Two bluegrass legends keep the ties that bind strong for a half century.

By Steve Houk

You could almost call it a “crossroads” moment.

At one such intersection in a field in Virginia, three musicians would stand together, their soon-to-be world class careers in different stages of evolution, but already connected in profound ways. And they would carry those relationships close to their hearts for the rest of their lives. The stars were aligning.

“I played a Bill Monroe show in Warrenton, Virginia in the mid-60’s, a bluegrass festival, and David came in, we had met before,” Del McCoury told me, recalling an early encounter with fellow bluegrass legend David Grisman. “I was just getting ready to leave cuz’ I had to go to another festival somewhere the next day. David said, ‘Hey I want you to meet my new banjo player before you leave,’ it was a real black headed guy, his name…was Jerry Garcia. He was playing banjo with David at this time, this was still in the 60’s. I didn’t see Garcia for a long time after that, but I’ve known David that long.”

Grisman and Garcia, who first met at a Bill Monroe show a few years prior to that encounter, went on to become close friends and collaborators right up until Garcia’s death in 1995.

“I think about Jerry every day and sometimes even dream about him. We had a very close musical sympatico in that our musical tastes were both diverse and similar. Our life experiences were also similar in that we both lost, at very young ages, our fathers who were both professional musicians. We also shared many other similar experiences, like taking our (then) five-year old daughters to see Pinocchio, or meeting as we did at a Monroe show. He also was a completely unique individual who was a very kind person.”

McCoury would also talk to Garcia about bluegrass music through the years, but it’s actually McCoury and Grisman’s relationship that would last for decades. And now in their seventies, they’re on the road with a tour dubbed “Del and Dawg”, just the two of them, playing their favorite music.

This is a friendship that started early. In his teens, Grisman would figure out that bluegrass was his thing by watching McCoury play with Monroe, beginning a half a century long relationship that is still going strong.

“I met David when he was just a kid, when I was working for Bill Monroe in ’63,” McCoury, 76, told me. “He came to shows, he said, ‘I came to the first show that you played with Bill Monroe’ and I was playing banjo actually then. So that’s when I got to know David. He and my brother Jerry played in the same band, Jerry was bass player, and David was mandolin. One day in ’65 or ’66, my brother said, ‘David wants me and you to go with him to Troy NY and play a show.’ I said OK, I’m not doin’ nothin’, so we went up to Troy NY and played this college up there. Years later (in 1980) David called me up one day and said, ‘You know what, I got a tape of that show we did up in Troy, I think I can clean that tape up and put it out on a record.’ So he did, he called it ‘Early Dawg.’ ”

“We’ve known each other for many many years,” Grisman, 70, recalled. “We’ve had many musical collaborations going all the way back to 1966 when we played our first show together. It’s always very special for me in many ways, especially the challenge of singing with him. Del is a unique musical force to be reckoned with.”

Their plan for this tour is to primarily dig deep, to harken back and grab the gems, to play the music that they feel best represents them and their mutual interests.

“What we thought we’d do is go back and get some of the really old songs from years ago,” McCoury said. “We only have guitar and mandolin, and I just play rhythm, he plays all the lead and we sing duets together. We tell folks a little history about the music from back then, they like to hear all those things, you know, that we all went through.”

Both men are traditional players at heart, but know full well that collaboration with and the success of young bluegrass musicians can only help get bluegrass out to more people.

“It’s great to hear and meet and play with some of the fabulous younger players that we have today,” Grisman said optimistically, yet with a caveat. “My son Sam is one of them, I’ve gotten to meet so many talented acoustic musicians through him. Understanding that tradition is not static, that it is continuously developing and evolving, makes it easier for me not to be too judgemental. Having said that, there are some who are trying a bit too hard to reinvent the ‘wheel’ so to speak. I keep going back to what Duke Ellington said — ‘There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.’  I prefer the good variety.”

“I’m really glad that folks take it up, young people, because it’s a great art form, bluegrass is,” McCoury continued. “They see a challenge in trying to play a mandolin or a violin or fiddle or a guitar or bass or whatever it is, you know. It’s a challenge to learn and get good at playing an acoustic instrument. And bluegrass is a big part of that. Those guys in Phish, they recorded a song I wrote, they got it off an album I put out years ago, and that’s how we got acquainted. I played their festival, Trey really knows his business. Youth is a part of everything. You have to realize that there are young people coming along and they gotta hear things they like, and it may not be hard core bluegrass either, you know.”

Both Grisman and McCoury clearly realize the importance of appreciating the past while looking towards the future. And it’s their very special collaboration, one that stretches back decades, that reinforces the ties that bind.

“All music is kin, it’s all related to somewhere, you know,” McCoury said. “Way back to when we don’t even realize. Everybody hears somebody when they’re young.”

Adds Grisman with a nod to his mentor, “And what could be better than hanging out and playing with Del?”

Del McCoury and David Grisman perform Sunday November 15th at The Hamilton, 600 14th Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.


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