Lone Star Guitar
BY MICHAEL ROSS
David Grissom is far from a household
name. I consider myself lucky to have discovered him two decades ago on the classic Joe Ely record, Live at Liberty Lunch.
That documentation—of one of the top
ten shows ever—displays Grissom’s unique
style to great effect. Hearing pedal-steel
licks played on a Paul Reed Smith cranked
through a Marshall (rather than on a Tele
through a Twin) blew my mind.
When I was 15, a guitar teacher who was a
jazz guy, turned me on to Wes Montgomery.
Louisville was kind of a pass-through point
for the jazz musicians working the chitlin’
circuit. Also, Jimmy Raney lived in Louisville.
I actually took a lesson from him once—he
gave me a lot of confidence.
That’s interesting, because your playing on
Liberty Lunch back then seems pretty mature.
High-profile gigs with John Mellencamp, a
stint with cult band Storyville, and a musical director job with the Dixie Chicks have
elevated the profile of this Louisville-born,
Austin-based picker, but his two recent
solo records should truly cement his place
in the pantheon of exceptional guitarists. I
caught up with Grissom at his home/studio
in Spicewood, TX, about 30 miles southwest
of Austin, to find out how his unique style
evolved and to get the lowdown on the
development of his signature model Paul
Reed Smith guitar.
Growing up in Louisville, we had a big
bluegrass festival every summer, and I got
to hear Doc Watson and Norman Blake. I
can’t point to anything that I play and say, “I
learned that from Norman Blake,” but there
were things like the way he does double-stops and rolls, and the way he phrases
that sounded musical to me. Touring with
the Dixie Chicks in 2003, right after they
had done their bluegrass record, I had the
chance to work with some guys that were
for-real bluegrass players, and I learned so
much from them. I just combined all of those
things into a blend that appealed to me.
That was from the years I spent working with
Joe [Ely]. He understood the value of space
in the pacing of a show. Within 15 minutes
we would play a ballad that came down to a
whisper, then a rocker that just leveled the
place. Playing all those gigs with an empathetic leader and a great band taught me
things that you don’t learn in a book.
When did you start playing country licks
with a distorted sound?
The classic first question is how you got
started on the guitar?
I hear a jazz influence in the way you don’t
always start your solos right away. You
might let a bar or two pass.
I can remember being 9 or 10 years old and
hearing that guitar lick in the Beatles song
“Got to Get You into My Life.” Something
magic clicked in my head that drew me to
the guitar. Then I heard more Beatles stuff,
Stones, and Hendrix. Later, I really got into
the Allman Brothers, B.B. King, Magic Sam,
[Paul] Butterfield Blues Band.
I never thought of that coming from a jazz
thing, but the older I get the more I value
space—not only in music but in all aspects
of life. Whether having a conversation with
somebody, or just thinking about something, it is important not to run all your
thoughts together. In music, the space is
really as important as the notes. I listen to
some of my stuff from twenty years ago
and I appreciate the testosterone, but there
are some cringe moments too.
The minute I got to Austin I started doing
much more of that. Before I ever joined the
band, I listened to the Joe Ely records where
Lloyd Maines played the overdriven pedal-steel guitar. I loved that sound. There was no
pedal-steel in the band when I joined, so it
made sense for me to cover some of those
textures and licks. While I was still in high
school, I had heard the Dave Edmunds record
with Albert Lee playing a solo on “Sweet
Little Lisa.” I didn’t know there was a B-string
bender on his guitar, so I learned to play that
solo by bending the strings—in some cases
with my first finger—to try to approximate
those pedal-steel bends. Then I got the Paul
Reed Smith and Marshall within six months of
joining his [Ely’s] band, and that led me to a
style that I still draw on today.
What were you playing before the PRS?
Your style melds many types of music:
blues, rock, country and jazz. Where does
that mix come from?
I had one electric guitar, a 1960 Fiesta Red
Stratocaster. We were playing barrooms and
it was hotter than hell—I would be soaking
wet at the end of every gig. I remember