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Del & Dawg at the Ryman Auditorium

Del & Dawg at the Ryman Auditorium
William Levine By

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Del & Dawg
Ryman Auditorium
Nashville, TN
June 30, 2016

When the old-school country DJ Eddie Stubbs introduced the concert's starring duo, he acknowledged the lack of a suitable category, especially for David Grisman's career, which from the beginning grew well beyond classic bluegrass mandolin and steadily embraced jazz, rock, and folk styles. "Americana" is a rather bland, excessively broad marketing term, and "acoustic contemporary," besides sounding badly dated these days, seems to miss Grisman's connections to tradition, however much he redefines it. "Dawg music," Grisman's self-styled categorization of his oeuvre, draws on the nickname that one of his best-known old-time music collaborators, the late Jerry Garcia, gave him.

Perhaps it's too much of an insider's term that cannot possibly predict Grisman's tendencies either to move towards the center of a traditional genre or out towards the "newgrass" periphery, depending on whom he plays with. But when he teams with Del McCoury, reigniting a musical and personal friendship that reaches back over a half century, the spirit of the first-generation bluegrass bands takes the front seat, perhaps shifting a bit from side to side as the trip stretches out over time. As one of the last surviving members of Bill Monroe's 1960's bands, McCoury carries forward the high-lonesome nasal tenor singing tradition in a well-traveled but unflagging spirit.

Yet during some moments of between-song patter, it was Grisman who pointed out the underappreciated and evolving role of the rhythm guitarist in traditional acoustic music, with Del illustrating the "Lester Flatt G-Run" (the basis of the pair's original-yet-familiar-sounding "G-Run Blues") and some rock-derived progressions that seeped into bluegrass after Elvis Presley had covered Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky." To be sure, McCoury always sounds true to himself even as he makes gradual accommodations and diplomatic overtures to other "rooted" American genres, as in his band's 2011 collaboration with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

The interplay with Grisman, though, allowed for a bit more provocative strangeness than usual: the minor chord runs, the balalaika-style strumming fills, the sharp, off-the-beat blues riffs and Django phrasing that works down to the short end of the mandolin neck. But on the whole, decorous eight-bar solos and modest mando choruses framed the alternating and harmonized vocals, with Grisman's "Dark Hollow" leads occasionally punctuating McCoury's rugged brightness. Whether it was an almost obligatory turn on "Tennessee Waltz" or the comic "I'm My Own Grandpa," the songs quietly asserted the continual life of the old Opry repertoire and cast, while also offering gently reverent tributes to recently departed spirits like Ralph Stanley and Monroe's standout banjoist Bill Keith.

The second half of the show enlarged the traditional bluegrass palette on several songs with a fuller combo including another bluegrass pioneer, mandolinist Jesse McReynolds, Del's sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, as well as Vince Gill guesting on lead vocals and three-part harmonies.

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