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The Pioneers of New Acoustic Music, Part 1: Darol Anger
Peter Anick
2011-02-21

[Ed Note: Be sure to check out a few video clips of Darol at the bottom of this page. Thanks to Darol for sharing!]

In the 1940s Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys revolutionized American string band music by incorporating virtuosic instrumental solos and a “high lonesome” vocal style. Thirty years later, a new generation of bluegrass instrumentalists, steeped in rock & roll, fascinated by jazz, and comfortable with formal training, sought to expand the boundaries of string band music even further. Many bluegrass luminaries, including Richard Greene, Kenny Kosek, Andy Statman, Sam Bush, Russ Barenberg, Tony Rice, Bill Keith, and Tony Trischka pushed the stylistic envelope by incorporating elements of jazz, rock, and world music. In 1977, the release of the exquisitely recorded, all-instrumental
David Grisman Quintet album heralded the arrival of a whole new genre of acoustic music. 

That genre, along with its evolutionary branches, is now commonly referred to as “new acoustic music.” In this issue of Fiddler Magazine, we begin a series of articles exploring the history of new acoustic music through the eyes of its pioneers. We start, appropriately enough, with Darol Anger, who played violin in the seminal David Grisman Quintet and is credited with coining the “new acoustic” moniker. An innovator throughout his musical career, Darol set the standard for new acoustic fiddling. He also brought jazz improvisation into the string quartet format, expanded the fiddle’s role as a percussion instrument, and promoted the cross-pollinization of traditional string musics from around the world. In this interview, we travel with Darol from the future back to the ’60s and eventually weave our way back to the present.

Darol: We’re definitely in the future as music goes. At least with the acoustic string music scene, everything is happening at once. All the cultures are coming together. It’s like the fulfillment of some kind of promise that all the string musicians from all over the world were going to be regularly getting together and playing together, sharing their musics and their styles and creating a whole new kind of world style. Whatever you want to call it, the only real difference is one of reach –– the fact that musicians all over the world can be in contact very easily through email, over the internet, to pass music files around and to connect. There’s a huge migration of younger people to large and small music festivals where there’s actual human interaction and people seeing people playing live on stage.

What was it that attracted you to fiddle music when you were one of those younger people?

Well, I got into music because of the Beatles, basically. Everyone in my fifth grade classroom wanted to be the Beatles. We all picked our guy that we wanted to be [laughs] and obviously that entailed playing some sort of guitar or bass or drums.

So which Beatle were you?

I preferred George, actually. He was the quiet guy just making up the cool guitar riffs. Anyway, so my parents bought me a guitar, but they bought a guitar that was physically unplayable. I remember just being very frustrated about that. But then, soon after, we were in a restaurant with my folks and there was a guy strolling tables playing popular tunes of the day on the violin. He made it look easy, and I said, “Man, that seems a lot easier than guitar. I’ll play that!” So forty years later, here I am still struggling with one of the most difficult instruments to play. But I don’t really regret any of it now. It’s also one of the most rewarding instruments.

But flash forward a few years. I had taken classical violin lessons for years and I had no idea fiddling existed. Then I heard Richard [Greene]. And I said, “Oh, I guess I don’t have to play electric guitar any more! Maybe I could do everything that I thought I wanted to do on electric guitar on fiddle.” But I was already ruined for any kind of pure traditional music by the Beatles! They incorporated anything that they wanted and anything that they liked into their music. So I was sort of inculcated with that ethos. So when I was in college, I was playing bluegrass. It was bizarre bluegrass.

When I heard a band called the Great American Music Band, which featured Richard Greene and David Grisman playing David Grisman’s tunes, it changed my world radically. I actually started a group in my home town of Santa Cruz, California, to play the tunes that I had learned from my bootleg tape of that performance of the Great American Music Band. I learned all of Richard Greene’s fiddle solos and all the melodies and all the chord progressions to all the tunes from that concert tape. So when my friend Todd Phillips, who was taking mandolin lessons from David, brought me up there to play with David Grisman, I was ready. I knew all of David’s tunes. [laughs] And we just started playing together and we basically jammed for about six months. I would drive the hundred miles to David’s house in Marin County and then drive back in my old VW bus. Sometimes I’d spend a couple of days. I’d stay in his basement.

You know, people think of bluegrass as a traditional form but it’s really not at all. It’s actually sort of a radical synthesis of previous forms. It was this virtuoso pop form that just created itself overnight through the confluence of incredibly creative musicians who were playing very personal styles. But it was based on traditional styles. So basically, when David started writing his original tunes that were based on a different combination of influences –– David was also very influenced by the Beatles –– he was really following in the tradition of bluegrass.

...So in that way, just as bluegrass was a rhythmic milestone and a harmonic milestone from traditional old time string band music, “Dawg music” was in its way really in the tradition of moving music forward, incorporating new influences from different parts of music around the world into the string band form. That’s what I know as a musician. And I’ve been consciously doing that with the Turtle Island String Quartet, with the Montreux Band, and with Psychograss, with my duet with Mike Marshall, and with my new group, the Republic of Strings. I see that as my job –– to recombine, extend the possibilities of the string band so that other people can be inspired and move it forward.

[For the rest of this lengthy and inspiring interview, purchase the Spring 2011 issue.]

For the latest news on Darol’s projects, online tunes and interactive forum, visit Darol’s web site at www.darolanger.com.

[Peter Anick, author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” teaches fiddle and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]