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David “Dawg” Grisman is a living mandolin master, and today we celebrate his contributions to bluegrass and newgrass music, as well as acoustic composition. He is so revered in the bluegrass scene to have invented his own genre of music called Dawg Music, into which we shall delve further along in this article.
Dawg has toured with several bands, performed in his own, played as a session musician and composed many bluegrass and newgrass songs. He is best known for his work on the mandolin, but is also accomplished on the mandola, mandocello, banjo, piano, saxophone and keyboards.
Dawg was born in Passaic, New Jersey in 1945. His background is Conservative Jewish. His family was musical, as is often seen with virtuosic musicians who go on to make grand careers of lifelong musical study. His father was a professional trombone player and passed on his skill to David who was enrolled in piano lessons at age 7. In 1955, his father passed away, and David gave up the piano. Throughout this decade he was exposed to early rock n roll and pop music, from all of which taking inspiration for his future particular brand and style.
A few years later at age 14, he resumed piano playing after discovering the Kingston Trio during the period of American folk music revival. He and friends from school were greatly influenced by Ralph Rinzler, who possessed vast knowledge of folklore and traditional music. Folk music was very popular at this time and it was then that David decided to pursue music.
He got his start in 1963 as a member of Even Dozen Jug Band. The following year, 1964, he would meet close friend Jerry Garcia at a Bill Monroe concert in West Grove, Pennsylvania.
In 1967 he played mandocello on Morning Again, an album by Tom Paxton. Also in 1967, he played in Earth Opera, a psychedelic group with Peter Rowan (fellow bluegrass composer). Then in 1973, he formed Old and In The Way, a bluegrass group, with Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia and John Kahn. It was during this time period he was given the nickname Dawg.
The next year, 1974, Dawg, Rowan and Richard Greene played in the band Muleskinner with Bill Keith and Clarence White. During this year he also played in The Great American Music Band. In 1975 he started the David Grisman Quartet who then released their first album in 1977. In this year he also played mandocello for Sweet Forgiveness by Bonnie Raitt.
Just as Dawg himself has played in several bands both live and as a session musician, Dawg Music is a style of music inspired by an eclectic selection of sounds, including jazz and modern jazz fusion, bluegrass, folk and Old World Mediterranean string band. Together all of these sources create a unique sound that is vivacious, playful and technical.
To this day he plays with the David Grisman Quintet and his other bluegrass group, David Grisman Bluegrass Experience with Keith Little on banjo, Chad Manning on fiddle, Jim Nunally on guitar and Samson Grisman on upright bass. Recently he toured with John Sebastian (songwriter and guitar player) as a duo. They also recorded an album together.
David Dawg Grisman is a feature artist on Common Chord, an album with both traditional and contemporary folk songs. He was a judge for the sixth and seventh annual Independent Music Awards, and his song Dawggy Mountain Breakdown was the opening theme of Car Talk, a talk show about automobiles.
His life’s work also includes appearing on American Beauty, an album by Grateful Dead (1970). He wrote a lot of bluegrass music for 1974 film Big Bad Mama, as played by the Great American Music Band. He was also involved with the music scores on films Capone (1975), Eat My Dust! (1976) and King of the Gypsies (1978).
He is married, and has three grown children. His children are musicians and filmmakers residing in the United States. His son Samson plays bass and they often perform together. Gillian is a filmmaker living in California who directed Grateful Dawg about her father’s deep friendship with Jerry Garcia. Monroe is named for Bill Monroe of course, famed mandolin player, and plays in a Tom Petty tribute band in California.
Dawg’s versatile musical style has led him to accomplish great things, including his extensive discography as well as starting his own record label, Acoustic Disc Record Label, which he founded in 1990. The label is based in California and focuses on folk, bluegrass and new acoustic music. Before starting his own label, he has been associated with Electra, A&M and Warner Brothers. He is a highly accomplished musician and has given so much to the world of folk and newgrass. It is inspiring to see someone so wholly dedicated to their instrument and to furthering the genre.