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Mandolin Master

David Grisman has done a little of everything, including the theme to Car Talk

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From Old and in the Way to NPR's Car Talk, from the Grateful Dead's American Beauty to his collaborations with mandolinist-clarinetist Andy Statman, David Grisman and his mandolin have seemed like old friends to many music buffs for decades.

It took a Jewish kid from New Jersey — with connections to the Dead, French gypsy jazz and the traditional bluegrass world — to help redefine the ways bluegrass, country, folk, jazz, blues and rock crossed over and informed each other. And, since 1990, Grisman has been a pioneer in the do-it-yourself branch of the music business, releasing his albums and those of his friends on his Acoustic Disc label.

Grisman will visit Tucson to play a concert with his band, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, on Saturday, June 8, at the Fox Tucson Theatre. Some of the proceeds from the show will benefit the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association and next year's Tucson Folk Festival.

The 68-year-old Grisman has played acoustic music since he was a teenager, and for half a century he has been a guiding force in that world.

Although he studied piano and saxophone, the mandolin called to him. From a young age, he was enamored of the work of mandolinist and folklorist Ralph Rinzler. He took up the mandolin and soon was trying to play in the style of one of his heroes, bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, he said in a recent interview.

Grisman had just finished a grueling day in the recording studio and was exhausted, so his interview with the Tucson Weekly was abbreviated. He suggested an official bio could fill in some of the blanks.

He started playing in Greenwich Village as a college student, trying to study English at New York University while the burgeoning folk-music scene of the early 1960s was exploding all around him. Fifty years ago, he created his first recordings as an artist (with the Even Dozen Jug Band, which at one time included Maria Muldaur and John Sebastian) and as a producer, helming a recording for Red Allen and the Kentuckians.

Allen eventually asked Grisman to join the Kentuckians. Soon, though, Grisman was branching out into new musical worlds. He teamed up with Peter Rowan in Earth Opera, an early hybrid of folk, country, rock, pop and jazz.

A journey to San Francisco was almost de rigueur at this point, and there Grisman eventually hooked up with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, recording on their classic American Beauty album.

This led to Garcia arranging in 1973 an all-star bluegrass session that featured, among others, Garcia on banjo, Grisman on mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle and Rowan on guitar. Calling themselves Old and in the Way, they made one legendary album. And although they often played together in different combinations, that was for more than 20 years their only album. They reunited after Garcia's 1995 death, releasing two more albums of material.

Another early '70s outfits that included Grisman was Muleskinner and the Great American String Band. It was Garcia who nicknamed Grisman "Dawg," and as a result, his unique amalgam of jazz and bluegrass has often been called "Dawg music."

Indeed, Dawg music has been inspirational through the music business. Permutations such as newgrass and Béla Fleck's funky bluegrass might never have come about without Grisman's influence.

In the mid-1970s, Grisman formed the David Grisman Quintet, the members of which (guitarist Tony Rice, fiddler Darol Anger, bassist Joe Carroll, and mandolinist/bassist Todd Phillips) all have gone on to do stellar work throughout the musical firmament. The original line-up reunited for a 25th-anniversary concert in 2001 — that show was recorded and eventually released as a live album.

The groundbreaking quintet was as influenced by French gypsy jazz as it was the high and lonesome sound of Appalachia.

In fact, Grisman had the opportunity to play and record with the great French violinist Stephane Grappelli. As he recalls his career, Grisman says, "I'm quite proud of it all, but especially when I was fortunate to work with  some of the greatest players ever, such as Stephane Grappelli, Doc Watson, to name a few."

And Grisman has carried on the tradition, appearing as a guest on the French-jazz-style recordings of Stephane Wrembel and the Hot Club of San Francisco.

He also has recorded with John Hartford, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Earl Scruggs, Mark O'Connor, Dolly Parton, Jim Messina, Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Chris Isaak, Linda Thompson, Judy Collins, Chuck Prophet, Alison Brown and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, among others.

Grisman has also worked in Latin-flavored styles, most notably with Argentine guitarist Enrique Coria for the album Dawganova, and in the realm of traditional Jewish music with Andy Statman, a bluegrass mandolin player who branched out to explore the world of klezmer and the clarinet.

Many casual listeners may hear Grisman every week without knowing it. Ray and Tom Magliozzi, the mechanic brothers known colloquially as "Click 'n' Clack" chose a Grisman piece from his album Dawg Jazz/Dawg Grass as the theme for their radio show, Car Talk.

Recent albums have found Grisman collaborating with longtime pal John Sebastian and bluegrass pioneer Del McCoury.

When Grisman comes to Tucson, he will do so with his Bluegrass Experience in tow. It will include multi-instrumentalist Herb Pedersen (a veteran of the Desert Rose Band and longtime friend of Grisman), as well as Keith Little on banjo and Chad Manning on fiddle. His son, Samson Grisman, also a member of the up-and-coming bluegrass act The Deadly Gentlemen, will play bass.

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