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Petaluma's David Grisman gets back on road

During a music career that spans roughly half a century, internationally known mandolin player David Grisman has recorded more than 80 albums and worked with a long list of stars, including James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Jerry Garcia.

Even so, his own public persona remains relaxed and understated. As Grisman prepares for a six-month national tour and his 70th birthday (March 23), he seems at ease with himself and his place among Bay Area musical legends.

“It’s been a good run, and it ain’t over yet,” said Grisman, a familiar face in Petaluma, where he has lived since 2000.

He starts a new concert tour March 19 in Live Oak, Fla., and has dates booked throughout the country right up to an October show in Tarrytown, NY. He also continues to record his own music in a converted garage studio at his home, using the Acoustic Disc label he established in 1990 and marketing the downloads online under the name Acoustic Oasis.

Grisman still performs with his three bands - the David Grisman Sextet, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience and David Grisman’s FolkJazz Trio.

“I’m still working,” he said succinctly, leaning back in an armchair at his wife’s cozy downtown Petaluma art studio. Meanwhile Tracy Bigelow Grisman, who married the musician in 2007, worked on a painting in another corner of the room.

Grisman has been married twice before and has three grown children. In 2000, his daughter Gillian of Novato made the documentary film, “Grateful Dawg,” about her father’s long friendship with Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia. His son Monroe, named for bluegrass music pioneer Bill Monroe, lives in Fairfax and plays in the Tom Petty tribute band Petty Theft. Grisman’s son Samson is a bassist and recording session musician living in Nashville, and often performs with his father.

Grisman’s eclectic style - embracing bluegrass, folk, country, jazz and more - has won the admiration of musicians from many different backgrounds, but those who know him well also respect him as a person and a neighbor.

“David Grisman is revered around here,” said jazz drummer George Marsh of Santa Rosa, who plays in Grisman’s sextet. “I consider him a master. He has a strong, unique, compelling voice on his instrument, and he’s a family man. He’s a wonderful human being.”

Growing up in a Jewish family in New Jersey, Grisman first discovered bluegrass music from friends at Passaic High School. In the early 1960s, it was beginning to get some airplay on New York radio stations.

“Bluegrass got me into mandolin playing, but I always liked all kinds of music,” he said.

Frustrated by conventional musical categories, Grisman came up with his own - “Dawg music” - based on a nickname given to him by his friend Jerry Garcia. Grisman and Garcia met in 1964 at a concert performance by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe at Sunset Park in West Grove, Pa. Garcia had driven cross-country from Palo Alto.

“We kind of hooked up there. Jerry was on a pilgrimage east because we had the real bluegrass music,” Grisman said.

Grisman lived in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and in 1963 helped start the Even Dozen Jug Band with John Sebastian, Maria Muldaur (now D’Amato) and others. He majored in English at New York University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1966, and moved west to the Bay Area in 1969.

Grisman and Garcia remained friends until Garcia’s death in 1995. At Garcia’s invitation, he did some recording with the Grateful Dead, but Grisman doesn’t expect to attend the surviving members’ reunion and farewell concert in Chicago in July.

Riffing through his own memories in a meandering, relaxed way, Grisman looked as much like a wise man on a mountain top as a veteran musician, with his long, flowing white hair and bushy beard.

“The last time I shaved was in 1978,” he said with an easy grin.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On twitter: danarts.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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