* David Grisman, the virtuoso mandolinist who performs tonight at the Smithsonian, has a strong emotional tie to the director of the institution's Folklife Program. "Ralph Rinzler is the first guy I ever saw playing the mandolin," Grisman recalls. "He was standing in my sophomore high school English class, taught by his cousin Elsie Rinzler, giving a demonstration lecture on folk music. He brought his mandolin and it was unusual looking and Ralph's a pretty hot player. That was the beginning of a longstanding friendship and musical relationship." A few weeks later, Grisman bought his first mandolin in a New York pawnshop for $18.

"Ralph turned me on to so much I couldn't begin to say. I used to help him garden they were neighbors in Passaic, N.J., then and he'd be playing tapes of Bill Monroe, all sorts of stuff. We actually 'met' earlier: My mother was an art teacher and Ralph was one of her students. He remembers the day she brought me into class when I was 2 years old and he was around 11 or 12, so we go back a long way."

Grisman, who's been called the Paganini of the mandolin, has gone on to establish his own provocative style of playing -- called dawg music -- combining elements of jazz, bluegrass, gypsy (he scored the "King of the Gypsies" movie), classical and rock (he was a founder of Earth Opera). "I'm a composer and I think any composer wants to be known for writing his own music and that's what dawg music really means to me, it's a style of composition." Record stores don't know where to file him, but Grisman has a practical solution: "a section of records that I play on." He has seven records of his own and more than 50 as a session man for people like Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and Dolly Parton.

He'll have an additional in February, tentatively "Dawg Grass, Dawg Jazz," with one side accenting the bluegrass (Earl Scruggs, Jerry Douglas) and the other jazz (including a big band and old friend Stephane Grappelli).