Artist Profile: David Grissom; Austin’s Master Craftsman Chats Guitars And Songwriting

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David Grissom manning the PRS [ Theresa DiMenno photography]

I met with Austin songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire David Grissom for a sit-down chat in his South Austin digs. Immediately was won over by his self-deprecating humor and ability to open up and be a Real Guy. I never know wtf I’m getting when I sit down with some folks. But David was as easy-going, as congenial, as anyone I’ve encountered who has hit some incredible career highs like he has. As a songwriter, he has the honor of writing Storyville’s great big hit and signature Malford Milligan tune “Good Day For The Blues”, as well as songs for Trisha Yearwood, Dixie Chics, and others.

Out of all the songs that have been poured from Austin’s collective best, “Good Day For The Blues” likely sits at a lofty number one. It is still played daily on Austin airwaves almost 20 years after it’s creation, and one can still hear Milligan rip it up in a number of venues he plays at, not to mention Grissom still plays his version of it. [ As Grissom noted about Milligan, “He owns it now.”]

Grissom has lived by all accounts, a musically charmed life. Plucked from obscurity after only living a few years in Austin after relocating from Louisville, Kentucky, his earlier gigs were with an early talent named Lucinda Williams, afterwards he was one of Joe Ely’s main men[ post -Jesse Taylor era] which led to John Mellencamp grabbing him for a 3 year guitar stint. Along the way he was an integral part of the iconic Austin band Storyville. He’s written in Nashville, and was the hot Go To  Session guy for a few years there. He has released a number of quality recordings over the past decade, four to be exact, the most recent one from 2014″ How It Feels To Fly”, which was received warmly by critics. Grissom has graced the cover of Guitar Player, Guitar World, Musician, and Vintage Guitar Magazine to give you an idea of the quality chops, styles, and street cred  he carries on board. He also has instructional videos for the guitar aficionado and learners alike. He is a guitar player’s guitar player.

There’s much to talk about musically with David. He’s logged so many sessions, he probably can’t remember them all. We actually were on the same song from a session eons ago, from a project called No Nothing, written by bassist Carl “Bro” Betts. Betts hired Grissom and fret-burner David Spann to record two songs and I was the singer on both, RockPile drummer Bobby Irwin was also in on that. That was so old, it was released on cassette. We chatted all over the map, as you’ll soon read. One thing right off the bat you pick up on is David Grissom is a gentleman. He’s got a natural charisma. You can’t help but like the guy. He makes you feel at home, and he listens to you. And you, in turn, listen to him. He’s got stories. Good ones.

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SPM: You had a connection with Stephen Bruton that was that was kind of brother-like. I was reading another article where you have one of his old guitars…

DG: A couple of them…

SPM: That’s kind of like sacred stuff I would think.

DG: Yeah,it is…it’s…it’s almost surreal at times when I pick these things up. Because not so much that they belonged to Stephen but I remember the times at his house when I would play those guitars when we would write together …and one in particular I just remembered thinking this was the most magical acoustic guitar I’ve ever played in my life, and I was able to buy it from his estate after he passed. They are inspiring instruments. Sometimes it’s little eerie, to be frank with you, because it reminds me of what he mentioned to me about vintage guitars, you have too many of them and trade them all the time, you know there’s always another one that’s a better one. I’ve come to feel, and I think he felt the same way, that there are certain songs and certain guitars and when you get all the songs out of the guitars, you trade it to somebody else and let them get their songs out of it. I don’t know if he came out and actually said that, but I think he did, and what I’ve come to realize is we are just borrowing these things, that the guitars are going be here long after we are gone, obviously, I’ve got a couple of Stephens’ guitars…and I think he had come to realize, and I have come to realize at this point, that as magic and special as these instruments are, you don’t get too attached to them. And I started out on the vintage stuff. It dawned on me and it sounds like an obvious thing, but for me it was an epiphany; Why don’t I take these things out and play them, what am I protecting them for, so I can put them in  my will and give them to somebody else? So it’s like what the heck, play the damn things. It’s really cool but like I said, every time I pick one up I can remember what song we were working on, on a certain day, and what the house looked like, they had a real vibey place where they lived. And guitars were everywhere, he kept them all out, hardly any of them were in cases, so it was  like going into a candy store.

SPM: So how many guitars do you own as a guesstimate right now?

DG:  It’s kind of weird because I work with PRS, I have a signature model guitar and in the process of developing that model, there’s so many prototypes that I have in storage. Those are guitars that I don’t play very much and I really can’t do much with them because they’re prototypes, they’re not really supposed to be out there, so that sort of skews the number. When I go to a session, not so much in Austin but when I was working more in Nashville, I would be expected to have a MINIMUM of 10 guitars because you have to cover so much. You have to have a Tele, a Strat, a Les Paul, a 335, a baritone guitar, and an electric 12-string, a 6 string bass, a PRS, a Gretsch. You were just expected to show up with all this stuff and sure enough if you didn’t have the Les Paul that day, that was the one they wanted. I knew I could make my PRS sound exactly like a Les Paul, but there were some producers that wanted to see the Les Paul. So I probably have 10 electrics that I use on a regular basis and 7 acoustics. The acoustics really run the gamut too, small body to a large body guitar, some mahogany, some with rosewood, they all have their own character. Then  you have to get a dobro, [ laughs] then a metal dobro and a 12 string acoustic, then a baritone acoustic, I mean, these are the tools you have to have in your tool box if you are going to work on a regular basis in making records.

SPM: What are you using for amps right now?

DG: I am using the amp that I designed with Doug Sewell of PRS. We designed 2 different amps, the 30 watt and the 50 watt. I’m using the 30 all the time, it’s plenty loud. I use the 50 to record, sometimes when I need something little beefier and a little more low-end, but the 30, about 98% of the time covers everything I need. I still have a bunch of vintage amps,but the PRS, we designed this thing, we spent a long time getting it to be where I like it. It’s much better than the vintage stuff.

SPM: Can you explain a bit how your writing process works? Is it spontaneous lightning bolts or a more methodical process?

DG: It’s both. The lightning bolts are the great things when that happens, it’s like I get it from the universe. But also by being methodical and showing up on the page on a regular basis, those lightning bolts happen more often. You kind of get the flow happening. I worked with a lot of great songwriters in Nashville for about 10 years. Even though most the songs I wrote for people weren’t really songs I’d put on my records but it was an incredible education to see how each one of them worked as full-time writers, their craft and the way they approached it. The one thing common to all of them was that they pretty much showed up everyday with a blank piece of paper and a pencil. And even if you sat there for 6 hours and didn’t get anything, you got something intangible. By that I mean the effort you put in , you know,  when you are pulling your hair out  and 8 cups of coffee later you have nothing, might mean tomorrow morning you wake up and sit down and it’s like…Here It Is. And I’ve had that experience where I write and fill up a notebook with gobbledygook and the next 40 pages in, I’ve got two verses and a chorus, a song I like a lot and I’m going to keep. It’s a craft that I have to work at. Even Bob Dylan has to work at it. And for me, sometimes its a musical idea that starts, and sometimes a lyrical one. If you look at the ratio of musical ideas that I’ve come up with versus lyric ideas, it’s probably like 10-1 musical. And I have no problem giving you a verse and a chorus right now musically, but lyrically it’s much slower for me. So I have to really work at that part of it.

SPM: Red Young told me he has miles and miles of tape that he has over the years that he refuses to throw away. He can go back and glean new ideas from old ones. Do you find yourself doing that,too?

DG: Absolutely, and the iPhone has been a real Godsend in that the voice mail, every time you plug your phone in, it saves them all to the computer. When I go back and listen I try to delete the ones I know I’m not going to go back to. Inevitably, there’s always stuff that would’ve gotten away had I not documented it. Any writer, especially someone just starting out, I would encourage them to “catch” the idea while it’s hot. Mick Goodrick, this incredible jazz guitarist who is in Gary Burton’s band with Pat Metheny wrote this book called “The Advancing Guitarist” and it’s really kind of  esoteric, he talks about some cool obvious but rarely talked about things and one of the things he mentions is that is to pay attention to the first two minutes of your playing, the first two minutes that you picked up the guitar that day. In his mind, it’s the most important thing you are going to play all day. It’s that beginner’s mind and empty canvas.

SPM: Speaking of the writing process, how do you describe writing ” Good Day For The Blues”?

DG: I was in Fredericksburg at a bed and breakfast with my wife and I woke up and I had this idea in my head,  I sat down on the floor of the bathroom and just sorta wrote it down. I had some lyrics, something of a melody in my head, and the whole drive back to Austin I was like, “Don’t talk to me, cause I want to remember this melody”. So I got home, remembered it and I just finished the song. It was one of the easiest songs I’ve ever written.

SPM: You ever work with Malford anymore?

DG: He came out a few weeks ago and sang with my band, sat in. We see each other a lot, we remain great friends. But you know, he’s got his projects and I got mine. We’ll always be great friends and I always look forward to working with him. But you know that song? Malford kind of owns that song. I do it myself, too, and I do it my own way. The way he kind of grabbed it and sang it, elevated it without a doubt.

SPM: Did you feel you had your own way with the song and after giving it to him, it morphed, as things do when Malford takes control of it ?

DG: Yes, he’s always going to do that. Musically, it didn’t change very much from the way I envisioned it but although I recorded it acoustically a couple records ago  with Warren Hood and Carolyn Wonderland, essentially, it was the same song. Anytime Malford sings anything, it’s going to go up a notch …or ten. He’s a force of nature. A positive vibe and a beautiful person.

SPM: How did the Nashville songwriting door open for you?

DG: I got a call from Blake Chancy to play on a John Anderson record. And at the time Blake and Paul Worley were doing the Dixie Chics, and were one of the top 8 producers in terms of the number of records they made and the success they were having at the time. So apparently that went well, as Blake asked me back and Paul, he liked what I was doing so he started hiring me to do a lot of stuff with him and then it starts to snowball. When there’s a new person in town, a new flavor in town, all the other producers go,”Who’s this guy, what’s he doing over there? Maybe I need to hear him and hire him.”

Basically, the situation was, I understood the music and at the same time I had my own take on it, I think at that time producers were looking for a new way to make a record stand out and sound some new way but at the same time whoever they’re working with has to totally be on board with the way they make records up there, which is incredibly fast. You have to be able to turn on a dime, be a total team player, it has nothing to do with me sounding like me without giving them what they want. But I was lucky enough to work with guys who let me play the way I played for the most part. It’s real exciting and great, one of the few places where the band cuts the record together. I worked with a drummer a lot, a guy named Gregg Morrow,  who’s just a bad-ass, and he had a great quote;”Even when it sucks, it’s great!” …Meaning even if you weren’t crazy about the music that day, you were playing with the best players and tomorrow was another record date. That was a really great period, unfortunately, I’m not  there that much anymore because the economics of the business. CD sales are so far down, that budgets are so far down that the idea of bringing somebody in from out-of-town hardly doesn’t happen anymore and there’s a whole new batch of producers and they are using their guys.

SPM: Your last record in 2014 had Bryan Austin on drums, Stefano Intelisano on keys, and Scott Nelson on bass. Same lineup live?

DG: Everyone but Scott who moved to L.A., so Chris Maresh is playing bass now. I wanted to do it with the guys I’ve been playing with on a regular basis.

SPM: Stefano is everywhere! John Gaar, Big Cat, others…

DG: [laughs] Yes, he’s everywhere! Sometimes he can’t make our gigs and we go 3 piece, but…I’m really lucky to play with these guys on a regular basis, it’s really a fun band.

SPM:I worked with Austin on a record 3 years ago, he’s a human drum machine.

DG: Yes, whenever he takes a drum solo I have to pay attention, his mathematical brain is way beyond mine. And his ability to turn things around and superimpose polyrhythms, he always knows where he is, sometimes I’m like,” Dude, you have to count me back in!”[ laughs]

SPM: You’ve been playing Paul Reed Smiths for a long time. You gave much input on the McCarty model, the DGT. Do they have 85-15 Humbuckers in them?

DG: The DGT, my signature model has pickups that I designed with Ed Reynolds here in Austin, he and I worked on this for about a year. That was a long process and he was real instrumental in helping me come up with what we were after.

SPM: Anyone around here you want to work with but haven’t yet?

DG: I’d LOVE to work with Shaun Colvin. I admire everything about her, her writing, her guitar playing and singing. Ahh, you put me on the spot here, I’d like to work with the person  I haven’t heard yet that blows my mind. To me, I really thrive on hearing new things and coming up with new sounds, doing different things. I’ve never felt like I was an archivist. All the players I was influenced by did their own thing, but new blood is always healthy to be around.

SPM: Who were your early influences growing up as a guitar player?

DG: I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and at the time there was no scene there whatsoever, so you just grabbed what you could. For me, that was my father  putting on an 8-track of Waylon Jennings and hearing a song called ” Only Daddy That Will Walk The Line” and there was a guitar solo in it and that guitar solo influenced me. He turned on PBS one night, and they had this documentary on Roy Buchanan, his first records really influenced me, the way he mixed all these styles together. There was a lot of bluegrass music going on  around that area, and I got  influenced by Norman Blake and Doc Watson. My first guitar teacher turned me onto Keith Richards, my second turned me onto BB King, Magic Slim. My third turned me onto Wes Montgomery. All those teachers and the way those influences were introduced to me in that order were really pivotal, it was really lucky for me to be around these guys  who taught me the right things at the right time, and I would just go to any concert that came thru Louisville, like that Southern rock style, so I heard The Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, Santana. Sly & The Family Stone came thru a lot, I saw them two or three different times, I was like “Whoa!”…Earth,Wind, Fire,too. I listened to all that stuff.

SPM: What are your plans for 2016?

DG: Trying to finish another record. I think I’m going to just start putting it out song by song. It appears that the only place where physical CDS are still viable to sell anymore is at gigs. I did a tour in Europe earlier this year and people still buy CDS there at gigs, and that was the only money I made on the whole tour. At this point, as soon as I get a song finished, I’m going to float it out there. I’ve said this for the last two records, this is the last one I’m gonna make because, yes, it costs a lot of money, but more so, my distributor won’t pay me for what they’ve sold. From 2012, I’ve got my whole last record there, I don’t even want to tell you how many copies that shipped and they sold. I don’t know what happens now, I guess I’ll write it off, but as if it isn’t hard enough, then you can’t get paid for what you actually do sell.

You have find new ways to make money without a doubt and be imaginative about it. For me, I have 10 different things that I have in the pile. But I have to play live. It’s not about being “on stage”, it’s more about the experience of being engaged in this conversation with other like-minded musicians and having something unique to that moment happen. I’m addicted to that experience. One of the things that I’ve come to realize that’s as important is that by playing enough gigs I am able to approach the Night with an empty canvas. I don’t have any preconceived notion what it is I’m going to play on a solo, I try to keep that part of my brain totally turned off until I start the solo, and then it’s like the more gigs I’ve been playing, the more things just flow naturally.

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