Times Free Press music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with internationally acclaimed flatpicking guitarist David Grier about his massive discography and why he fits in so well in Nashville’s music scene.
How many times have you been to Chattanooga?
I’ve played there several times in different groupings. I’ve played there with Mike Compton before. We were their first show, which was about 10 years ago.
That must have been exciting.
It was great. And since then, I’ve played there with Mike again several times; I’ve played solo several times; once with a couple great musicians, Shad Cobb and Noam Pikelny. Shad plays John Cowan, and Noam plays with Chris Thile. We all live here in Nashville, and we get together and pick one. Mike and I are really looking forward to playing down there.
Yeah, it sounds like it’s going to be a good time. You’ve worked with Mike on an album before called, Climbing the Walls, right?
Yeah, that’s right. We did that with the Rounder Record Label. That came out in 1992, I think.
Do you think you and Mike have a good chemistry on stage? Do you play well on stage together?
Yeah, I do. We’re really comfortable with each other, admire each others musicianship and we’re buddies, so everything’s good.
To get into your music a little bit, why guitar? Why not fiddle or banjo or some other instrument?
Well my father played banjo, and his thinking was that the guitar was a little more versatile. Maybe he felt limitations on the banjo many, many years ago and figured if I played guitar, I could play any style I wanted, if I were able. With the banjo, I guess you’re pretty much stuck playing old-time music or bluegrass music. With the guitar, if I choose and had an aptitude, I could play whatever: rock, jazz or swing, whatever.
Has that proven to be the case?
I’ve learned different things, yeah — bits and pieces of various different styles that intrigue me.
But your bread and butter style is bluegrass, right?
Umm, It’s bluegrass-based, for sure. It’s certainly in that vein. It’s on the outskirts, though. Yeah, I incorporate a lot of different stuff into my music; as does Mike Compton; as do we all, I reckon. It’s our influences and what we hear in our own heads that we try to get out.
Very cool. I seem to remember reading somewhere that your father played with Bill Monroe, right?
I know I’ve already asked why you got started on the guitar, but what’s your first memory of the instrument?
Well, let’s see. Before I was even born, my parents were going to festivals and having picking parties and going to picking parties. I was hearing music all the time. Then, I got older and got a toy guitar as a toddler. I had a little plastic guitar you get a beat on and throw around, you know? As I got older, I got a guitar, dad showed me the chords, and I was writing songs.
Back then, I remember writing a song about my uncle, who was a postman. I don’t remember the song, but I remember I wrote one.
How old were you at that point?
I was like in first grade.
Really? Wow. How old are you now? How long have you been going at this?
Oh Christ, I’ve been doing this for 40 years.
(laughs) Well, they had to have been pretty good 40 years, though, right? You obviously enjoy this.
Yeah, it beats digging ditches (laughs).
Do you feel at all like you’re following in your father’s footsteps playing this music?
No, not at all. No, he was always a sideman, and I’ve written over 40-50 songs that have been recorded, started my own record label and publishing company. I’ve played on close to 100 different records, so no, I think I’m way past wherever he went.
Well, I don’t mean are you at the same level. Obviously, he played with Bill Monroe, but it’s obvious you passed where he went. What I mean is, do you feel like he set you on this path?
Well, I wouldn’t have gotten started if it hadn’t been for him. It’s like, if your father’s a mechanic and you hang around in the garage in the backyard, you get to know what your tools are pretty quickly. You know, having grown up with a dad who was a musician, I remember growing up and going to school, meeting new kids and asking, Hey, what does your dad play? They were like, What do you mean? and I guess I just figured everybody’s old man played an instrument. That was normal for me. It was weird finding out that wasn’t normal (laughs).
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Laurel, Md. It’s right between D.C., and Baltimore. It’s right where George Wallace was shot — I didn’t do it, but I was there (laughs).
Really? Is that a real hotbed of bluegrass music?
Yeah, there were many different players.
Well, I meant that as sarcastic, but you’re serious? There really is a strong bluegrass scene there?
Yeah, up there, it’s just huge.
At what point did you move down below the Mason-Dixon to Nashville?
I moved to Nashville in 1984, so I’ve been here 23 years — half my life.
Does it suit you better? Could you do this kind of music as well up in Massachusetts?
No, and you know why? Because there’s nobody else to play with. There’s people up there, but they’re not of the caliber of the musicians here in Nashville, truly. For this kind of music, the kind of music I choose to play and desire to play, this is the place for me to be.
Kind of a hog heaven for you, I would imagine.
What’s really great is that you hang out with your buddies and hear what they’re working on, and everybody is working. It’s not like this is a this is something I do in my spare time kind of thing. They do it all their lives. So, every time you see them, it’s like Hey man, let me show you this, look at what I’m doing, Have you ever thought of this? Watch this change and whatever. You get all that just by hanging. That’s what I like. Then, new people come to town, show you more stuff and you learn from them and they learn from you. It’s really cool.
It’s every young musician’s dream to play and make money at it.
Well yeah. It’s not just icing on the cake, but it’s still good. It’s really cool. It’s like, if you work in the mall, you never get applause (laughs). I get applause every three or four minutes after I finish a song (laughs). It’s hard not to like that.
We’ve all made concessions to be able to have the time to play. We all went through periods where we didn’t have much money and didn’t know where we were going to get food, and we just sat and played guitar for 12 hours a day. As a result of that, you get a really good foundation for everything else to grow on, and you learn a lot. You figure out ways to make money playing your instrument. Then, people hear you, like what you do and it grows.
What to you is the most rewarding thing about playing music for a living?
Well, one of the coolest things about playing music for a living is that you get to hang around other musicians. That’s my favorite thing because they’re all crazy, they’re all wacky - in the coolest way. They’re not conformists, they’re not nine-to-five people. It’s like Keith Richards says that he doesn’t eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner times because those are all times set around factory workers shift breaks. He said, I’m not a factory worker - never have been - so I eat when I’m hungry, whenever that may be.’ Pretty genius thinking? How many people think about things like that? I just like the fact that he thought of something like that. I think it’s genius, and musicians think like that - not just him, but many. They have to to come up with the ideas they do, musically. I find it just to be cool to hang with them or hear their jokes.
I guess genius and insanity go hand in hand.
Well, it’s not insanity. It’s a way of sharing, I think. It’s just cool. You wouldn’t get that if you were a shoe salesman in the mall.
When you say one of the benefits is just getting to hang out with your friends and pick, well, I’ve got friends I pick with, too, but they’re not Chris Thile and Mike Compton.
Yeah, so there’s a little difference there (laughs). It’s cool to be here, it really is. What else is cool is that everybody has their own influences. My influences are different than Mike Compton’s, but his are really cool. It’s great when he finds something and says, Listen to this. Hey, check this out. And it’s like, That’s amazing, I’d have never found that on my own. You just grow, and you’re turned on to different things you might not otherwise find on your own.
To move on to some of your accolades, how does it feel to be considered one of the 1,000 greatest guitarists alive? What was your initial reaction to that?
Well, I didn’t know. I heard about it after it was all out. Somebody was like, Hey, I read your name in a book, and I was like, Oh yeah, what book is that? I said, Oh, no kidding? Which one am I? 999? He said, No, you’re in there somewhere, though (laughs). I got the book and found myself, but I don’t remember where I was.
I guess just being included period was an honor.
It was just fine, yeah. Heck yeah, sure.
Back in the ’90s, you and Tony Rice were trading off awards for guitarist of the year at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards. That must have been a wild set of years for you.
He was, and still is, a big hero of mine. He’s an amazing guitarist — amazing. But those are just popularity contests; they don’t mean I’m better than him, because I’m certainly not. It’s just that I was more popular those years. I won three times, that’s pretty all right.
Like I said, you must have been doing something right. Do you feel like those were particularly strong years?
I’ve not stopped improving, it’s just that I’ve maybe not been hitting those same places. My last record came out in 2001, and I’ve got two coming out in the next couple of months. One’s a live recording, and one’s a studio recording. They’re drastically different. The live one is solo, and the studio one is me with Victor Wooten, Carl Franklin on pedal steel, John Gardner on drums, Stuart Duncan, Noam Pikelny, Jeff Taylor - all A list players. I play electric guitar, and every song is a song I’ve written.
So yeah, things are good. Mike’s been working on stuff. He’s been writing stuff; it’s great. He’s learning more old blues things, too. We’re looking forward to being there.
We’ve talked about where you’ve been and what you’re doing now, but what are your future plans? Where is David Grier in 2012?
It’s hard to say where I’m going because I write various kinds of tunes. I just wrote and old-time song, and I’ve written some jazz songs, so I don’t know where I’m headed, but it’s a cool ride (laughs). I’ll just keep writing songs. I don’t try and force myself to write a specific kind of tune. I just write what I feel like and try to make it as good as I can.
You said earlier that your music is bluegrass-based, when you’re writing jazz songs, do they still have a bluegrass feel to them or is it completely different? Is it straight jazz?
I would hope it falls more towards straight jazz. I grew up playing bluegrass music, but I stopped once I was a teenager. Then, I played country rock, and that’s about all I did for four years, playing electric guitar only. Then, I moved to Nashville and started playing the acoustic music again. I’ve got a bunch of different influences, and they all play out.
Who are some influences of yours?
My biggest influence is the playing of Clarence White. He was amazing, but anybody I hear and like is an influence. I try to learn from them and apply it to my own playing.
Who’s an artist you’ve heard recently that you would take to Mike Compton as someone he should listen to?
I don’t know. I mostly listen to dead people. Lately, I’ve been listening to (John) Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Django (Rheinhardt) some. So yeah, dead people. Jimi Hendrix, Don Rich.
You said earlier you’d been in almost 100 albums. How do you get to be that prolific?
It’s really not that much. I’ve been here 23 years, so you do a couple a year I haven’t played on anybody’s record in a while. It’s just accumulative.
E-mail Casey Phillips at email@example.com