Sam Grisman Project
Ben Fimlaid/Courtesy photo
Sam Grisman Project

‘It’s a part of the cosmic download’

Sam Grisman Project plays at the Stone Church

BRATTLEBORO — Bass player and band leader Samson "Sam" Grisman, 33, of Nashville, Tennessee, tells us how excited he is about touring with his new band, Sam Grisman Project.

The band's upcoming tour will bring the four members to The Stone Church on Thursday, Oct. 26 for an "acoustic and electric set of timeless music," he says.

That music pays tribute to the offerings of two friends: Grisman's father, David "Dawg" Grisman, 78, and the late Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead.

The elder Grisman, a legendary mandolinist, lives "far outside of Seattle, Washington" but recently joined his son's new band on stage in that city and provided "probably the most memorable" moments there.

During the band's last show in Seattle, Grisman's dad "got on a ferry and came out to the gig and played way more music than he planned to."

"Dawg" Grisman "really enjoyed himself, enjoyed interacting with the guys in the band," his son said. "It was really special for everyone involved. He played two-thirds of all acoustic music in that show."

The band began its first tour in January with the release of its first album, Temple Cabin Sessions, Volume I, "and we seem to be on the road constantly since then," Grisman says.

"My goal in starting the band was to build a platform for my friends and me to showcase our genuine passion and appreciation for the legacy of Dawg and Jerry [Garcia]'s music," he adds.

Noting the friendship between his father and Garcia, Grisman writes in the band's publicity materials that he is inspired by "the way their camaraderie and their love and joy for the music, simply oozes out of each recording."

"By playing some of their beloved repertoire and sharing the original music that our own collective has to offer, we will also show the impact that this music has had on our own individual musical voices," he added.

Grisman grew up in Mill Valley, California, but now makes his home in Nashville.

Grisman started early. He made his recording debut at age eight with his father, Dawg, and his friends John Hartford and Mike Seeger on their Grammy-nominated album, "Retrograss."

Since then Grisman has played and recorded with Darol Anger, Noam Pikelny, Tim O'Brien, Bryan Sutton, Martin Taylor, Lee Ann Womack, Eric Krasno, and Billy Strings to name a few.

The Sam Grisman Project includes Grisman on acoustic upright bass, electric bass, and vocals; Ric Robertson on guitar, mandolin, keyboards, and vocals; Chris J. English on drums, percussion, and vocals; and Aaron Lipp on electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards, lap steel, and vocals.

Each night, the Sam Grisman Project performs a very different set list (as the Grateful Dead did). Grisman puts a lot of work "tracking what we play and when we played it."

"We've had a lot of folks travel to multiple shows once they realize that we're playing a different set list every night," he says. "It's humbling and encouraging to see so many familiar faces from night to night."

The Commons caught up with Grisman recently on the phone and talked about his new band, his upcoming tour, how they curate set lists for their shows, and how many instruments he brings on the road. Here's an excerpt of their conversation:

* * *

Victoria Chertok: What should the audience expect at the Stone Church? Do you play acoustic sets and electric sets?

Sam Grisman: We play one half acoustic and one half electric at our shows. When time allows for it, we like to do that as much as we can. Some rooms make sense for both kinds of music, but a lot of these rock clubs don't take well to acoustic music sonically, and sometimes the opposite is true.

V.C.: You play originals and covers. Which genres do you play?

S.G.: We play both. All the guys in my band are incredible musicians. We have a wide variety of influences, everybody writes material that is diverse,and no one has really bought into genre specific confines.

Genres are more about branding music and selling music. If you are focused on playing good music, there is not a lot of consideration for what genre you're playing. It's a way to quantify people's success to try to put you in one box. That's not how art works.

V.C.: It must have been something to have a father who was good friends with lots of incredible musicians. What lessons did Dawg teach you?

S.G.: I grew up in an environment with a father who had a super highly refined artistic concept and he instilled a lot of musical values in me. He taught me that genres are jive and that music is not a competition, nor is it a meritocracy.

You're never done learning. It's a lifelong pursuit, and you can only hope to master a fingernails worth of the knowledge available.

V.C.: Was bass your first instrument?

S.G.: Actually, "bass" was my first word! It's pretty bizarre. I was 4 or 5 when I was able to pick up the quarter-size bass that lived in the corner of our living room.

I was younger when my dad got me a cello and tuned it like a bass, which are tuned in fourths. He started working on my timing, and we focused on playing one song, "Sally Goodin'," for a year or more.

V.C.: What was Dawg like as a teacher when you were a kid?

S.G.: He is a great teacher and loves to teach people. He likes to teach repertoire. He likes to work on tunes. I grew up around that - playing jazz standards in the living room, reading charts, and learning a lot of his original compositions by ear.

He would never force me to practice; he wanted my drive to come from within. He wanted me to be passionate about it.

V.C.: This is your second stint living in Nashville.

S.G.: I love it here and have an amazing network of friends and musical peers. There is no place quite like it, for the breadth of musicianship you can encounter locally. It also exists in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York.

It's almost like Nashville has been architected for the business of music. It's like noplace else. Music is the primary focus. From 2011–17 I lived here and played with Bryan Sutton, who is one of the greatest living flat-pickers.

V.C.: How did you end up playing with Lee Ann Womack?

S.G.: When I wasn't playing music with my dad, my main gig was playing country music with Lee Ann Womack. She's amazing - one of the greatest singers I've ever worked with and a total sweetheart. Her husband is the country producer Frank Liddell.

I met them on a cruise that I was playing music on. Frank came up to me and said he was "a closeted deadhead" and shortly after that they hired me to play in a music video. I worked for her for about four years.

V.C.: What exactly is Dawg music?

S.G.: Dawg music is a genre of music that my father invented. His dear friend Jerry Garcia gave him this nickname 'Dawg' in the early '70s. They were living in Stinson Beach, California and were playing in a band, Old and In the Way. My dad produced [the band's first self-titled] record and wrote that song [of the same name]. It's the only song he's ever written with lyrics.

Dawg started writing music very early on and had already written lots of instrumentals. His compositions were broader than bluegrass and pulled from a wide variety of influences, from jazz to bluegrass and world music.

Now there is a great tradition of new acoustic music or new-grass music, but the earliest examples of this forward-thinking acoustic music are some early Dawg tunes.

In the early '70s he started a band, The Great American Music Band, named after the Great American Music Hall. That band might kind of be closest to our concept. They played all kinds of music, but it was a great incubator for some of the new Dawg tunes my Dad was writing at the time.

He started the band with Richard Greene, the great fiddler and Bill Monroe alum, and they would play with a rotating cast of characters. Sometimes Taj Mahal would play with them, sometimes Jerry would play with them, and sometimes Maria Muldaur would play with them.

V.C.: Which was your favorite tune that your Dad wrote?

S.G.: My favorite Dawg tune is probably the epic "Dawg's Rag." It has seven parts or something like that, and lots of space for everyone to improvise. When I was a toddler, my Dad asked me what my favorite song was, and I said, "Dawg's Rag!"

I was born six weeks premature and had to spend time in an incubator, so my Dad would come to the hospital to play mandolin for me. That's one of the tunes he would play for me.

V.C.: Who were your early music influences?

S.G.: John Hartford was a dear family friend, and I remember him coming to the house and recording. His music still inspires me to this day. Hartford was an advocate for old-time music and American fiddle music and did a lot of transcribing of fiddle tunes.

One of my favorite records of his is Aereo-Plain. It was produced by David Bromberg in 1971. Norman Blake played guitar and Vassar Clements played fiddle; it features John's remarkable songwriting and inimitable vibe, and it's one of the albums that most shaped the musical landscape that I live in today.

V.C.: Let's talk equipment for the tour. Which bass do you bring on the road?

S.G.: I play an American Standard upright bass built in Cleveland, Ohio in 1940. It's a tremendous old instrument. It's very reliable and sounds like all these old records sound. American Standards have a cool deep sound happening.

As for my electric, an amazing friend in Fairfax, California very graciously bought exactly the bass I would have wanted and is letting me use it indefinitely. It's a 1959 Gibson EB-2. I didn't have it in the budget to get the caliber instrument I needed for the job, and he came to the rescue!

V.C.: What is the most important thing to tell people about why you do this?

S.G.: Music is one of the most sacred art forms, because it's a language that not everyone can speak but that everybody understands. It allows people to communicate across language barriers and cultural barriers.

It's pre-technological. We were built with this information inside of us; it's a part of the cosmic download.

V.C.: Any closing thoughts?

S.G.: We care deeply about this music and about each other, and we hope that love comes across to our audiences when they catch our shows.

We are incredibly grateful to have all of these opportunities to play in front of so many wonderful new friends, and we're excited for what the future brings. The music never stopped!

* * *

Sam Grisman Project presents "The Music of Garcia/Grisman on Thursday, Oct. 26 at the Stone Church, 210 Main St., Brattleboro. It's an all-ages show. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show begins at 8 p.m.

For more information, visit To find out more about Sam Grisman Project, visit

Victoria Chertok covers arts and entertainment in Vermont for The Commons. She is a classically trained harpist and received a B.A. in music at Bucknell University.

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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