and Grimacin’: David Grier.
PHOTO: Alicia Solsman
Knows How to Pick ’Em
Performing Arts Center, Sept. 9
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
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’
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.