Behind the times and proud of it, David Grisman, John Hartford and Mike Seeger bring plenty of rustic charm and verve to their new release, "Retrograss." Together and alone, they conjure sounds deeply rooted in the American experience--the acoustic weave of old-time string bands, the high and lonesome reverberations of seminal bluegrass ensembles, the heyday of Jimmie Rodgers and the birth of country music.
That's no mean feat, to be sure. But what makes "Retrograss" (Acoustic Disc) truly special are some of the songs this ad hoc all-star trio has chosen to interpret.
Among the more improbable selections is "Hound Dog," a huge hit for both Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley in the '50s. Dubbed "Hound Dawg" in honor of Grisman's previous "Dawg" music innovations, the tune is drastically retrofitted to accommodate his mandolin, Seeger's banjo and Hartford's fiddle and parched baritone. When the dust settles, the trio achieves one of its goals by evoking the "quaint parlor music" made by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers in the '20s.
And that's just for starters. The trio indulges in several other musical make-overs. Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm," for example, finds Seeger singing and playing alone, picking out the melody in the style of the great Virginia banjoist Dock Boggs.
"Memphis," the Chuck Berry hit, is recast as an exuberant jug band tune, thanks largely to Hartford's raspy fiddle, while the Otis Redding smash "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," ringing with banjo tones, takes on a fresh perspective. It's as if Hartford were reflecting on the glory of watching his beloved riverboats cruise up and down the Mississippi. Even Lennon and McCartney get in the trio's act, courtesy of a ragtimey version of "When I'm Sixty-Four."
Grisman, Hartford and Seeger also pay tribute to several bluegrass and country music icons along the way, including Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and Jim and Jesse McReynolds. Yet no matter what the tune, listening to the trio in this inspired setting is a delightful, time-altering experience.
The David Grisman Quintet performs tonight at the Birchmere.
(To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8173.)