Early Dawg

Early Dawg album cover

In March 1966 I was asked by David Grisman to join him with Del and Gerry McCoury to do a concert at Rensselaer Polytechnic near Troy, NY. Del came up to NYC from York, PA, and off we went in Del's car. Ted Marchbein, who was working at the Folklore Center, came along with some microphones and a Nagra tape recorder-- a "studio-quality field recorder" as the ads said.

After the formal show we were invited to play at the local coffee house, so we went. It was winter, and the weather was ugly. We finished up at about 1 a.m., and headed through the snow for the motel. Del and Gerry retired to their room, while David, Ted, and I went to ours.

Out came the tape recorder. We listened to the whole thing.

Shenandoah Breakdown (Bill Monroe), "Early Dawg" (David Grisman) Sugar Hill CD 3713 (1.1Mb)

At this point in my life I was enthralled with the playing of Don Reno. Two years earlier the NY Ramblers had won Union Grove with a rendition of Reno's "Follow the Leader." I was into "fancy." Lots of single note lines, and moving chords. I was also into FAST. Just listen to the "Shenandoah Breakdown" we did that night.

So there we were, lying in our beds in the darkened room and listening to the tape. I forgot which song it was, but I played a break that was very sparse and simple. David said, "Wow! Now THAT was a great break!" I said, "Really? It was so simple. It was something like Ralph Stanley would play." And David replied, "Winston! If you could play like Ralph Stanley, you'd be a great banjo player."

Something jelled at that moment. Why would David say that? Was I missing something about Ralph? What wasn't I hearing? What wasn't I understanding? When I got home, I pulled out all my Stanley Brothers records, and listened. Maybe it was the herbal enhancement. It was like suddenly understanding the purity of zen.

I re-set my banjo to get a tone similar to that of Ralph on those old records. I began to meditate on the rhythm of the notes-- not the melody, but the overall gestalt of it. My playing and thinking changed.

In 1968 I was visiting Artie Rose. He said, "Listen to this," and put on a tape. "Who is it?" he asked. I listened. The mandolin sounded a lot like Monroe. The singing did too. The banjo playing was amazing. I said that I thought it was Monroe, but I had no idea who the banjo player was. "Wish I could play like that," I said.

It was the 1966 tape that Ted made that snowy night.

In 1980 I got a phone call from David. "Remember that tape we did back in 1966? Would you mind if I released some of it on a record?" I told him that if he wasn't embarrassed by it, it would be fine with me. A few months later I received payment for one studio session, and shortly after "Early Dawg" was released.

And my playing? In 1994 Tony Trishka and Bela Fleck came to NZ for a few shows. I was there at the time, and we got together. "Still playing that straight shit?" asked Tony.

You bet!