I was blessed to witness it twice in the last couple of weeks. The most recent happened a couple days ago at a house concert in Woods Hole. The organizer of these house concerts is a man named David Isenberg who opens up his home to an absolutely incredible array of musicians. He works tirelessly to bring some of the finest jazz musicians in the world to our area (based on his connections to the New York jazz scene) but occasionally he brings in players of other genres and in this case it was an intimate show with the legendary David Grier, one of the inventors of the so-called “Newgrass” style of guitar improvisation. You may not know his name but the list of players he has collaborated with in Nashville and elsewhere is mind-blowing and his solo/duo recordings under his name are incredible, to say the least.
Sitting on a piano bench with just his amazing sounding Martin Sinker Mahogany D-18 he put forth an hour and a half of traditional bluegrass tunes - done HIS way with plenty of variations and improvisation - original songs and covers of songs by his friends, plus his take on songs like America the Beautiful. I suspect he did that one because he knows that the writer of the lyrics of that song lived and wrote the lyrics right here in Falmouth back in the 1800s. This was music-making in the purest sense: no amplification of any kind. Just a guy sitting a few feet away, playing his heart out. The audience totaled …… 12 people! Wow, just wow. He had sold out his appearance the day before. And he is a bottomless well of corny and somewhat PG rated jokes, told with a wonderful Southern drawl. I am going to appropriate a couple for use when I perform, ha!
His chops were a sight to behold and hear. Turning bluegrass standards like Shady Grove, Salt Creek, and others into something unique, you could see him dig deep into that deep recess of his mind that I referred to above. He even spoke of challenging himself to learn the bluegrass standard Soldier’s Joy…..played with only one finger! Which he did with just his index finger, and then repeated it using only his pinkie!!!! He then hit the tune in full power mode, using all his fingers and incorporating lots of “quotes” of other songs, jazz licks and so much more.
There was a time not long ago that traditional bluegrassers abhorred any variation to the standards; it was viewed then as sullying something holy. The late, great Doc Watson was mostly in that camp. Then in the 1970s people like Tony Rice (who replaced me with fiddler Marie Rhines in the late 1970s), David Grisman (who I will see in December in Boston, along with one of my hero’s, the great Jorma Kaukonen) and others kicked the door open and jazz elements began sneaking in to the bluegrass world. Everyone except a few diehards now will readily admit that “newgrass” took that music into the future.
I will never forget this performance and again, thank you David Isenberg for making this happen. It is truly a labor of love as all proceeds from the door go directly to the musicians.
The other life-affirming event took place just about every evening in the main room at the Copperline Lodge in Saratoga, Wyoming where my wife Kathy and I stayed for wonderful 10 nights. I stayed there a year ago and the owner, Dan Pont and I hit it off immediately; any place that has a couple guitars and a banjo hanging on the wall for anyone to play is just fine with me! If you are ever visiting that beautiful part of Wyoming, stay at the Copperline! www.copperlinelodge.com
Dan and I played just about every song we could think of. Dan is a very good guitarist and a great singer. We are both into James Taylor so many of his songs were played, including “Copperline” of course. After one of the nightly jam sessions one of the guests approached me to say how much she had loved the music the night before. She said: “I know what I was hearing was coming from the heart.” She also said many other complimentary things and all I could do was smile and thank her profusely. It was an ego boost, I must admit, even though I try very hard for ego not to be a detrimental aspect of my playing. It was so nice to hear and she had seen that part of my musical brain I also mentioned above.
One night a lady who was listening requested “Sweet Caroline,” which is one of my least favorite songs for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it is played during the seventh inning stretch at every Red Sox home game. But, I reminded myself that I am there but for the grace of the audience so I brought it up on my phone and dove it. It was not exactly a stellar rendition, and Kathy recorded part if it just to remind me in the future that yes, I did play that song at least once in my life (!). But the lady liked it so that’s all that really matters. I guess ;~)
During David Grier’s performance last Sunday I could see him massaging his picking hand, stretching and twisting his shoulder and arm on his fretting side. He was in obvious pain for the length of the concert but if I hadn’t witnessed that I would never know it. David is 60 years old, playing a very demanding style of music but he was determined to not let his physical issues slow him down. As I deal with March of Time from a physical standpoint I will always remember what I saw and do my best to compensate for the inevitable physical challenges that become more obvious every day. I want to….and I must. Because touching that feeling deep in my brain is something I will always want to do.
Peace & good music,