Sam Bush & David Grisman – Hold On, We’re Strummin’
Mandolinist David Grisman has been in the business — bluegrass and (sometimes way) beyond — for around 40 years, plenty of time to have made a lot of friends. Lately he’s been using his Acoustic Disc label to record and release loose-jointed, wide-ranging collaborations with some of them, including this outing with fellow mando monster Sam Bush.
Aided occasionally by a trio of guitarists (notably longtime Doc Watson accompanist Jack Lawrence), a pair of bassists (son Sam Grisman and longtime associate Jim Kerwin) and, on one selection, legendary drummer Hal Blaine, the duo tease, inspire and abet one another through a rambling, intimate excursion rooted in more than 30 years of friendship and mutual appreciation.
Listeners for whom brevity is a watchword will probably want to give this one a wide berth, as half the album’s selections clock in at four minutes or longer. Yet though there are some stretches where not much more than the exploration of a rhythmic groove and melodic fragments appear to be going on, there’s a considerable amount of variety and elegance in the music, whether it’s the cool Latin sway of “Sea Breeze”, the greasy slide mandolin and mandocello duet “Swamp Thing”, or a charging version of “Ralph’s Banjo Special”.
That they chose to title the last of those after Ralph Stanley’s later, banjo-centric version of “Daybreak In Dixie”, the only mandolin-led instrumental recorded by the Stanley Brothers, testifies to the pair’s off-kilter wit. Similarly, though they take on a fine, explicit “Old Time Medley” with fiddle (Bush) and clawhammer banjo (Grisman), scraps of another dozen or more old-time tunes surface and disappear elsewhere on the album (such as the bits of “Chicken Reel” that bubble up in the long mandolins-only portion of the opening “Hartford’s Real”). Then there’s the lone vocal turn, a reworking of country/jazz mandolinist Jethro Burns’ “‘Cept Old Bill”, in which the two take turns singing each other’s praises while offering an affectionately humorous kind of last-word homage to Monroe.
In the end, the joshing around is not only entertaining on its own terms, but serves the important purpose of subverting concerns that Hold On, We’re Strummin’ might be merely a virtuosic orgy. There’s plenty of incomparable playing, of course, but the album’s not simply a vehicle for its presentation; rather, it’s a good-natured cross between a house concert and a jam session. There are some well-executed set pieces, usually with accompaniment, but the dominant feeling is, as it should be, of nothing more than two good and ferociously talented friends out for a good musical time.