Classic Americana Albums: The David Grisman Quintet “Hot Dawg”

Mandolin virtuoso David Grisman is one of the architects of what was called new acoustic music over forty years ago with his Dawg Music which was a successful blend of bluegrass, jazz, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Club de France swing jazz, folk, classical, and klezmer, and ‘Hot Dawg’ is the best representation of Dawg Music on record. Grisman grew up in New Jersey and played music in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square at the weekend. He began a lifelong friendship with Jerry Garcia through both of them travelling America to watch bluegrass artists.  He joined the jug band craze forming The Even Dozen Jug Band with Maria D’Amato before she married Geoff Muldaur and pre-Lovin’ Spoonful John Sebastian. Catching the psychedelic wave he formed Earth Opera with Peter Rowan, before moving to California. In California, he played mandolin on the Grateful Dead’s ‘Americana Beauty’, before reuniting with Rowan in Muleskinner with Clarence While, John Kahn, Richard Greene, Bill Keith, and John Guerin, before forming Old And In The Way with Garcia, Rowan, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn. It was Jerry Garcia who nick-named him Dawg which became the brand name for his new music.

Though Dawg Music evolved over a period of years, its first clear manifestation was 1977’s ‘The David Grisman Quintet’ on which the musicians soloed like jazz musicians on tunes that mixed bluegrass, country, classical, and Jazz, and brought a new sound to musicians and listeners alike. David Grisman was joined by Tony Rice on guitar, and Rice was already a bluegrass innovator bringing the guitar to the forefront as a lead instrument following Clarence White’s innovations in the Kentucky Colonels. Joining Grisman and Rice were musicians who would become leading lights in acoustic music including Todd Philips on mandolin, Darol Anger on fiddle and mandolin, and Bill Amatneek on bass.  The Quintet’s debut album was so successful that it helped secure a five-album deal with Warner Bros., which was unheard of at the time for an acoustic music act.

The first album released under the new deal was 1978’s ‘Hot Dawg’ and it built on the achievements of 1977’s debut album. This time Todd Phillips switched to bass on two tracks with Mike Marshall joining on second mandolin. The quartet was augmented by jazz bassist Eddie Gomez, original bassist Bill Amatneek, and jazz and session bassist Buell Neidlinger. Grisman’s musical hero Stephane Grappelli joined the Quintet on two tracks. If you ask fans of the quintet which is their favourite album the majority would pick ‘Hot Dawg’, and this is because the songwriting and performances are uniformally excellent. The album kicks off with Grisman’s ‘Dawgs Bull’ which was originally written for a possible soda advert, and while the Quintet didn’t get the job, Grisman did gain a tune that has featured regularly in his repertoire over the years. The next tune is Tony Rice’s ‘Devlin’ which featured in his own repertoire and with his own Tony Rice Unit. The Reinhardt and Grappelli standard from 1937, ‘Minor Swing’ is next.  ‘Dawgology’ is a co-write between Grisman and innovative fiddler Richard Greene who played with Grisman in the early and mid- ‘70s. The Tony rice staple ‘Neon Tetra’ is next, and for anyone interested, it is named after a species of tropical fish. The album closes with three Grisman compositions, ‘Janice’, ‘Dawg-Ola’, and ’16..16’, featuring bassists Bill Amatneek, Buell Neidlinger, and Eddie Gomez, that maintain the standard of ensemble and solo playing.

David Grisman has maintained his career mixing Dawg Music and more traditional bluegrass music, and a series of duets with Jerry Garcia in the 1990s that are some of Garcia’s best studio recordings. He founded Acoustic Disc in 1990 and established a home studio designed for recording acoustic music which helped the ongoing development of his exploration of acoustic music. Despite Grisman having recorded over 60 records, ‘Hot Dawg’ is the best single example of David Grisman’s music. Also, it is a key album in Tony Rice’s catalogue, and pointed a way to his own Spacegrass Music he played with the Tony Rice Unit which featured a similar mix of styles and showed his affinity with jazz music. The album also gave a career boost to the other members of the Quintet. Todd Phillips established himself as one of the top acoustic music bassists playing with everyone from Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Taj Mahal to Del McCoury, J. D. Crowe and Ricky Skaggs. Darol Anger and Mike Marshall subsequently frequently collaborated together and established individual reputations as leading musicians on the violin and mandolin respectively, adding to the development of new acoustic music along the way. While it is a classic recording, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also still an enjoyable great listen to anyone who likes superbly played music with musicians at the top of the game at the moment something new was developing.

About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Jeremy Courtnadge

Nice article. Thanks. It’s well worth a visit to the ‘Acoustic Disc’ site to appreciate the scope of David Grisman’s work, and maybe buy a few downloads. Darol Anger, Mike Marshall and Todd Phillips played together in Psychograss with Tony Trischka and David Grier. They made some nice albums. The influence of the original quintet continues to spread to current virtuosos like Brittany Haas and Alex Hargreaves.