David Grisman’s Acoustic Oasis

David GrismanDavid Grisman’s Acoustic Oasis
An Acoustic Archive For The 21st Century
By Matt Sircely

Fifty years after producing his first LP record, Red Allen, Frank Wakefield & The Kentuckians: Bluegrass for Folkways, David “Dawg” Grisman remains a force of nature on the mandolin and in the recording studio. He still tours regularly with his sextet, quintet, bluegrass band and FolkJazz Trio, all featuring his instantly recognizable style and tone. Quietly at home, the Dawg has embarked (no pun intended) on a new venture, slowly creating one of the most extensive, high-grade archives of acoustic music anywhere.

Since 1990, his Acoustic Disc label has released groundbreaking projects and gleanings from these archives to its specialized clientele. But three years ago, Grisman and his manager Craig Miller founded a new type of music label. Acoustic Oasis offers listeners a new platform for downloading music at levels of quality far exceeding today’s norm, accompanied by engaging graphics that can be downloaded as well. Drawing upon good source material is key to presenting music in the high-definition (HD) format, and David is clearly sitting on some of the best source material in the wide universe of acoustic music, some dating back to the 1950s—all carefully stored on seemingly endless reels of tape.

Nearly a decade ago, Grisman began the monumental process of transferring his “mountains of material” into HD digital format. Interviewed in his living room, he describes waiting for the right technology to arrive. “It took at least five years before CDs got dialed in, and there have always been gradations of quality—higher and higher sampling rates—and I kept thinking, ‘I’ll wait until they’ve really got it happening.’” When “Decibel” Dave Dennison (Dawg’s engineer) suggested an Alesis HDX24 multi-track hard disk recorder, Grisman felt good about its depth of resolution and overall sound. “It goes up to 24-bit, 96khz. I decided that this sampling rate was obviously better sounding than CD. Digital audio tape goes a little beyond CD resolution, but this goes noticeably beyond,” he says, noting that the quality of the end product hinges on “how well the transfer is made and how good or bad your source material is. There’s a downside to high-fidelity however, which is, if there’s a problem, noise or a mistake, you’re going to hear it better.”

Many Acoustic Oasis releases include previously unissued performances, asserting that alternate takes can be as meaningful as the original masters. It’s hard to imagine the outtakes in the Doc & Dawg Deluxe Edition forever cast aside, simply because they needed to do “a whole ’nother take for that one chord,” as Doc Watson laments after a near flawless cut. David often incorporates the verbal informality of the sessions as part of the medium, letting the tape spin at times to frame the music with ambient context.

Listeners can hear the clamor of the crowd and the onstage banter better than ever in the new Old & In The Way: Live At The Boarding House, The Complete Shows. Coinciding with the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 shows, the release of 55 songs in their original order of performance sent sales through the roof at Acoustic Oasis. “There are 14 tracks that have never been released,” Grisman says. “The original Old And In The Way had ten songs from the October 8th show. There were 27 or 28 songs played each night, so the original record is only a small part of those two shows,” he explains. “If you were there, you wouldn’t have heard just the ten songs that I picked 38 years ago for the LP. You’d have heard the whole show, now available with this release.”

On the Boarding House outtakes, there might be a misplaced lyric or scattered ending, but the sounds of the animated crowd not only drive the listening experience, they also influence the band. In a moment between songs, David quips, “Vassar’s fans are the most adamant. They demand Vassar. They don’t settle for less. I don’t blame them.” Peter Rowan then asks the audience what they’d like Vassar to play. The crowd volleys back many requests. Moments later, he launches into a previously unreleased version of “Orange Blossom Special,” completely different from the one he had played onstage only a week before. Two songs later, at the close of the first set, the audience shouts out another request and claps along with a previously unreleased “Lonesome Fiddle Blues.” Vassar stunningly deconstructs his own melody when bringing it home. Each night, they closed with “Blue Mule,” and the previously unreleased version from the second night has a little more relaxed tempo lending a different feel to Rowan’s delivery of his own fantastical tale. Just like the week before, the crowd yells for more as the show comes to an end.

Elsewhere at www.acousticoasis.com, bluegrass fans will find exciting releases by the dozen. Dating to the early David Grisman Quintet era, The Bluegrass Quintet Live In Japan-5/76, features Dawg with Tony Rice, Bill Keith, Richard Greene, and Todd Phillips. Doc & Dawg: Live In Watsonville 1998 was released earlier this year. There are classic live recordings of great bands in their prime, such as Hot Rize/Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers: Live In Kansas 1986 and The New Kentucky Colonels: Live In Holland 1973 as well as David’s very first performance with Red Allen. Rolling into New York as a member of the band for the first time, Grisman placed a quick phone call to his young friend Pete Wernick, student host of the weekly Bluegrass Special program on Columbia University’s WKCR, prompting the last-minute radio appearance released as Red Allen & The Kentuckians Live On The Radio-1966, now available in high-definition.

Friends know David as a gracious host, which certainly comes through on his at-home productions. Two jam sessions with the Del McCoury Band yielded Del And Dawg: Hardcore Bluegrass In The Dawg House, released in March 2012. When a legend like John Hartford visited, he and Dawg spent the day recording. When traditional Brazilian mandolin virtuoso Danielo Brito stopped by, casually cutting a few tracks in the studio, Grisman showed him a rare 1920s Raffaele Tieri tenor guitar. Immediately, Brito asked to record a solo piece on the rare antique. In this way, Dawg’s singular archive grows. “I’d tape everything I could. I have a lot of wonderful material that was never intended for any particular project,” David says. Acoustic Oasis also distributes similar projects from independent producers. There’s an entire release that mandolinist Tony Williamson recorded, playing only Lloyd Loar-signed F-5 mandolins.

High-definition compilations fill an entire room in the Acoustic Oasis mansion, with others devoted to old-time folk or swing, showcasing mandolin, violin, or guitar masters. The Hi-Def Bluegrass Compilation includes John Hartford, Charles Sawtelle, Norman Blake, Ralph Stanley, Red Allen, Del McCoury, and many others. “With this format,” Grisman says, “I can put out everything, like Scottish jazz guitar master Martin Taylor and John Hartford. They recorded four spontaneous duets. I had just finished Retrograss (ACD-37) and the following week I was going to do I’m Beginning To See The Light (ACD-36). Martin came early and I said, ‘Why don’t you and John just play—anything!’” he laughs. “Hartford played some traditional fiddle tunes. I knew that Martin would instantly reinvent how to accompany a fiddle tune, and he did. They played for about twenty minutes. I’m going to put it out and call it Once In Two Lifetimes.”

Grisman doesn’t mind that Acoustic Oasis appeals mostly to people who are serious about music. “A lot of the good stuff is really for seekers, you know? And a lot of people nowadays just aren’t seekers. I always found everything I was looking for. Jethro Burns told me about Dave Apollon. Within a year, I had found all of his out-of-print albums.”

He frames the big picture. “We went from cylinder recordings to 78s to 45s to LPs with cassettes and eight-tracks. They even made reel-to-reel tapes at one point and then CDs. Now with downloads, music has become ubiquitous. You can just turn on the music faucet in your house and out it comes! It’s everywhere, and actually no longer in a physical form. I believe that this delivery system is no longer the coming thing—it’s the accepted thing.”

The Acoustic Oasis roster of independent artists is growing every week. “We’ve got Hot Club Sandwich, we’ve got jazz mandolinists Don Stiernberg and Don Julin, we’ve got Richard Greene, Emory Lester, and Frank Vignola. I’m planning to release the complete Jacob do Bandolim…everything.” Grisman’s swing catalog is also extensive. “I produced a solo recording of Jethro Burns called Tea For One, and we have four CDs worth of Danish violin legend Svend Asmussen, his classic recordings from the ’30s through the ’50s. And newly recorded projects, like mandolin wonder Josh Pinkham and his grandfather Jerry Thomasson, who is Benny Thomasson’s son.”

Acoustic Oasis also offers ‘Deluxe Editions’ of Acoustic Disc classics remastered in high-definition and augmented with extras, such as the 200-minute Complete Tone Poems featuring David and Tony Rice, and the 170-minute The Pizza Tapes: Extra Large Edition with Jerry Garcia, Rice, and Dawg. The Garcia Grisman: Alternate contains an alternate take for every song on the original 1991 album. In the Doc & Dawg Deluxe Edition, the joy of friendship shines through on 17 previously unavailable tracks. David’s long out-of-print Warner Brothers LP Quintet ’80 is once again available as a Deluxe Edition with five extra tracks, and more are on the way.

When Grisman first encountered bluegrass music, his mentor was Ralph Rinzler, the mandolinist, scholar, and archivist who guided him to discoveries which shaped his aesthetic. With the March 2011 release of Dawg Plays Big Mon: Happy Birthday Bill Monroe, David noted that it was Rinzler who first took him to see Monroe play in Maryland in 1961. Released in celebration of Monroe’s hundredth birthday, this tribute features the Del McCoury Band, Mike Seeger, Tony Rice, John Hartford, and even Jethro Burns, Tiny Moore, and Ray Brown. The ten previously unreleased tracks include an 11-minute excerpt from a 1965 Rinzler interview with Monroe which David recorded.

“Guys like Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger were rediscovering people like Doc Boggs and Clarence Ashley. They’d find these musicians that made records in the 1920s and record them again in their living rooms with quality microphones and tape recorders. That’s what (Allen and Wakefield’s session in the) kitchen was.” He laughs with a shrug, referring to the Kitchen Tapes, the 11th release on Acoustic Disc. “And that’s a unique thing. They never recorded any duets before or since. It was mind-blowing, and with only one Electrovoice microphone.”

In 1963, while still a student at New York University, Grisman suddenly found himself as a record producer. When Red Allen and Frank Wakefield returned to New York after their Carnegie Hall performance for a two-week run at Gerde’s Folk City, “They stayed at my mom’s house where I was living, for two weeks. And that’s when I learned a lot of mandolin and had a lot of crazy times with that pair!” he explains. Red Allen played David a tape which he had sold to Moe Asch at Folkways Records. As a fan of Folkways, Grisman was concerned that Allen had only submitted ten songs. “One thing about Folkways Records, they all had like twenty songs and they were chock-full of music. Most of the songs on the tapes were not coming from a traditional place; they were popular country tunes,” he recalls. “I knew their repertoire, and there weren’t any of Wakefield’s original mandolin tunes. So I told Red, ‘You really should put more songs on this and get some of Frank’s tunes.’” Allen agreed to return for another session, provided it was cleared with Asch. “So I called him up. I was 18 years old,” he says with a laugh. “Who am I, you know? And he gave me three hours at Cue Studios in New York City.”

David produced the session with his friend and cohort, Peter Siegel. “Actually, the main thing was getting them to show up, because Red and Frank were living in Hyattsville, Maryland, and the session was for six p.m. on a Sunday night. I called them up at about one p.m., and they were watching the Washington Redskins game.” Somehow, everything worked out. “I hired Bill Keith. He had played with Red and around this time, he was playing with Bill Monroe. My friend Fred Weisz played bass. We recorded eight songs, some of which were not released at the time.” It’s certainly difficult to imagine Bluegrass by Red Allen and Frank Wakefield and the Kentuckians without tunes like Wakefield’s “New Camptown Races” and “Catnip.” Dawg points out that Smithsonian Folkways has since made all of the unreleased songs available on CD. “It holds up. Bill Keith’s banjo solos are in books, you know? Frank’s too. And it’s still in print fifty years later.”

The Acoustic Oasis catalog is filled with recordings that stand the test of time, with new releases every month. The Old & In The Way Boarding House tapes perfectly illustrate how a fleeting musical endeavor, captured by happenstance on tape, can continue to reverberate decades later. For many, these recordings are indispensable. David describes how it came together. “This is a tough business, but Jerry made it all seem easy. He said, ‘I can get us gigs,’ because he was having fun.” Peter Rowan had just moved to Stinson Beach, where Garcia and Grisman were living. David knew that Jerry loved to pick banjo, so he introduced him to Rowan. “We didn’t go up there with the idea of trying to form a band. He had never met Peter, and Peter was a Blue Grass Boy.” Soon, Jerry’s friend John Kahn joined on bass. “We played a few gigs like that and then we had a few different fiddle players sitting in. I know John Hartford played at least one of those Boarding House gigs. I don’t know if there’s a tape of that; and Richard Greene played several gigs.

“Jerry booked us five East Coast tour dates, but Richard Greene couldn’t do this tour. I don’t think any of us had ever met Vassar Clements, but Rowan had his phone number and we called him up,” he says, laughing. “We asked him to join us and he graciously agreed! Vassar really enjoyed it, so when we were playing these small local clubs in San Francisco, we’d just fly him out. Personnel stabilized, and we started getting better and adding tunes. These two gigs, forty years ago in October, were consecutive Monday nights at the Boarding House. The club was down a flight of stairs and it was one of those places that Jerry could just book for two or three nights, or whatever he wanted.

“By that time, Owlsey Stanley III was recording our shows. The audio wizard and architect behind the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound” was returning to the scene after a few years hiatus. He used a Nagra, a state-of-the-art portable tape recorder made in Switzerland, and he had a bunch of great mics and a mixer and was following Old & In The Way around and putting up his mics and taping our gigs. It was a fun thing. We weren’t taking it seriously.” The band only existed for about a year, but it had a lasting impact. “It had a vibe that people liked, and still do.”

In addition to archival releases and independently produced material, Grisman continues to crank out recordings with his bands for release on Acoustic Oasis. In 2013, he unveiled Muddy Roads by the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience with his longstanding bluegrass band of Jim Nunally on guitar, Keith Little on banjo, Chad Manning on fiddle, and his son Samson Grisman on bass. Muddy Roads presents 16 songs from the field recordings that Ralph Rinzler had brought home in the early ’60s, sharing them with his young understudy. These historical recordings introduced the world to the music of Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson, together with some of their neighbors. David dedicates Muddy Roads to their memory, also paying homage to the life and work of Rinzler.

In classic recording style, Dave Dennison hung one vocal and two paired instrument mics from the ceiling, while outfitting Samson with a “bass mic stuck in the bridge so he could move around,” Grisman says. “It was very organic and intimate because we were standing really close together, singing and playing. I’m really happy with the results.” The recording is rich with vocal harmonies, with different members, including the Dawg himself, splitting verses or singing the lead on certain tunes. Samson also takes a turn on “I’ll Rise When The Rooster Crows,” and David’s wife, artist Tracy Bigelow Grisman, sings a haunting version of “Omie Wise.”

With the full power of contemporary digital technology at his disposal, Grisman still opted to utilize the sound of tape on Muddy Roads. “Dave was doing a live two-track mix through the board into my analog two-track recorder, an Ampex ATR 100. The mix was then transferred immediately into high-resolution digital off the playback head. So basically, we’re making a digital copy of an analog tape (sharply snapping his fingers) a split second after it’s recorded.” He laughs, “It’s almost as if folks could sit in the studio and listen to the master. That’s as close as I’m gonna get. So there it is.

“Every day there’s a free track available at AcousticOasis.com,” says David. He encourages folks who haven’t downloaded music before, “Just look for the ‘free’ bone!”

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