2016 was a tough year for bluegrass fans and lovers of traditional Appalachian string bands. At the ripe old age of 89, Dr. Ralph Stanley, the grand old man of mountain music, shuffled off his mortal coil. It's no cliché to say his passing marks the end of an era.
It's also no cliché to describe music as a kind of relay race, and this week Memphians can catch a pair of players who learned traditional styles from the masters and have spent their entire careers expanding the form. Guitar plucker and high tenor Del McCoury (75) and mandolin virtuoso David "Dawg" Grisman (69) come from vastly different backgrounds, but their perfect blending is nothing new. The two men recorded together for the first time in 1966 when Folkways cut the live Grisman track that would eventually become the Early Dawg recordings.
McCoury is the genuine article. He joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in the early 1960s, playing both banjo and guitar and eventually taking over as lead vocalist. Between musical gigs, he took hard labor jobs in the construction and logging industry. His music catalog is a mix of traditional mountain songs, but his best known recording is a haunting cover of Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightning" — the story of a charming juvenile delinquent and his motorcycle.
Grisman, who can squeeze more notes out of a mandolin run than just about anybody, met lifelong collaborator Jerry Garcia at a Monroe concert in the early '60s — before McCoury joined. Together, the two master craftsmen jam, tell road stories, and allude to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen bros. film responsible for Ralph Stanley's late-life resurgence in popularity.