Father Plays Best
There is one version of the bluegrass classic Pig in a Pen that Ive listened to in obsessive fits over two decades, one version that stands above all the others, and for one simple, non-connoisseurlike reason: It makes me laugh. The Stanley Brothers and Ricky Skaggs did the tune with more authenticity to its lines and virtuoso precision to their picking; Rollin in the Hay could play it much faster. But only Old and in the Ways rendition, recorded live in early October 1973, gives me the urgent desire to pick up something with strings and play. In Vassar Clements easy fiddle and David Grismans rollicking mandolin, in Jerry Garcias lazy tenor and backup voices that virtually shout out the near-nonsense lyrics, I hear what I envy: a bunch of musicians having a really, really fine time. Everybody wanted to play, Clements later told Grismans daughter, Gillian, in an interview for her newly released documentary, Grateful Dawg. When you said, Lets rehearse, itd be, Lets go!
I suspect this happiness in each others musical company emanated from Old and in the Ways central duo, Garcia and Grisman, and it translates beautifully to the screen in Grateful Dawg -- the story, says Gillian, of her fathers musical friendship with the reluctantly mythic Grateful Dead guitarist. Half-titled for the nickname Garcia gave Grisman back in the early 70s, when the two played together regularly before they stopped speaking for 13 years, the movie evolved from footage Gillian and Justin Kreutzmann (son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill) shot in the early 90s, while Grisman and Garcia were working on the three records they made together in the years between their late-80s rapprochement and Garcias death in 1995. Gillian meant to turn her videotapes into a concert film for DVD, But once I took out the footage, I realized this wasnt going to be a concert film, she says. We shot this spontaneously, backstage, at home, in the audience. We werent professional cameramen. We were keeping ourselves entertained. In one scene, Garcia walks out of the frame and absentmindedly wanders back, picks up his guitar and starts to play, mumbling to himself all the way.
Thats my favorite scene in the film, says David Grisman. The camera was on a bookshelf.
Gillian Grisman looks much like her father -- huge eyes, thick cascades of dark hair, more mesomorphic than willowy -- but she evinces peace with the establishment. She is poised, confident and perfectly coiffed in plaid pants and a Western-cut vest. And while David, his curly gray ringlets tied in a ponytail, gazes out the window distractedly and answers questions only when coaxed, his daughter looks you in the eye and informs you whats true. Her drive and directness have served her well. Sony Pictures Classics picked up a rough cut of her documentary after she screened it in San Francisco and gave backing to turn the Hi-8 video into a 35mm feature film, organized around 10 songs, played in their entirety. In this latter stage of the process, she also managed to track down the owner of Sunset Park, the country-music hall in Westgrove, Pennsylvania, where her father and Garcia first met in summer 1965, picking in the parking lot during half-hour intermissions between Bill Monroes sets.
We had the sensibilities of 60s hippies, says David, but we played with real bluegrass musicians. Back then, Monroes bluegrass phenomenon was luring young men from the city disillusioned with rock & roll, which had evaporated in about 1960, he says, when Elvis got drafted, Chuck Berry went to jail, and Buddy Holly died. People like Jerry and I went off to look for guys like Clarence Ashley and Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. You could find them in the phone book.
It was clear what Garcia got from Grisman when the two reconnected in the early 90s. Under the influence of Grismans disciplined style and keen ear, Garcia seemed to listen better, pick better, sing with commitment. Together the two unearthed deeply American music, from traditional folk songs to Irving Berlin, and turned them into polished heirlooms. What was less obvious was what Grisman got from Garcia. At the mere mention of Garcias name, however, both Grismans jump to his defense. I was aware in making this film that I had access and perspective on a Jerry Garcia people didnt know, she says. I deliberately steered away from the icon status and battles with drugs. The Jerry that I knew was so much more.
His fame was an albatross, and he couldnt say no to anyone, says David. But he was a sleeping tiger. He rose to the occasion when he played with me. He had a broader knowledge of music than I did. We just dug each other. And we dug the music.
I got a lot out of Jerry, he concludes. I mean, I wouldnt be sitting here talking to you today if this was about me and Joe Schwartz.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.