David Grisman

Wild Horses
(by Old & In The Way)
Old & In The Way
(by David Grisman Quintet)
DGQ 25th Year
Reunion Concert
(by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman)
Jerry Garcia/David Grisman
Friend Of The Devil
(by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman)
Grateful Dawg OST
Crusher And Hoss
(by Sam Bush & David Grisman)
Hold On, We're Strummin'
Man Of Constant Sorrow
(Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Tony Rice)
The Pizza Tapes
Shady Grove
(by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman)
Shady Grove
(by David Grisman Quintet)
(by David Grisman Quintet)
Live At Jazz Alley
(by David Grisman Quintet)

David Grisman photo 3

David Grisman (centre) in 1966 – photo: Roland White



The Dawg playlist


David Grisman photo 1

David Grisman (right) with Jerry Garcia in 2000


Contributor: David Lewis

The Dawg – more about the nickname in a bit – has made, and continues to make, a massive contribution to acoustic music. Armed with a mandolin, David Grisman almost single-handedly transformed folk music, evolving it into a style so distinctive it’s called ‘Dawg music’. Running from bluegrass, to folk, to old time, to gypsy jazz (as developed by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli), to modern jazz, to rock and roll.

Considered by many to be the greatest living mandolin player, his influence is immense. He also introduced the world to such players as Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Mike Marshall, John Kahn, and has recorded with dozens and dozens of the best musicians. His influence can be heard in Sam Bush’s playing, Chris Thile’s playing (Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek), Sierra Hull’s playing and nearly everyone who’s picked up a mandolin in the last half decade or so.

An article of this size cannot hope to cover all of Grisman’s career, so consider this a taster to an exploration. I thoroughly recommend you listen to all these albums, and every other one. In my view, Dawg has no duds, no weak spots, no pointless diversions.

A career summary of David Grisman is complicated. He has appeared on around 60 albums, guested on dozens more, and produced dozens more again. He was born in New Jersey and studied at New York University. A saxophonist and pianist as a teenager, he picked up the mandolin at 16. He quickly grew proficient on the instrument and played it with the Even Dozen Jug Band with John Sebastian and Maria Muldaur. He then joined Red Allen’s Kentuckians in 1966 for a year before moving on to Earth Opera with vocalist Peter Rowan.

Like so many young folkies in the 1960s, he felt drawn to San Francisco. While there, he caught the attention of Jerry Garcia, who both bestowed on him the nickname ‘Dawg’ and enlisted him to play on the outstanding Grateful Dead album, American Beauty. This also started a musical partnership that continued on and off until Garcia’s untimely death in 1999. We’ll be returning to some of their collaborations.

As stated, Grisman was influenced by bluegrass, gypsy jazz, modern jazz, folk, rock and roll, old time music. The blending of these styles – ‘Dawg music’ – fits into the broader genre of progressive acoustic, or new grass, or progressive bluegrass. It is stunningly great. Other artists include New Grass Revival, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Tony Rice, JD Crowe, Punch Brothers (all Toppermosts – see links at the foot of this post). Newer bands/artists include Old Crow Medicine Show, Sierra Hull, Mumford & Sons and many others. Acoustic music is still thriving, and the Dawg is an important influence and continuing participant.

One of the first Garcia and Grisman collaborations was a bluegrass band called Old & In The Way, with Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals, Vassar Clements on violin, John Kahn on bass, Garcia on banjo and Grisman on mandolin. My first choice is their cover of the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses. Grisman was also in other bands with Rowan.

In 1978, Grisman formed the David Grisman Quartet, later Quintet. A brief rundown of the formation of the band can be heard on the DGQ celebration of the 25th year of the release of the first DGQ album. The DGQ quickly established itself on the cutting edge of acoustic music. The opening track E.M.D. (which was the opener on that first DGQ album) is a standard of mandolin playing and starts an outstanding album. All my choices here are an invitation to listen to the entire album.

Grisman did several albums with Jerry Garcia – including Jerry Garcia/David Grisman (1991), Not For Kids Only (1993), Shady Grove (1996), So What (1998), Grateful Dawg (2001) – and picking just one song is almost impossible. So I’ll pick a few.

Arabia was first recorded by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on their eponymous 1991 album and there’s a great live version on the soundtrack to Grateful Dawg; a documentary which examines the musical partnership and their friendship. It’s a marvellous movie with lots of magnificent live performances and insightful interviews.

Also from Grateful Dawg, I nearly went for the traditional children’s song, Jenny Jenkins. From Jerry Garcia/David Grisman, I considered the superb cover of B.B. King’s The Thrill Is Gone but in the end settled on Friend Of The Devil. The Grateful Dead classic has been slowed down, and the new tempo suits the weary, pursued themes of the song. The narrator is almost obsessed with sleep and has a deeply complicated outlaw life. Grisman’s accompaniment is inspired – the mandolin almost sounds like a piano. I prefer this version to the original.

In my Toppermost on Sam Bush, I eliminated this next album, Hold On, We’re Strummin’, with the slight expectation I’d be able to include it here. A lovely cover of Jethro Burns’ ‘Cept Old Bill, in which both David and Sam are namechecked was considered. The instrumental Hold On, I’m Coming shows both men’s prowess on the instrument (and I liked the implication of the song being performed by Sam (Bush) and Dave (Grisman). However, Crusher And Hoss, the names of their primary instruments is my choice. Grisman has a 1924 Gibson Lloyd Loar F5, (‘Crusher’) and Bush’s ‘Hoss’ is a 1934 Gibson.

The Pizza Tapes was a bootleg of uncertain origin. We know that the principals, Grisman, Tony Rice and Garcia, were jamming at Grisman’s house. We know that someone ordered a pizza. But we’re not sure if the pizza guy swiped or was given these tapes. Nonetheless, they were distributed among those circles that love bootlegs, to the point where they were considered a commercial release. Man Of Constant Sorrow is one of the standouts here.

Shady Grove is one of the most beloved songs of the Dawg’s repertoire. He recorded it several times; once on The Pizza Tapes, and the one I have chosen, the title track on the 1996 album with Jerry Garcia. It’s a rare American song as it is a courting song out of the English tradition. It has been recorded and performed many times by artists on both sides of the Atlantic. For those who find the melody familiar, you might be thinking of Matty Groves from Fairport Convention’s Liege And Lief album. The Fairports borrowed and adapted the melody of Shady Grove.

Back to the David Grisman Quintet, now with Frank Vignola on guitar, Matt Eakle on flute, Jim Kerwin on bass, and George Marsh on drums and percussion. Acousticity is a tribute to the Godfather of Funk, James Brown. This live performance (at Jazz Alley in Seattle – the set was released as an album) includes a marvellous call and response between mandolin and drum. The drum copies the difficult rhythms of the mandolin solos. An acoustic band shouldn’t have so much funk. But it does.

Dawgmastism is a terrific track; cool, relaxed, chill jazz. All players shine here, and there’s a particularly nice mandolin part. The Dawg can fire, or he can be subtle. It’s another DGQ track, this time with Rick Montgomery on guitar and Joe Craven on percussion and violin

If any acoustic artist deserves a book length treatment it is Grisman. A successful producer, a multi-instrumentalist, a mandolin pioneer. It is certain that later mandolinists would not be playing it without him, and the mandolin would be relegated to a period correct instrument, played by historical reenactors and purists. Instead, it’s an instrument that lies on the edge of mainstream (think Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road or R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion) but runs the full range of music; from classical, to rock, to bebop and, of course, to country.

All of us here at Toppermost mention how difficult it can be to be restricted to 10 or so songs. With David Grisman, I chose every song I could get my hands on, and narrowed it down, and then replaced my first ten. I know I’m missing works like Nuages, the Django Reinhardt song, and many of his duo albums. But I must remember that this is an introduction, and I encourage you all to dig deeply and widely into the music of David Grisman. You will not be disappointed.



David Grisman photo 2

The David Grisman Quintet (1977)


David Grisman photo 4

The David Grisman Quintet – photo: Jay Blakesberg



David Grisman official website

David Grisman facebook

David Grisman discography

The David Grisman Quintet – band members timeline

Jerry Garcia & David Grisman discography

Musicians pay tribute to the Dawg on his 70th birthday

Stéphane Grappelli and David Grisman Quintet on The Tonight Show in 1979 (YouTube)

David Grisman biography (Apple Music)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Sam Bush, JD Crowe, Béla Fleck, Grateful Dead, New Grass Revival, Punch Brothers, Tony Rice

TopperPost #794


  1. Andrew Shields
    Jun 8, 2019

    Thanks for this great piece . What a magnificent musician he is – that clip with Tony Rice and Mark O’Connor is just brilliant. On a side note, Paul Clayton recorded fine versions of ‘Shady Grove’ and ‘Mattie (or Massey) Groves’ on his classic ‘Dulcimer Songs and Solos’ album in 1962. I included Planxty’s version of “Little Musgrave’ (on which ‘Mattie’ is based) in their Toppermost.

  2. Rob Millis
    Jul 27, 2019

    David, what a lovely piece about an all-too-often overlooked talent. Would love to see a Hot Tuna line-up with Grisman, although Barry Mitterhoff does a sterling job as it is! Will attempt to pick up my old Harmony batwing cheapo and have another bash at ‘getting serious’ about the mando after being inspired by this; I’ll dig out my Steve James tuition DVDs…

  3. John Chamberlain
    Jul 30, 2019

    Another discovery for me. Many thanks.

  4. David Lewis
    Jul 31, 2019

    Thank you all for your lovely comments. This was perhaps the hardest Toppermost I’ve done in terms of trying to narrow down the tracks, stay representative, and unravelling timelines, partnerships, records, band members, etc.
    Andrew: Have checked out the Clayton versions – sublime.
    Rob: Grisman would be incredible in Hot Tuna. You mentioned them in a comment on my article on Sam Bush, and I’ve been meaning to thank you for pointing their mandolinist out to us. But very few can touch the Dawg. Mitterhoff would be one.
    John – enjoy your journey. I’m thrilled I pointed you in the right direction.

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