Some of the best music Jerry Garcia made in the 1990s came out of acoustic sessions at mandolin maestro David Grisman’s Marin County recording studio, Dawg Music. During Jerry’s lifetime, there were the warm and wonderful Jerry Garcia/David Grisman and Not for Kids Only; then several fine posthumous releases, including Shady Grove, So What, Been All Around This World and The Pizza Tapes.
That last one, featuring Garcia, Grisman and the great guitarist Tony Rice—compiled from two evenings at Grisman’s Studio in February 1993—has always been a particular favorite of mine. The playing is exquisite, as you’d expect, but much the disc’s appeal also comes from the between-songs banter—the cheery camaraderie (and loopy moments) of three guys getting off on playing together. (The Pizza Tapes name comes from the theory that
The three downloads offer around 170 minutes of music and studio chatter, including 16 unreleased warm-up and alternate takes of most of the songs on the original Pizza Tapes disc, all presented in the order in which they occurred. This is real fly-on-the-wall stuff—it feels like you’re sitting right there in Grisman’s studio with them! The three “volumes” are available as either MP3 or FLAC—I bought the latter and put them on three CDs, which sounds fantastic. (Grisman says the FLAC has been outselling the MP3s—no surprise given the discerning taste in audio of so many Dead Heads!)
Acoustic Oasis has much more to offer than just The Pizza Tapes, of course. Grisman has dipped into his vaults for a number of other cool digital downloads, including several out-of-print projects (such as the lovely Grisman-Daniel Kobialka outing called Common Chord, which both Garcia and his daughter Heather appear on); more complete sessions, such as Grappelli Grisman: The First Sessions; historical releases like Svend Asmussen: Swing Violin Masterpieces (1935-50) and Giovanni Giovale: Italian Mandolin and Banjo Classics; new projects, such as Frank ’N’ Dawg: Melody Monsters(a collaboration between Grisman and guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola); and various live releases by Grisman’s groups through the years. There’s plenty to come, too, including the complete Grisman-Rice Tone Poems sessions, a 1979 live show by one of Grisman’s great Quintets, and lots more. The “Living Room” section of Acoustic Oasis has an ever-changing selection of tunes and videos to be sampled, as well. So, check it out!
At the end of April I chatted on the phone with David Grisman from his Sonoma County home/headquarters, hoping to get a few nuggets about the “Extra Large” Pizza Tapes release and his new online ventures.* * *
How did you decide to suddenly “go deep” on this Pizza Tapes project? I know I speak for a lot of Dead Heads when I say it was already one of the cooler projects Jerry was involved with, and to get all this extra stuff is real treat!
Thanks. Well, it wasn’t really “suddenly.” It’s been in the works for at least five years. But I guess we needed to have this Acoustic Oasis website up and going to make it possible.
Downloads are definitely the way to go...
That’s right. About five or six years ago I read a book called The Future of Music [by David Kusek] which predicted the demise of the physical CD and the advent of the Internet as a major medium for music, and it kind of resonated with me, and I wrote this letter to everyone in the company—all three of us!—which was a manifesto in which I made the analogy of the record business as we know it being like the Titanic: It’s going down and we need to orchestrate a transfer to the life boats. And the more I thought about it, I realized I have a huge repository of material and many things that were unfeasible to put out as a CD. And now, through downloads, I could be free to do that. My job would be the same, in terms of putting together the products, but once that happened we wouldn’t have to take the risk and have the expense of manufacturing a lot of them… or anyof them! The more I thought about the idea of a product you didn’t have to manufacture, it really sounded like a good idea. Plus it was a means to use all this material I’ve been sitting on for a number of years.
So it started with this notion of a website and the name Acoustic Oasis, but it was a big job to figure out what this should be and I knew I didn’t want to just launch a website with one or two things. I had to have enough things to make it appealing and I thought a lot about what was involved with making a good website, and one element is you had to keep having new stuff to put on there, so I knew I had to get a lot of things together, and also hold a lot of them back, as well, so we’d be able to keep things going.
The site is still a brand-new thing for us. It only went up—oddly enough—on April Fool’s Day. I’ve been trying to launch it for about two years, but I always tend to bite off more than I can chew, or think I can do more faster or better or whatever. For example, the original Old in the Way album was recorded on October 8, 1973 [at the Boarding House in SF], and as it was released originally it was ten songs, but there were 28 songs played that night, so I thought one good thing would be to re-construct the whole show, which I did. I wanted to launch that on October 8, 2008, which was 35 years, but that didn’t happen. [Laughs] So it’s taken us while to get to these things.
Where does that stand now?
I reconstructed both Boarding House shows, and they’re ready to go with graphics, so those are two of the things that are in the pipeline. But we kept refining it and changing things and working on things. It’s still a large task to put these things together, even without the manufacturing end to deal with. That was also true of the new Pizza Tapes—three CDs worth.
Concurrently with this I’ve been transferring all my archives to the digital domain just to preserve them.
Hard disk. I wrestled with that for a long time. I have this Alesis HD24 [hard disk recorder] and it sounded pretty good. The analog transferring to the digital is a little different than just recording digital. I put it off for a long time thinking, “Well, I have to wait until I have the world’s greatest system.” Finally I decided my mutli-track machine, which came out of the Arch Street Studio [the Berkeley], which I’ve used for most of my projects the last 30 years—both in my own studio and before that—has been kind of on its last legs for a long time and I stopped using it for new projects and just saved it to transfer things. At this point though I probably have 85 percent of my [multi-track] archives transferred. But there’s also cassettes and DAT tapes… Fortunately, for all the sessions we’ve done at my studio, we usually ran a backup DAT tape which has everything—all the talking and things between takes.
So even if the two-inch [tape] wasn’t going, the DAT was.
Right. So when I made the original Pizza Tapes, it was a dilemma of what to include on that.
How much is there?
Well, it was two evenings worth of recordings, and what we’ve released now is pretty much it, for what I thought was musically acceptable and also interesting.
What made it the logical choice to kick off the download series, as opposed to say, the first Garcia-Grisman album or whatever?
The fact that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It was a project that I originally never even thought to release—or even put together. It was more like a jam session. I’m sure you know the story: somehow a cassette of it got out into the world, and one day WBAI [in New York] played 90 minutes of it. I got kind of upset about that because unlike a live gig, where people have a way to record it, and which I’ve usually been into, this was from my studio and really not designed for public consumption.
For the next several years, it became increasingly popular as a bootleg—there were several different versions going around. And Rob Bleetstein, who became our publicist, kept telling me, “You need to release this!” and finally brought me a copy of a bootleg version and it sounded terrible—the fidelity was so bad, even though it had been so well-recorded originally. So I said, “OK, well what do I release?” because I couldn’t make one 90-minute CD. Do I put more on and make it a double-CD, or make it shorter? So I decided to use the best cuts of every song and I found one or two songs where the tape ran off but I was able to reconstruct it from the DAT. And there was also a song that wasn’t on the bootleg. I wanted to make it something people didn’t already have and with better fidelity.
It became a very successful thing, because of the informality of it and because of all the rapping. You don’t usually think to put that kind of stuff on a record. Maybe a comment hear or there, some cute little thing, but not that much of it. But since it “escaped” in that form, I went with that idea. So the new [Extra Large edition] releases have more takes and more of the between songs stuff and they really give a feeling of what it was like in the studio with the three of us.
Freed from the shackles of having to manufacture a three-CD set, I realized that in this new download world, you can put out anything: You can put out four hours or you can put out ten minutes. In this case, I know that people really love this stuff, and I thought about how I would feel as a fan if I could have heard what went on at a session with Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. Or Django and Stephane [Grappelli]. Or any of the people I dig. So I went with that.
There are some great nuggets in there. I love the version of “Summertime” that was not released, which has a different jam in front of it, obviously, but also has Jerry going over some of the changes with you and Tony, and sort of singing along quietly with it. It’s so charming and intimate.
That’s right. It shows exactly how a lot of that record went down. And it is kind of “charming.” It’s real.
And we also get to hear some discussion of why Tony is wearing a towel on his head for one of the photos on the original Pizza Tapes package!
[Laughs] Tony is really something. When he got really into it, he put this towel on his head. We have no idea why. He’s a strange bird. It was understandable at the time. It was one of those unique events.
In terms of the actual songs that were played in these sessions, it seems like a lot of it just off-the-cuff, “How about so-and-so?” Jerry announces he’s never played a note of “House of the Rising Sun” before.
Right, and it was Tony Rice’s wife who said, “Hey, how about ‘Amazing Grace’?” I don’t think he had ever sung that one either.
But again, it wasn’t a session really. Tony and I were working on Tone Poems and Jerry came over to hang out. If we had been making this record at Fantasy Studios [in Berkeley] with a producer, Jerry might’ve come over, because I asked him, but he probably would’ve sat there and watched; maybe somebody would have said, “You want to play on a tune?” But because it was at my place and we didn’t have a fixed agenda, we converted it into a jam session for a couple of nights and went with it.
Do you recall, which guitars Jerry was playing? They’re not specified in the liner notes of The Pizza Tapes, and you are usually so meticulous about that sort of documentation.
It was several, because there were all these guitars around for Tone Poems. I should have taken comprehensive notes on all this stuff, but I didn’t. I know he talks about this 1939 [Gibson] Super 400—I think he used that on some of it. And I think there was an original 1941 [Martin] D-45 we used on the Tone Poems.
People are always asking me what’s going on with any releases of live material of you and Jerry together. What can we tell ’em?
It’s up to the Estate, really. I’d love to see a lot of that stuff come out, of course. I’m open to putting anything out.
Besides our actual live shows, I had a few things in mind: [the expanded] Old & in the Way, The Pizza Tapes, and I have an hour-long video of Jerry and me rehearsing together that’s really very cool. You’ve seen the Grateful Dawg movie [directed by Grisman’s daughter Gillian]?
We didn’t really even think about it, because the camera was quite a ways away, and when Gillian went to make her movie there was only a few minutes of stuff to work from. Then, about two weeks after she finished the movie, Dave Dennison walks in with this videotape and it’s the whole thing, so Gillian edited into a really cool one-hour (video). It shows us actually thinking of and working out “Shady Grove,” and a bunch of other stuff. And [his son] Sam is walking around in his diapers; its very cool.
Another thing I’d like to get out somehow is I have Ralph Stanley and Jerry singing “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Really? What’s that from?
Well, it’s a long story. I have a friend named John Orleman, who is a friend of Ralph Stanley’s, and he came to me with the idea of getting Jerry and Ralph Stanley together. I said, “Great, You get Ralph, I’ll get Jerry.” OK. So we set a date almost a year in advance. Now, John Orleman is also friends with the Nashville Bluegrass Band and said that it would be great if Alan O’Bryant—who’s the banjo player for Nashville Bluegrass and a great singer and guitarist and a friend of mine—could be part of it, and I said, “Hey, no problem.”
So we planned this thing for a particular day—this was sometime in ’94, I think. Jerry was into it, and it was all set up, and then less than a week before the session, Craig [Miller, Grisman’s manager] gets a call from the guy who owns Ralph Stanley’s record company and says, “We want to send our own engineer there”—which was his son—“and record a few songs for one of Ralph’s albums.” I said, “That’s fine. I’m sure Jerry would be happy to do that, but this is our session and we don’t need your engineer.” So the guy got heavy and wouldn’t let Ralph do it!
We actually did a session with Alan O’ Bryant, Jerry, [bassist] Jim Kerwin and myself—Jerry played banjo; the only bluegrass banjo session he did in those last years. We cut a few tunes and after Jerry left, I cut a bunch of things with Alan O’Bryant which were really good. But no Ralph.
Well, within a year, Jerry had passed away, and some time after that—probably the next year—Ralph Stanley was playing at the Sweetwater [club in Mill Valley, Marin County] and I went down to hear him. I’m just in the audience and a guy comes up to me at the intermission and introduces himself as Ralph’s agent and tells me Ralph wants to talk to me. So I go backstage and Ralph tells me he really felt bad about not having done the session with Jerry. Of course my little mind is going, and I say, “You know, I’ve got these tapes of Jerry that we did and we could have you singing with Jerry.” And he says, “Well, I’m out of this contract in about three months.” But I knew he was going to be in the area for a few days, so I said, “No one has to know when this got done.” So a day and $1,500 later, Ralph was in my studio and I found a session with just Jerry and me on two songs—“Little Glass of Wine” and “Man of Constant Sorrow,” both Stanley Brothers songs. I had three takes of each and I had three empty tracks on each tape, so I ran him through every take three times, so I actually had nine possibilities for every word in the song. I didn’t really have any particular purpose for it, but it was worth it to me to just do it.
A couple of years later I was mastering a record with Paul Stubblebine and it was right around the time [the Coen Brothers’ film] O Brother, Where Art Thou came out, and Paul was talking about it and I said, “You know, I’ve got a tape of Jerry Garcia and Ralph Stanley and Jerry Garcia doing ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ and its almost never done as a duet. And Paul said, “Well, now’s the time to get that out!” And I thought, in what context could I do that?” So I dreamed up this whole album that this could be a part of, which turned out to be a CD called Life of Sorrow [released in 2003], because I had a lot of random things from sessions I would do, and so many of these folk and bluegrass tunes are about unrequited love and tragedy. I thought, “Yeah, this could be a project!” [Laughs] Actually, “Life of Sorrow” is another Stanley Brothers tune I had in the can from another unreleased project.
So I started putting together this whole thing and spent a lot of time working on the tape that had Jerry and me on it. I had to put the vocals together; going through all the takes, and making a mock-up of what I thought was the best version.
So there’s a lot of editing?
Oh, yeah! [Laughs] Then I decided to overdub stuff and make it like a bluegrass band. So I put a bass on it, I put [fiddler] Vassar Clements on it, I put [guitarist] Herb Pedersen on it; all kinds of stuff. I had put the rest of the album together with material from the McCourys and John Hartford and Mac Wiseman and Ralph Stanley and a variety of players. I had the whole record together, and Craig [Miller] was making deals with everyone but then… nothing from the Garcia Estate. They—and by that I mean certain lawyers—wouldn’t even communicate with us. Finally it became clear that [getting permission from the Garcia estate] wasn’t going to happen.
So, what happened finally is—even though the whole reason I made this whole album was to have Jerry and Ralph on there together!—I took [that song] off, thought about it a couple of days and finally said, “OK, I can sing Jerry’s part!” So I took off everything, including myself, and the first thing I did was put on a new mandolin. That took me one take. The it took me two days to put my vocal on to match Ralph’s. [Laughs] But it actually worked out pretty well. I ended up replacing everything on the track.
But I could still put together the thing with Jerry, because it would be totally different. I haven’t done anything with it yet because the Estate has been such a problem.
Well, hopefully it won’t remain “the one that got away” too much longer. I wanted to ask you about Old & in the Way. I know Owsley has a bunch of live tapes of the band, beside the Boarding House shows, stored somewhere…
I actually have his tapes. I also have tapes he didn’t record that are master tapes of other gigs. I also have four songs from a radio show that’s just Pete Rowan, myself and Jerry. I think it might be the first thing we ever did. Then there was a thing we recorded at the Record Plant with Richard Greene on fiddle and that’s all really good. So there’s a lot of stuff out there. How and when it will all come out is hard to say. I’ve got the stuff and if I don’t use it, nobody will.
You know, I was talking earlier about the book The Future of Music. The other book that I read is called The Long Tail[by Chris Anderson]
Yeah, I’ve read that and I actually interviewed Chris Anderson for Mix. That was really interesting, but a bit depressing.
Not to me. I think it’s encouraging.
It’s just such a different paradigm. For anyone who grew up in the traditional music industry it’s a little horrifying—the notion that everything is going to be free or should be free. It’s tough on musicians and songwriters.
Oh, I didn’t take that away from it. Yeah, we’re struggling for survival here, because let’s face it, nobody really needs music to survive. I mean, they do — but there’s so much of it out there. And unlike food, when you consume it, it doesn’t go away, so today there’s more music than there was yesterday, let alone 20 years ago. And people can get it for free all over the place.
What I take away from that is that a) I’m sitting on stuff that nobody can possibly have, and b) if I make it available in an attractive form and use the same attention to detail as I’ve always done and supply it with attractive graphics and make it affordable, people might buy it. So this is another survival tactic. When I started out in music there were 78s. The medium will always change, but the music is what’s most important. If I’m delivering music I have to be current.
I think the download world is a great thing from many aspects. For one thing, it’s very green—nothing gets manufactured. I’m selling air!*  * *
Besides acousticoasis.com, you can also find plenty of fine music at Grisman’s other site, acousticdisc.com.