Interview: Del and Dawg Return to RPI to Celebrate 50 Years of Music

The roots of bluegrass travel from Appalachia through Kentucky in the 1940s, but the origin of one of the most famous duos in bluegrass history is found in New York. On Saturday, December 10, Del McCoury and David Grisman, better known as Del and Dawg will reunite to celebrate 50 years of music. They’ll do so on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, just as they did that first time back in 1966. Del and David will be joined on this very special evening at EMPAC by Jerry McCoury and Chris Warner.david-grisman-solo-promo

Mandolinist David ‘Dawg’ Grisman, a nickname coined by Jerry Garcia, has combined bluegrass and jazz throughout a career of acoustic prowess. Grisman studied English at NYU and lived in Greenwich Village where the folk scene proliferated in the early 1960s. David learned to play mandolin in a style befitting the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe. One of Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, McCoury switched from banjo to guitar, making the pairing with Grisman have a deeper connection in the music.

Grisman spoke to NYS Music from his Northern California home, discussing the origins of the famed duo, bluegrass today and the influence of Jerry Garcia on his mandolin playing.

Pete Mason: The performance at RPI on December 10th is the 50th anniversary of your first show with Del. How does it feel to bring your history together full circle? Any memories of that show?

David Grisman: It feels just great to have maintained such a fruitful musical and personal relationship for this long. I still remember the excitement and energy of that first gig together, which was captured on tape and released in part on my album, Early Dawg. I was offered the princely sum of $200 to put a bluegrass band together and was able to obtain the services of Del and his bass-playing brother Jerry, with whom I played in Red Allen’s band. My good friend and banjo whiz, the late Winnie Winston, completed that first ensemble. Later that year (1966) at the 2nd Bluegrass Festival in Fincastle, Virginia, Del asked me to play a set with him. That band included Chris Warner on banjo. Del and I have invited Jerry McCoury and Chris Warner to join us for the second half of this show for a special Bluegrass 50th year reunion set. We’re calling the band The Bluegrass Survivors! We’ll also be playing the next night at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va.

PM: How was bluegrass received in the mid-1960s in New York?

DG: Bluegrass was always exciting for New York audiences, then and now. Of course, now there’s a wider audience. But it always was very special for me, particularly when people like Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Israel G. Young started promoting concerts with bands like Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys and the Stanley Brothers.

PM: What are some of the highlights of the last 50 years of playing music with Del?

DG: Playing with Del is always special, but one highlight was the tour we did in 1989 as the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience where Del and his band (featuring his sons Ronnie and Rob and two fiddle players) joined me for a two-week tour to promote my LP, Home is Where the Heart Is. Another high point was producing the Mandolin Extravaganza project with Ronnie McCoury, which featured eight bluegrass mandolin masters in various combinations, all backed by Del’s masterful rhythm guitar.

PM: What is the first instance where you knew there was a musical chemistry between you?

DG: I reckon it was the first note we ever played — long ago.

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PM: How did playing with Jerry Garcia influence your mandolin playing?

DG: Playing with Jerry opened me up to exploring a lot of possibilities that existed within our many common musical sensibilities. We had both drunk from the same musical well for many years and playing together later in our careers was a great musical and personal experience for me.

PM: You have seen 50 years of bluegrass music, from the beginning of the familiar genre. How have you observed its evolution?

DG: Well to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t there at the beginning which Del & I both agree occurred when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1946 (which already included Lester Flatt and Chubby Wise). I didn’t discover bluegrass music until 1960, but fortunately the original architects of the music were still in their prime and playing. I did get to play with many of them, including Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Red Smiley, Mac Wiseman and Red Allen, who gave me my first “hard-core” bluegrass job. I’m currently working on a project with one of my heroes, the great mandolin master, Jesse McReynolds. Bluegrass has of course “evolved”, taking on many influences that Bill Monroe probably wouldn’t have approved of. In a way it’s become diluted and in my opinion, commercialized by the music business, as have many other genres. I still like the more traditional bands like Del’s. Having said that, I think there are many young musicians who are playing incredible music these days, from Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers to Sierra Hull. I just wouldn’t call it bluegrass. That’s why I called my own music Dawg because I don’t feel it is bluegrass as defined by the creators of that genre.

PM: What is it like to have not only a stage relationship with Del, but to also have sons Monroe Grisman and Ronnie McCoury born a month apart?

DG: Our children are a great source of inspiration. Monroe Grisman is a wonderful musician and singer, but was always in the rock world. He now plays in a very popular band in Marin County, California — Petty Theft. My daughter Gillian (head of production for George Lucas’ Edutopia project) is also musical and even played a gig with John Sebastian’s jug band on washboard bass! My son Samson is a great bass player who currently plays with Lee Ann Womack and the Bryan Sutton Band, as well as my own Bluegrass Experience. My stepson, John R., has been developing into a fine mandolinist and my wife Tracy has subbed for Sam on bass and also plays guitar and fiddle. Of course Del’s sons Ronnie and Rob are fantastic award winning bluegrass musicians and will certainly carry on the McCoury legacy. I know that Del and I are both proud dads and we’ve talked about doing a father & son project someday.

Tickets for Saturday’s 8pm show are available through EMPAC.