Dec 25, 2012

February 1975: Old & In The Way Album


There is an unfortunate tendency for names or labels such as "bluegrass" or "country" to turn off potential listeners who might well enjoy the music if only they had a shot at hearing it without any preconceptions.
Not that I am a particularly avid fan of bluegrass, for instance, but there is an album which has just become available which I would hate to see ignored by anyone. It's that good.

It's "Old and In the Way" (Round Records RX 103). The title of the album is also the title of one of the songs on it and the name of the group which recorded it. Old and In the Way played around here in 1973 and 1974 a number of times and achieved considerable attention not only for its excellence, but for the fact that Jerry Garcia, normally the lead guitarist with the Grateful Dead, played banjo with this group, an instrument he had not until then been noted for. This album, in addition to Garcia's presence on banjo and occasional vocal, also offers Vassar Clements, a most extraordinary fiddler from Appalachia, home of that music which John Cohen illustrated so dramatically and lovingly in that rarely seen but beautiful film, "The High Lonesome Sound." Along with Garcia and Clements are David Grisman, who sings and plays mandolin, and Peter Rowan (of the Rowan Brothers) who plays guitar and sings, and John Kahn.

The album was recorded in the autumn of 1973 at The Boarding House by Owsley Stanley and Vickie Babcock, edited by Grisman and Stanley, and mixed and mastered by Stanley. The mixing was done "live" at the time of the recording itself, an unusual practice.
I go into all of this detail because the album is not only an utterly delightful series of musical performances, but also one of the very best recordings I have heard in a long time. I have played it on a number of different rigs, mono, stereo and quad, and it comes through as a definition of good recording each and every time.
The technique of using eight microphones and mixing live onto a Nagra stereo tape recorder worked like a miracle. Engineers ought to study this one and musicians, too, as well as producers. If there is such a category in the national record business annual awards, it ought to win as engineering triumph of the year.

Now to the music. David Grisman says in his short but eloquent statement on the album back that this music "embodies the spirit of that original Blue Grass quest and a genuine affection for that superlative blend of banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, string bass and voices."
That is absolutely accurate as a description. The musical sound of the performance resonates with love for the music and, since the players themselves are all truly first class despite Garcia's humble opinion of his own playing, the result is superlative music. And the voices, both individually and in ensemble, are absolutely wonderful.
What this album does, if I may switch rhetoric around a bit, is swing. There are no drums nor piano, but it has a remarkable rhythmic pulse and a glorious, propelling rhythm on every selection. The general format is for the voice of the singer on a particular song to be accompanied in at least part of the song by one or more of the other voices in the kinds of vocal harmony that have been associated with Appalachian music of the past 50 years.

The selections include traditional material such as "Pig in a Pen" and "Knockin' on Your Door" (Garcia sings the first and Rowan the second), an instrumental featuring Vassar Clements ("Kissimmee Kid"), an astonishingly imaginative and effective version of "Wild Horses" (the Mick Jagger/Keith Richard song the Rolling Stones made famous), Carter Stanley's "White Dove" beautifully sung by Garcia, several compositions by Rowan and Grisman including "Panama Red" (by Rowan) and the title song (by Grisman) - and Jack Bonus' "The Hobo Song."
Rowan is a very effective singer with a voice that has real warmth and feeling and is very flexible. It is particularly suited to these songs. Both Garcia and Grisman are heard here in the kind of setting which makes them sound their best.
Oddly enough there is no touch of country corn at all in this album. The music is free from that kind of feeling which for many people has marked the Appalachian and other urban white folk music.
Since the recording is of such exceptional quality and the stereo effect so revealing, it is possible to hear the individual instruments and the voices much better than is usually the case.

Despite the primitive implications of music such as this, which is generally classified as folk music, this is really very sophisticated music depending for its success on the same kind of instrumental virtuosity as the best jazz. John Kahn's bass playing, for instance, is delightful to listen to. And that brings up something else. It is possible to play this album many times and at each playing concentrate on one of the other of the instruments. You can't always do that, I have discovered, with most of today's product, and it is a pleasure to discover you can do it with this.
Old and In the Way does not appear to be a working group at the present time, though I suspect that this album, if it has the success it deserves, might well make it imperative for the group to perform in public again. I certainly hope so, for I have seldom heard such warm, loving, swinging and delightful music from any group of musicians in any idiom.
Round Records, incidentally, is the record company of the Grateful Dead. I think they have another hit on their hands with this album. I certainly hope so. The album deserves to be on everyone's turntable. It's really that good.

(by Ralph Gleason, from "This World," SF Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, March 9 1975)

* * * * *

10 March 1975

Record World
1700 Broadway
New York, New York 10019

Dear Sir:

I noticed in your February 22nd column "Album Picks" on the "Old & In The Way" album, Round Records RX 103, that you placed the term "live" in quotes, as if you meant to infer that you did not quite believe that the album was a live recording. I don't feel too badly about this, as it's a compliment of a sort on the quality of the recording.
Let me assure you that "Old & In The Way" is as live as you can get, the only processing was editing of the audience noise between cuts, which was done with a razor blade.
Eight microphones, half of them omni directional and half cardioid were mixed directly to a two track Nagra tape recorder set up off stage right and monitored on head phones to produce a 15 IPS master tape. No equalization of any kind was used at any point in the procedure. The tape record curve was "Nagra Master", which is flat low frequency with 12,500 Hz high frequency pre-emphasis.
Lacquers were cut from the original master directly - unequalized - from a Studer A-80 preview tape deck adjusted to the Nagra Master Curve and cut on a Neumann SAL 74/SX74 Mastering lathe.
Since the album was cut directly from the original tape, [with] no processing - no overdubbing - or other tricks or gimmicks so common to "live" recordings, I felt the quotes were misapplied.

Sincerely yours,
Owsley Stanley


  1. Though generally I don't plan to include Old & In The Way pieces, these two made a nice conjunction.
    See also the start of the OAITW story:

    There are some comments in Greenfield's "Dark Star" book about how Owsley recorded their shows (p.153) -

    Owsley: "They started doing shows and I had a Nagra tape recorder and I said to them, 'If you cover the tapes, I'll do it.' I loved that music; I'd grown up in rural Virginia and that was the music I had listened to back there."

    Grisman: "We played these gigs and Owsley was there recording them... He was trying to reattach himself to the scene and Jerry just didn't want any of it. He would go out of his way to make it hard on him to even set up his microphones. He'd bump into him. He didn't make it easy for him, but he allowed him to come there. Owsley had a stereo Nagra. He followed the band around and taped everything because I guess that was the only thing he could do. And he made some real good recordings."

    Rowan: [At one Keystone show] "every time we'd approach a microphone, it would feed back... The microphone kept feeding back, and I was standing next to Garcia when he nudged me. He said, 'Hey, man. Look up in the sound booth. Look at Owsley.' And there was Owsley in the sound booth like Lucifer. He had patch cords around his neck. He had wires in his teeth. From way down below, we could only see this maniacal grin on his bottom-lit face. Garcia said, 'He really loves his job, you know?'"

  2. Gleason's request that the band perform in public again would be in vain, since it had croaked in early '74.

    Rowan: "Old & in the Way broke up. Dave wanted to do some other kinds of music... We had worked together too long under too much pressure and too many drugs. I know that David had had enough, and I certainly wasn't evincing great love and care about Old & in the Way. I was probably being very cavalier... [Between the bandmembers there were] smoke screens and levels of ignoring each was awful."

    Grisman: "We made a studio album and I remember listening to it with Jerry at my house, and we decided it wasn't good enough to release, and that was the end of the band. Perhaps there were musical differences between me and Peter Rowan, but we never discussed them. We were young and didn't see the value of keeping it going."

    Rowan: "Jerry was like, 'Hey, if these guys can't keep it together, I'm not going to keep it together.' ...Jerry told me personally at the very end, 'David doesn't want to do it anymore but I do.'"

    Grisman: "Shortly after, I started playing with Richard Greene in this loose acoustic aggregation called the Great American String Band. Jerry played some gigs with us; Old & in the Way got left behind." (Greenfield p.157-8)

    There may be various levels of truth in these accounts (they were interviewed in '95 and felt a lot of guilt about OAITW, but after all it had happened back in '73, not '93, and Garcia was young then too).
    It's been discovered that OAITW recorded an album not at the end of their existence, but at the very beginning (probably explaining why they didn't think it was good enough).

    The disgruntlement between bandmembers, and lack of a usable studio recording, probably explains why it took til late '74 for someone to have the idea of using Owsley's tapes for a live album.
    (It's been suggested that Owsley intentionally taped their last shows for an album release, but I'm not at all certain of this. It's clear that Owsley had been recording them for some time already, just as he'd recorded the Dead for years, but none of that was "intended" for release.)

    McNally summarizes the rest of the story:
    "Round Records paid David Grisman $1,000 to assemble the album, and despite significant sales, he never saw another dime. Garcia was aware of the sloppiness of the business, but hid rather than confront the situation. As a result, though Jerry & David would play a number of gigs in [early 1974] with...the Great American String Band, their relationship lapsed into nothingness after a final jam session at David's house, and they did not speak for the next 15 years." (p.486)

  3. Nonetheless, in a stroke of irony, just as the OAITW album was being released, at the end of February 1975 Garcia appeared in a tiny Santa Cruz club playing banjo with the Good Old Boys -
    Garcia had just produced their album Pistol Packin' Mama at a couple sessions in January, and apparently played with them at other (lost) live shows as well, at places like Paul's Saloon in SF.

    For whatever reason, Round Records didn't put out their album until 1976, when it fell victim to the United Artists distribution deal.
    Frank Wakefield recalled, "The record wasn't out long when some legal complications over money developed. As good as Pistol was selling, United Artists took the record off the market." Ned Lagin said the same thing happened to Seastones, where UA just pulled it off the shelves.

    Old & in the Way seems to have suffered no such complications, as it became a bestseller (and probably propped up Round Records' brief existence as much as anything).

  4. I once owned a vinyl copy of "Old and In the Way" and have listened to it many times.It was recommended to me by a musician friend of mine, and I found it to have a high quality sound for a live recording.It also helped build up a keen sense for stringed acoustic instrument sound mix and added appreciation for this genre of music.