The term “jam” is synonymous with bluegrass music, jazz, and the Grateful Dead. David Grisman, who received the nickname “Dawg” from Jerry Garcia himself when both were unknowns learning their chops in a jug band, connects all three. DGBX is true to bluegrass conventions, featuring quick-picked melodies, tight vocal harmonies in a nasal twang, mountain gospel material, and solo instrumental breakouts. All this could seem by-the-numbers were Grisman’s mandolin playing not eye-popping and ear-opening. As “I’m Rollin’ On” begins, Grisman rips off three notes for every one of Jim Nunally’s flat-picked guitar offerings, and rips up the planks from the musical bridge. On the appropriately named “Dawgy Mountain Breakdown,” Grisman spars with Keith Little’s banjo as a segue to a Chad Manning fiddle break and a series of flourishes that sound as if the mandolin had dozens of strings, not just eight. There’s a bit of everything for bluegrass fans on DGBX—Carter Family covers, public domain material, originals, and even “Old And In The Way,” a traditional song that gave one of the bands in which Grisman and Garcia played its name.
If straight bluegrass seems too tame, check out Dawg’s Groove. Grisman claims he copied jazz licks from Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, but he deserves credit for shaping “newgrass,” a melody-turned-inside-out genre more high concept than high lonesome. This is music in which the mandolin traverses musical landscapes alongside Matt Eakle’s flutes, and where Jim Kerwin’s bass veers into leads—often punctuated by George Marsh drum solos—that would challenge any guitarist. The compositions are eclectic, to say the least. “La Grande Guignole” could back a sexy tango, “Ella McDonnell” is caffeinated Celtic, “Zambola” sounds like the soundtrack for a ’60s Italian farce, “Tracy’s Tune” is a dreamy semi-rumba, and the title track is finger-snapping cool jazz.