I grew up in the southeast.  My dad was a nomadic individual and we lived in the Carolinas, North and South, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas and the longest stint was in Georgia.  Kind of a big city kid, places like Charlotte, Atlanta, Richmond, that kind of thing.  I am a southern boy by heritage. 

Well, I was marinating in the music of my parents of course when I was really young. My dad’s playlist a curious mix of comedy records (Alan Sherman and Bob Newhart) and instrumental music, (ranging from Henry Mancini to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Bass), and V neck sweater folk revival stuff like The New Christy Minstrels & The Serendipity Singers. My mom is still alive.  She lives in Atlanta and she had a lovely singing voice and she still does, although she wouldn’t think so. She sang in the church choir.  She loved crooners.  So between me listening to music like Henry Mancini, I was listening to B grade crooners and I say B grade in the sense that it wasn’t the classics.  It wasn’t Sinatra or Tony Bennett.  It was people like John Gary and Andy Williams and kind of very, you know mainstream. A Mighty Wind. 

When I was about I3 I had a creative epiphany. I was playing football, which is what you do in the South growing up. On Saturday afternoon, I was throwing a football with a buddy of mine after a game, and his brother opened up the second story window of his bedroom and put his Realistic speakers out on the ledge and cranked them up to 11 with some music I had not heard before.  I knew it was rock, but I really wasn’t quite sure what I was listening to.  What was the lead instrument? I thought well, is this is a guitar?  Anyway, I went up and pounded on his big brother’s door, which was a risky maneuver.  And he comes up and cracks the door open and says, “what”?  I said, what are you listening to?  And he slammed the door.  Dejected, I started to walk down the stairs, and he slips the album cover out and I ran up and grabbed it, and it’s a fisheye lens view of three guys with pretty cool clothes, big hair, and it was asking me a question in purple squiggly letters, “Am I Experienced”?  And I said to myself, apparently not.  

And that is what lead me to going home and, looking my dad in the eye,  which was a hard thing to do, and made the declaration that I wanted an electric guitar and an amplifier the size of mom’s refrigerator.  He bought me the guitar, but I had to earn my own money to get, eventually, what was a 6 -10 cabinet and piggy back Acoustic brand amp, because it all starts with getting the right gear, right?  And I started playing with other young fellas.  So here I’m 15, 16 playing in garage rock bands.  And who was I listening to beyond Hendrix?  I later got interested in Sly & The Family Stone, Zappa, The British Invasion of Zeppelin, The Stones, The Band, Santana I got really interested in kind of just this mix of stuff.

Photograph Stuart Dahne

So in the 70s, I was listening to Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull, listening to albums that had compositions that felt almost like classical movements in the music.  Dark Side of the Moon was like the vernacular aspect of classical music. I got into all that stuff. In high school, I connected with my classmate Peter Buck, and we hung out together and with his brother Ken over at his place. Yes, it’s the same Peter Buck who went on to REM fame.  He and I sat around listening to records of the — the Kinks, listening to more of that British stuff (a little Punk now), and listening to American stuff too.

One day, he puts on a new record by the Grateful Dead called From The Mars Hotel and that was my introduction to the Dead. I didn’t connect with it.  It just didn’t grab me.  At this time, too, I am also starting to listen to fusion jazz — Miles, Mahavishnu, Art Ensemble of Chicago, just this mix of music that was connecting me to that early stuff that I listened to that my parents played in the house, like Mancini but also Carl Stalling, who composed all that music for Looney Tunes.

And I was getting interested in free jazz.  Zappa really opened a lot of doors for me. I was connecting Zappa to classical stuff and to everything being written out and performed with a tremendous amount of attention to the details.  Even though it was also of course very improvised within the soloing. There was alot of social commentary; pushing the envelope.  And I really loved that. I loved the humor in it.  So I saw this correlation between Zappa and Bugs Bunny. I also really loved Bugs Bunny because he and Milton Berle introduced me to the idea of cross dressing. I mean, every girl’s crazy about a cross dressed rabbit, right?

So I’m playing music in these garage rock band settings.  But I also got into theater in school, All of this creative stuff was happening for me.  I just kept growing and stretching with what I was listening to. although I just wasn’t making this connection to certain artists, including the Dead. The reason I’m bringing this up is the irony of me doing something that I never would have imagined doing, and that was winding up meeting Jerry Garcia and playing with him through my work with David Grisman.  In my college years, I went to the other USC, the University of  South Carolina – Columbia.  I got a BA with a double major of aesthetics and museology.  Museology is museum science, and my specialization, my focus, was art museums.  I was a very visually oriented guy, I reckon I still am.  I took a fascination to history in general, and specifically  art history and the idea of what museums represent as cultural closets to us humans.  

I wound up interning in art museums for a while. After graduation, I needed a change and that lead me to winding up on the West Coast, initially in Reno where I worked my way up to an assistant curator position at the Nevada Museum of Art.  People don’t normally think of Reno as a “fine art” Mecca, but Reno has an outstanding art museum. Really great. 

I had another creative epiphany that was not in the same sense as the Hendrix thing was, but I walked into a store one day and I see an electric mandolin hanging up on the wall. It was a Harmony with what they call the bat wing. It kinda looked like an F- five mandolin like the one that Bill Monroe had.  Anyway, it had a magnetic pickup on it.  It had an acoustic body, but it looked like a little electric guitar. I said, what the heck is that?  And the guy behind the counter says it’s a mandolin. The contradicted my image of an instrument that’s in Renaissance paintings played by folks in lace and pink satin pantaloons.  And I said, “can I check it out?”  He takes it down, and I plugged it in.  And I scraped together 90 bucks and went back and bought it.  And that took me down a completely different rabbit hole. 

So I have got this electric Harmony mandolin and between classes in school, I have got my Mel Bay mandolin chord book and I’m learning a new string instrument that lead to me abandoning the 6 string electric guitar. But like learning to play electric guitar, self taught, you know, no lessons, no nothing, really other than just learning how to be a good listener…I spent hours into days lifting the needle up and down on the licorice pizza of my phonograph player and finding those things I wanted to hear on the finger board.  All of that was true vernacular learning observation and imitation. Folk process, if you will. 

So here I’m in the south east, I am in South Carolina and I have this mandolin, so you would make the assumption that I was connected to a stereotyped style of music to the region, which would be bluegrass or acoustic string band music.  One of my professors was a pretty decent flat-top guitar picker. Seeing me play on campus one day, he stops and asks me if I know tunes named after fruit. And am I’m like, what?  He says do you know Black Berry Blossom? June Apple?  Somewhat embarrassed, I said “no, I have no idea.”  Anyway, he invites me to a picking party. 

So I go and these folks were playing straight up bluegrass and old time string band music.  And I’m thinking, “NOPE!” I said to myself, this ain’t for me.  My exposure to bluegrass at that time was two things, listening to the theme of the Beverly Hillbillies on TV and once in high school, listening to Old and in the Way.  I later realized that the banjo player was Jerry Garcia . I thought this is bluegrass, but what the hell is going on with this fiddle player?  This guy doesn’t sound like a bluegrass fiddle player to me.  And that was Vassar Clements.  And so that stuck with me til later when it meant something…something big. 

So anyway, I wind up going to another one of these picking parties (just to give it a chance), even though I hadn’t really connected with the music.  And this dude had gone to the record store earlier that day and bought a record because he saw on the cover a photograph of two mandolins, a fiddle, a guitar and an upright bass. He put the record on while we were all sitting around taking a break and eating.  I excused myself from this conversation because I’m magnetized by what I was hearing, and I went and sat and listened to this thing all the way through. Everybody went back in the backyard to start picking again, I stayed and listened to the other side of this record.  And I was completely gobsmacked by this.  And the guy wound up giving me the record, because he was so disappointed in that it wasn’t bluegrass. He said something like, I wondered where the banjo was in the cover photo.  And that was the first David Grisman Quintet record.  

Photograph Casey Vock

This was something that was really fresh.  It was very different.  And yet it was pulling from the architecture of a string band.  But it was sticking jazz in there…it had this sexiness that…wow… I thought this is something I can get into. I wore out that copy and had to go buy another…and gladly! I got so into this not having any idea what was waiting for me in the future.  That record gave me a sense of direction where to go with my music making education as it connected this new instrument to music I enjoyed up to that point in time.  I focused on the mandolin 100 percent.  I started finding people to play this new kind of music with after I graduated from school in South Carolina and came out to Reno. So this is like 1980 now, to put a time frame on this stuff.  

I started connecting with some people who had been introduced to Dawg (David Grisman’s nickname from Old and in the Way) music and other styles like swing, etc,… I wound up eventually quitting my day job at the museum. That leap of faith – giving up my day job to make literally hundreds of dollars annually playing acoustic roots music – I’ve never abandoned. 

I moved over the hill to California in 1986 because I was starting to connect with people in California, having gone to a bluegrass festival in California, originally called the Grass Valley Bluegrass Festival.  Now, it’s the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival run by the California Blue Grass Association.  I think it’s one of the oldest continually running Bluegrass festivals in the state of California.  

I settled in Sacramento.  And I wound up continuing my journey of evolving with all this music, still surrounding myself with string band stuff, thus finding a home for the mandolin. I eventually wound up picking up the fiddle and taught myself how to play that…just like guitar and mandolin. Funny, I never had any formal lessons on any of these instruments.

And then I met a mandolin player who was living in Sacramento at the time named Tiny Moore. He was the pioneer of the five string electric mandolin.  This guy played with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and others.  And he decided to retire and have a music store in Sacramento, called Tiny Moore Music.  And I went and experienced what THAT was about. Here was a guy playing the type of mandolin that I first connected with. But Tiny had a custom made 5 string electric mandolin.  It sounded like a little electric guitar, and he was using that in Bob Wills’s band and in other settings.  Tiny went on to record and tour with Merle Haggard for many years. 

Anyway that whole jazzy thing was really just another extension of my connection to other people doing really great stuff.  Grisman, (and his first Quintet fiddler Darol Anger, who I attribute as my main fiddle influence), Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, Mike Marshall and others were all part of the West Coast School of what became known as Dawg and New Acoustic Music. But on the East Coast, there were folks like Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, Russ Barenberg, Sam Bush, Andy Statman, Matt Glaser, Kenny Kosek and Jerry Douglas…they were chasing after this crossover of jazz, swing, gypsy influenced music (like the original Grisman Quintet), but more humorous, zany and unique from the DGQ experience. To my weird way of thinking, Grisman’s sound was elegant and sexy and “classy (The Beatles), and the East Coast school of this New Acoustic Music was from mischievous, “bad” boys (The Rolling Stones) on New Acoustic Music. Weird, huh?

I wound up playing other mandolins in the mando family, including the mandocello.  And I wound up buying a mandocello really inexpensively.  And I finally had to sell it because I didn’t have any money and I needed to make rent.  It’s the making literally hundreds of dollars annual thing catching up with me, LOL!  I put the word out to some people in the Bay Area that I had this thing for sale. I got a call from David Grisman.  I was already a huge fan of his and I had gone and seen lots of DGQ shows. Hell, Grisman turned me on to Django Reinhardt, from his second release called Hot Dawg.  He had a special guest on there playing fiddle. It was Stéphane Grappelli, and that instantly dropped me into the gypsy jazz world as well as hearing “Minor Swing” on that release. 

OK, so David says, I understand you have a mandocello for sale. I am just sitting there star struck on the telephone.  I said, “yes, sir, Mr. Grisman.”  And he says, hey, I live in Mill Valley.  Would you be interested in bringing that instrument over to my place for me to check it out?  He was going to have me do the leg work to see it which was a thrill for me, of course!  And I said, of course, that’d be great.  I was financially hungry and he got a great deal on the sale. At his house, he asked if I wanted to pick a tune or two. Nervously, I said, uhm, sure. Trying to be humble about it all.  

So he rolled one, and we sat and played and picked.  And he found out that I played mandolin and fiddle as well as mandocello.  But I also started to do something else that I had stumbled on accidently with a recording project in San Francisco that year with a young fellow named Tony Furtado. Tony is a fine banjo player and has really made a name for himself, with playing slide guitar, writing songs with wonderful singing, etc,…Mike Marshall was producing Tony’s first record that I played some mandolin on. 

They were looking for some very light percussion for a cover of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” a bebop number. Tony played banjo, Todd Phillips on standup bass and they needed some brush work, like a light jazz kit thing.  I was already starting to take an interest in hand percussion at that time, especially Afro Cuban stuff.  I was making my way around on bongo and found sound.  And I got real fascinated with beat boxing that was going on in hip hop and what people could do with their mouths making mouth percussion.  I said, how about this?  And I picked up my fiddle case and started doing this brush pattern on the fiddle case, like brushes on a snare drum. And they said, that’s perfect, let’s do it. So there is a brush work.  It was unobtrusive, so it was just the perfect thing for string band settings. 

Anyway I did that thing with Tony and that opened doors.  All of a sudden people were really interested in hearing this brand of light found sound and mouth percussion (like a closed high hat sound.  So I was doing this combination of imitating this brush sound that a jazz drummer would play with the brushes, plus this closed high hat thing and then I would get that combination of the three things going with one hand working the brush and the other doing simple rhythms on bongo.  

So back to that meeting with David.  I’m at his house and I said I also do some percussion work too.  I’m kind of new at it, but it kind of caught his fancy. I guess I wound up demonstrating something of that for him.  And he started inviting me to sit in with his quartet. 

The quartet at that time was Dawg, Jim Kerwin on bass, Dimitri Vandellos  on guitar and George Marsh on drum kit.  David was experimenting with a more traditional string jazz instrumentation in this period in the ‘80s.  Some of the magic of David’s string band thing with two mandolins was influenced by Django and Stephane’s Hot Club Quintet with Django having at least one rhythm guitar behind him, eventually having two.  This Grisman Quartet did some really cool stuff.  But I think some of his fans were really missing having a more “unique” ensemble, instrumentally. Anyway, he asked me to come and sit in with him a little bit with that quartet. One thing led to another and now we are approaching 1989 and I got a call from David’s manager, Craig Miller, asking me if I would like to join David’s ensemble. Shocked, I got back to them and said, YES (!) what the hell else was I going to say? 

And then David was going through a process of experimenting and trying new things. And so I became part of a new combination that wound up being a combination for almost decades.  That included, for the first time, a flute player (Matt Eakle), myself switch hitting, playing hand percussion (bongo, doumbek, talking drum, mouth percussion, fiddle case, shakers, wood block, cymbal and, of course, more cowbell), rhythm mandolin and mandocello on a few things. David would play mandolin & mandola and Jim Kerwin on bass. A couple a couple of different guitar players came and went; John Carlini and Rick Montgomery, both of whom made wonderful and uniquely fresh contributions in the guitar chair. 

That’s where we were in roughly 1989 – 1991, plus a flute player…who’d have thought.  And the flute player really took the role of by and large the fiddle, although at times I would move off percussion and I would play fiddle which people, I think, associated that with the older sound. Something that was also happening in ’89 was that David was wanting to start a new record label, Acoustic Disc.  And so we wound up recording what was the first record on the label, Dawg ‘90.  

Something else happened at that time, and that was Jerry reconnecting with David at a party.  This is 1990. Jerry was feeling his mortality and he was missing playing with somebody from his past where he could revisit some of the old music that he really loved.

It was a very lovely thing. I think Jerry also saw it as a little bit of an escape for him because his life was very complicated.  For him to sit down with an acoustic guitar or a banjo and play a bunch of old tunes regardless of genre, was soothing.  Jerry and Dawg were on a journey to reconnect as friends, reconnect as colleagues, and revisit some old music and I think Jerry had a real great time with that. David told Jerry him about this new label.  And Jerry made  the suggestion, hey, we should record something, because that will give us an excuse to continue to get together and play.  

I think originally that Garcia Grisman was going to be a duo.  But I think they saw the advantage of having a rhythm section.  So there was a little bit of auditioning going on.  Jerry recommended a couple of guys he played with.  I can’t remember if they actually came over to David’s… I think John Kahn was maybe one of the suggestions.  

Anyway, David said, well, I have got this guy Joe Craven, who can do percussion.  And he has kind of unique approach to it and plays some fiddle and there’s Jim Kerwin, my long standing bass player.  So Jim and I came over and played a bit with them and Jerry and David liked it.  It just seemed to make sense.  And it also gave Jerry, I think, an opportunity to relax and know that there was a pocket there for these two front men to play on top of.  

So we began recording the first of a large handful of recordings with those two gentleman in a variety of settings and that’s what led me to become a part of something that I never would have imagined…while sitting there listening to The Mars Hotel in the bedroom of Peter Buck in high school in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Jerry’s guitar playing asked things of me that | was not ready to answer when I first heard him.  The other thing is that I never bought a ticket to go to Dead show. Not one except when the David Grisman Quintet was part of the opening of a show at Cal Expo in Sacramento. I finally connected to him as a guitar stylist listening to all these takes in the basement of David Grisman’s place in Mill Valley and that is when I began to really connect with his speak on the guitar as his language.  

And I became receptive and ready to appreciate for the first time what Jerry was doing as a player.  It’s really hard for somebody to create a style that really doesn’t have anything referential to somebody else.  And I came to appreciate Jerry’s playing for that.  I could not draw connections to other musicians, to other players, to other soloists in the way that Jerry played.  And that was a really big, cool thing for me.  It wasn’t voluntary; I had a gig.  It was work.  But what bloomed out of that for me was this admiration for the way that he played not being referential to something else; it really had a beautiful uniqueness to it.  

I had an old Toyota pickup and there was a couple of times when Jerry wanted a bite to eat or needed some cigs, and his Beemer was up the drive way and trapped.  So I had that opportunity to give Jerry a lift down the hill to get to something, whatever it was he was needing.  And so there were those rare beautiful moments where I had an opportunity to sit and listen to him. Besides, I didn’t want to talk his ear off.  But I wanted to just ask him things like what he thought of all the bands that were emulating the Dead.  How did he receive all of this with people connecting with this music and wanting to cover it cover bands basically?  

Jerry would say well it’s great, but he would kind of, you know, shrug his shoulders and engage that great little laugh of his and he’d say, you really have to make the music your own.  He says yeah it’s great that they are doing that, but you really need to make the music your own.  It’s the idea that folk music is a grand old tradition of perpetual transition.  It should always be on the move and evolving to keep you inspired by something and then you play it forward.  But in your own speak.

I also asked him how the GD did what they did, and he said two things;  He said “we didn’t know what the hell we were doing…and we were filling a need.”

And that made all the sense in the world for me.  They were at the right place at the right time.  And Jerry’s line of not knowing what the hell that they were doing… was this beautiful humility in him. 

To date, we’ve only performed Garcia Grisman – Revisited twice. Skull & Roses will make it the third performance. The first time was at Del Fest, Del McCoury’s festival and we had Ronnie McCoury take the doggy chair.  Ronnie and David have a deep long standing mutual admiration. So that was really great for Ronnie and I think Ronnie is going to join us for Skull and Roses.  But what is so great about taking this Garcia Grisman Revisited project forward is to show a real sense of honesty, replicating what the feel of this was for us and for the limited number of people that got to see those shows at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. With the exception of those shows and Bill Graham’s Squaw Valley Fest., that was it. 

This Garcia Grisman Tribute is really coming from a recreation of a unique re-connection between two very important musicians in American Roots music sharing their love of original and traditional songs and tunes with support from Jim and myself. Jim and I had a job to do and we were the better for it.  But boy, it sure was great to see the love David and Jerry shared in this wonderful rekindling of music making between those two guys. They both needed it. 

See Joe Craven with Garcia Grisman Revisited at Skull & Roses Festival