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Pickin’ and Grimacin’: David Grier.

PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

He Knows How to Pick ’Em

By Glenn Weiser

David Grier

WAMC Performing Arts Center, Sept. 9

‘Nashville cats play clean as country water, Nashville cats play wild as mountain dew,” sang John Sebastian Jr. of the Lovin’ Spoonful back in 1966. Four decades on, the Music City is still sporting pickers of arresting skill, as

Nashville-based solo acoustic guitarist David Grier proved to about 75 listeners in a dazzling set of 15 instrumentals at WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium last Saturday night.

You might call Grier a hereditary picker—his father Lamar played banjo for bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe right around the time John Sebastian was extolling the musical prowess of those talented Tennesseans. The elder Grier also played guitar, and, considering it more versatile than the banjo, began giving his son pointers on the instrument when David was 6. Grier had a country musician’s dream childhood: hanging out backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, riding on Bill Monroe’s bus with his dad, and getting underfoot at picking parties boasting the best players in bluegrass. Now, at 44, his acclaimed flatpicking ranks with that of acoustic icons Tony Rice, Doc Watson and Norman Blake. In addition to performing solo, he also currently handles the guitar chores for the band Psychograss.

WAMC’s advance radio billing had described Grier as a bluegrass guitarist, but that proved somewhat misleading: He played only one actual bluegrass number, a medley of two Bill Monroe songs, all night. What the crowd got instead was a well- chosen offering of old-time fiddle tunes, pop hits, Americana, and his own unique if not idiosyncratic compositions. And his fleet, fluid playing couldn’t have been better.

Dressed in a red-checkered shirt and jeans and playing a gorgeous-sounding 1946 Martin D-28, the bespectacled, shaven-headed Grier introduced his opener, “Have You Ever Been to England,” with a coffeehouse-style spiel in his twangy drawl. The uptempo tune started out like a minor-key reel, but soon went further afield as he bounced the melody in between the treble and bass and then embellished it with crosspicking, a technique in which a guitar imitates a banjo-picking pattern (a famous example of this is the beginning of the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville”).

Next was another original, a folky, lyrical waltz titled “High Top Princess Cove.” For this, Grier used a technique known as hybrid picking or ‘fake fingerpicking’ in which the guitarist sounds the bass strings with the pick and plucks the treble strings with the his middle and ring fingers. This allows the player to mix passages that sound like fingerpicking with flatpicking runs. Grier would use this technique effectively later with other slow tunes.

After another self-penned piece he described as “moody,” marked by descending bass line reminiscent of a late-period Beatles song, he pulled out the first of several fiddle tunes, “Black Mountain Rag.” In his hands, an old Appalachian breakdown became akin to a jazz standard: He’d play the melody straight the first time through, and then conjure up variations using devices like playing bluegrass licks based on the harmonic progression, up-the-neck chords alternating with open bass strings, and even key changes.

After several more showpieces, Grier closed with the Bill Monroe tunes “Crossing the Cumberlands” and “Old Ebenezer Scrooge.” He then encored with a tranquil version the old-time tune “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” followed by another fiddle tune, “Little Rabbit,” in which he sped up the tempo to warp drive, finishing on the Bonneville Salt Flats of gitpickin’ glory.

Fortunately, WAMC taped what was as fine an acoustic-guitar show as you’re likely to hear locally for some time. Stay tuned for it, because this David is a musical Goliath.

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