy," Rowan became "Red," Clements became "Clem" or "Clamp," Kahn was "Mule," and Grisman was christened "Dawg," a nickname he still carries today. Clements tells a story in the liner notes of Breakdown that suggests just how deeply Garcia delved into his alternate persona. After a long road trip, the band was pulling into San Francisco, when Clements noticed a billboard featuring The Grateful Dead. He turned to Spud Boy and said, "Garcia, that looks like you up there." The rest of the band fell over in laughter. After weeks of playing together, Garcia hadn't even let on to Clements that he happened to be an integral member of a world-famous rock band.

Grisman believes that Old & in the Way might have reunited if not for Garcia's premature death. The two had gotten together to listen through the tapes that make up the music on That High Lonesome Sound and Breakdown. The day after the listening session, Grisman accompanied Garcia to a meeting of the Grateful Dead's charitable foundation. Also attending the meeting was renowned concert promoter John Scher, who was 22 when he put together the first Old & in the Way tour. During the meeting, Garcia asked Scher if he would be interested in setting up a new tour for the old band. The reunion never happened, of course, and bassist Kahn died 10 months after Garcia. Breakdown is dedicated "to Spud Boy and Mule."

Even today, young Deadheads are still finding their way to traditional string-band music through the celebrated recordings of Old & in the Way. Meanwhile, Grisman hasn't forgotten his roots. He's also a member of another all-star group of pros and old-timers, the Bluegrass Reunion Band, which comes to Nashville's Ryman Auditorium Nov. 1. Among those participating will be Rowan and Clements. The Reunion Band, which also features Herb Pedersen on banjo and Jim Kerwin on bass, plays some of the same tunes as Old & in the Way, "but it's got a different flavor," Grisman says.

The same night, Grisman will also perform progressive acoustic tunes with his famed Quintet, which includes Kerwin on bass, Matt Eakle on flute, Joe Craven on percussion and fiddle, and Argentinian Enrique Coria on guitar. "I'm real excited about being on that stage," he says. "I've only been there once before, so it will be a real honor."

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