Dawg style

David Grisman does business his own way

What is “Dawg music”? Few artists can claim an entire genre of music named after them, but David “Dawg” Grisman is so well identified by his unique style, it’s only fitting to call his blend of bluegrass, country, folk and jazz — with tidbits of world music thrown in to create something completely new — Dawg music.
Grisman’s history in the music business is as unique as his sound. As an active performer and producer for nearly 40 years, Grisman has had enough experience in all areas of the industry to know how he wants things to work. “I learned the game, decided it was bad, and reinvented it according to me,” he says. With his own label, Acoustic Disc, which releases Grisman’s recordings as well as CDs by an eclectic array of top-notch musicians, Grisman says, “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want.”
Grisman is obviously doing something right, with Acoustic Disc considered one of the most efficient and productive cottage industries in contemporary music. “It’s very rewarding,” he says. “We have been in business for over 10 years, and it’s a success. I don’t really want it to get any bigger.”
Grisman started his career playing mandolin in 1963 with the Even Dozen Jug Band, and since then has shared the stage with many of the most important acoustic musicians of the last 40 years. In 1972, he performed with the legendary Muleskinner, which also featured Peter Rowan, Richard Greene and the late Clarence White. Old and in the Way, a supergroup of sorts that signified the first collaboration between Grisman and Jerry Garcia, emerged in 1973. The two men formed a musical bond that eventually laid the foundation of what was to become the financial base of Acoustic Disc Records. “Working with Jerry was beyond enjoyment,” Grisman says. “The classic stuff was his niche. I was never a Grateful Dead fan, but what they did early on was a very unique approach to rock music. They blended a lot of things together.”
Grisman’s daughter Gillian has created a film, Grateful Dawg, that documents the Garcia/Grisman collaborations. “The premiere was at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, and the crowd loved it,” says the proud father. “We had planned to put it on DVD, but it may be released to theaters next year. There are live clips, interviews, studio rehearsals and scenes of recording sessions.”
As Grisman’s own interests have branched out from the world of bluegrass and folk into jazz and other styles, he realized he’d have to keep complete control over his work to pursue his musical adventures without interference. With a solid fan base that staunchly supports the 14 (at last count) different lineups of the David Grisman Quintet, he formed Acoustic Disc in 1990 and began a grassroots marketing and distribution system that allows him the freedom to release his music exactly as he chooses.
“The standard music industry contract is set up so that the artist never makes any money,” Grisman says. “At Acoustic Disc we split production costs 50/50, which are paid off the top, then the rest of the income is profit for the artist.”
The label’s initial releases, Grisman’s collaborations with Garcia, provided enough of a financial windfall to keep the label afloat through the time it took to establish a place in the market. “We’ve had several titles sell over 100,000 copies, mainly those featuring Jerry.” Grisman proudly acknowledges, “He has kept us in business.”
With Grisman controlling every aspect of his company and career, he has managed to make a better living than when he had major label deals. “I know how many CDs are made, how many are sold and we make more money this way,” he says. “We use a guerilla marketing strategy, with a mailing list of over 70 thousand, some advertising and now our website at acousticdisc.com.”
In addition to releasing his own band’s CDs and collaborations with various musicians, Acoustic Disc has also brought the music of South American guitarist Oscar Aleman, Homer & Jethro mandolinist Kenneth “Jethro” Burns, Italian artists, obscure American jazz musicians and others to a broader audience. Future projects include the release of Doc Watson’s first performances as a solo artist from 1962; the final solo recordings of the late Charles Sawtelle (Hot Rize); a new recording of Italian immigrant songs by Grisman, guitarist Bette Gametta and mandolinist Carlo Alonzo; and a new David Grisman Quintet album by next year.
“There are plenty of companies that put out the mainstream stuff,” Grisman says. “I put out the things nobody else will release. It’s the music I like, and we pay a bit more attention to the whole package. Some of the records I put out don’t sell, but I think they’re important. I see it as an opportunity to preserve and present aspects of our culture that would otherwise disappear.”
The David Grisman Quintet performs at the Variety Playhouse, Fri., Nov. 10, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $20. For more information, call 404-521-1786.