That High Lonesome Sound
By Mark Jordan
NOVEMBER 3, 1997: Rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers once said, "Bill Monroe's music and colored artists' music is what caused rock-and-roll."
So maybe it wasn't so farfetched when, in 1973, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia decided to put together a band to express the "high lonesome sound" in his musical heart -- the sound of bluegrass.
More or less invented by Monroe in the '40s, bluegrass had long been part of Garcia's diverse musical upbringing and had even worked its way, in a slightly divergent form, into some of his work with the Dead. But Garcia wanted to play the music in its pure, undiluted form. So one day he invited two old friends and fellow bluegrass students over to his house.
"[Guitarist] Pete Rowan, myself, and Jerry were all living in Stinson Beach, California, in 1973, and we got together in Jerry's living room just to play bluegrass for fun," says mandolinist David Grisman. "And Jerry said, 'Hey, we oughta play some gigs.' So he booked some small clubs, and it was kind of just an informal thing."
To round out the group, they also recruited bassist John Kahn from Garcia's electric-band side project and bluegrass fiddle legend Vassar Clements. The group quickly worked up a intriguing repertoire of bluegrass standards, originals, and rock covers like the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses."
Dubbed Old And In The Way, after a song by Grisman, the group lasted just nine months and 27 gigs before breaking up. But thanks to two of those shows and the maniacal support of Deadheads everywhere, their legacy has endured well beyond. In early October of '73, the band played a pair of shows at the Boarding House in San Francisco. Then in 1975, well after the group had disbanded, tapes of those gigs were used to make the group's eponymous debut CD. For 21 years that sole record of the band's work was enough to catapult the bluegrass supergroup into legend status. In fact, Old And In The Way remains one of the best-selling bluegrass albums of all time, only recently being displaced from the top spot by Alison Krauss.
"The first record came out two years after the band had quit playing. Basically the whole reputation of the band has grown without there being a band," Grisman says.
He attributes the enduring appeal to the cult that surrounds all things associated with Garcia and the Dead. "The fact that Jerry was so famous and attracted a lot of listeners from other places helped a lot," Grisman says. "I wish I had a dollar for every person who came up to me and told me Old And In The Way was their first introduction to bluegrass."
For 20 years, that first record was all the world knew of Old And In The Way. Then in 1995, Grisman and Garcia, whose collaborations had continued despite the band breaking up, started to put together a second collection culled from the Boarding House tapes. That High Lonesome Sound came out in 1996, just months after Garcia died.
"The second album was in the works before Jerry died," says Grisman. "We had talked about getting [the band] back together then, but then he died. So, when the record came out, I had a gig in San Francisco on my birthday, and I invited the remaining members to have a reunion.
That was in March of 1996, and sadly the band reunited just in time to have one last jam before bassist Kahn passed away two months later.
Since that first show, however, Grisman, Rowan, and Clements have gotten together several more times to pay tribute to their friends -- they'll be in Germantown this Friday with Herb Pederson and Bill Kerwin filling in for Garcia and Kahn, respectively -- but they're always careful not to bill themselves as Old And In The Way.
"I just feel like that name belongs the original group of five guys," Grisman says.
And if the reunion shows and the first two records aren't enough to keep the band's legacy alive, there is now a third Old And In The Way album due out on November 18th. Titled Breakdown, the disc is made up of still more material from the Boarding House shows.
"It's 18 more tunes from the same two shows that the first two records came from," Grisman says. "There are 12 songs that have never been released and six alternate versions of songs that appeared on the first two records. I think that will just about exhaust the tapes from those shows. But there was a lot of good music that came out of them. Good music and good times."
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