Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle have propelled the bluegrass guitar style known as flatpicking back to the forefront of roots and jam band music, evoking a time when Doc Watson and Tony Rice were folk stars with significant mainstream fame. But both Billy and Molly would acknowledge a debt to a Nashville guitarist from the generation in between, the jovial, innovative and remarkable David Grier.
Freewheeling was the title of Grier’s debut album in 1988 on Rounder Records. That made for an apt description of the unconventional career that followed, because Grier is one of the freer individuals you’ll meet. Most guitar flatpickers achieve notice and notoriety as sidemen or band members for a star. Aside from an early 1980s stint with the eccentric banjo master Doug Dillard, Grier has made a career of collaborations, collectives, albums as a leader/composer and something flatpickers aren’t supposed to be able to do - solo concerts without any accompaniment.
“You know how that came about?” he says before a brief aside on the value of making enough money to eat and how in the early 90s his phone wasn’t ringing. “I decided, I’ll make the calls, and then I could eat again! What could I do? Well I could play the guitar. People seem to like it. Let’s see. And it was scary at first, and the more you do it the better you get. And it was all right. It’s the same thing I’m doing in my living room, except I’m doing it in someone else’s living room.” You can hear this very concept realized as an album on the all-solo I’ve Got The House To Myself from 2002.
A living room concert with David Grier is a dazzling, brain-stretching experience. Listening close without amplification, which he prefers, you hear a recalcitrant, stiffly-strung wooden box designed as a rhythm instrument feel lighter and more nimble and multi-voiced than you might have thought possible. Grier absorbed and builds on the acoustic innovations of Clarence White (The Byrds, The Kentucky Colonels) which opened up new ways for the guitar to evoke bass and harmony parts while delighting with melodic leads and solos. The primary technique deployed is cross-picking, an approach of rolling arpeggios that sparkle, dance and move a bit like a five-string banjo. Grier also slides around a lot, slurring notes like a dobro or darting long distances to create sonic surprise.
“I don't like da-da-da-da, like a typewriter,” Grier explains, referring to the sixteenth note fusillades so common in lead bluegrass guitar playing. “So one way is to just hit a whole note. Or you can bend. And sliding is another way to get your pick out of the way and let (the string) ring. It’s like a fiddle. I'm just trying to make it more liquid and not da-da-da-da. Anything you can do to get away from that and make it musical is good I think.”
Grier’s signature guitar voice is house-concert close and personal on Ways of the World, his fifteenth album, released early this spring. He re-imagines a couple of picking party standards - “Salt Creek” and “Billy In The Lowground” with new sections and key changes. The rest are originals, including jazz-influenced tunes like “Farewell To Redboots,” which swings in waltz time and features trumpet player Rod McGaha. But the big reveal for Grier is that he sings on a record for the first time.
“I would sing at home a little bit and it was pretty much a secret, with good reason,” he said. Then he co-founded the Helen Highwater String Band with Mike Compton and others. They needed a third voice and coaxed Grier into a vocal role. “They were encouraging and helpful and so that’s all it took. A push in that direction. And of course you do it on stage and nobody ran for the exits. And I thought well there’s hope. And slowly it got better. And so I thought there you go let’s test this.”
And once he started thinking in terms of lyrics, songs began suggesting themselves. The title track “Ways of the World” is a gentle existential waltz with the divine Andrea Zonn singing harmony on the chorus. “She’s Gone” is a breezy bluegrass lament of lonesomeness co-written with Tim O’Brien. “Dead Flowers” a co-write with East Nashville artist and bass player Ashleigh Caudill, would have made good material for Flatt & Scruggs. So it’s an album with an inexplicably plain cover that offers a lot of energy and color when the music actually starts.
Grier grew up in Maryland with a father who was a consummate bluegrass insider. Lamar Grier played banjo for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys from 1965-67, and the imperious Mr. Monroe doted on David when he was a little boy. Grier saw the best musicians of a golden era at festivals, at the Ryman Opry and at his home, where greats like Clarence White would come stay and pick. David burrowed into the guitar and came to Nashville in 1985 in hopes of getting hired by Ricky Skaggs. That didn’t happen, but thanks to being exceedingly available for gigs of all types and launching a solo recording career, Grier was named IBMA Guitar Player of the Year in 1992, 93 and 95. Since then he’s been in the adventuresome band Psychograss with mandolinist Mike Marshall and all manner of small groups such as a trio with Todd Phillips (bass) and Matt Flinner (mandolin). He’s played on projects with John McEuen, Claire Lynch, Chris Thile, Butch Robbins, Noam Pikelny and many other leading musicians. And he’s seemingly at every picking party in the mid state, always looking for a chance to play.
In his late 50s, Grier is still growing, still setting a bar for developing bluegrass pickers and still freewheeling.