Craven’s music career plays out like fairy tale |

Craven’s music career plays out like fairy tale

Joe Craven brings American folk music to the Center for the Arts Saturday.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Joe Craven’s music career seems like a fairy tale. How many other individuals can

say they used to be in the audience watching their favorite performer – in Craven’s case, David Grisman – and years later be in that performer’s group?

Not many concertgoers can make that claim.

As he sat frequently in Grisman’s audience during a 10-year period, Craven didn’t consider such a possibility.

“I never, ever imagined this happening,” Craven said Monday from his Davis-area home. “If someone said ‘write the script,’ I wouldn’t have put that in.”

But that’s what happened; Craven now celebrates his 14th year as multi-instrumentalist of the David Grisman Quintet.

That he was even drawn into this type of music is just as spellbinding a story and just as dependent on Grisman himself.

“I didn’t care for bluegrass and old-time and Appalachian music, which I thought was too hillbilly,” Craven explained. “It took a long time for me to get used to it, to come to appreciate it or even like it. I didn’t care for it; it wasn’t my cup of tea.”

But since he traded his guitar for a mandolin as a University of South Carolina freshman (he thought the mandolin looked cool), teachers and students alike expected Craven to be into old-time music.

“This flat-picker economics professor comes by as I’m hanging out,” Craven said, “noodling the mandolin, and asks, ‘Do you know Blackberry Blossom?’ He was fascinated that I had no idea of the mandolin’s association to traditional American folk music. He was really taken aback by that.”

The professor was so mystified that he encouraged Craven to attend picking parties, which became an invaluable education for the former high school rocker, who at that time would rather listen to a Frank Zappa record than an Americana record.

“I heard this music at the picking parties, and I was a total fish out of water. Now anything goes. Back then, though, I was getting my horizons broadened, whether I wanted to or not,” Craven laughingly reminisced. “This all seemed so conservative; I wanted to play things not true to form. I would get busted; the others would say, ‘that’s not how you play this.'”

After two years of attending picking parties, Craven finally began to fit in, but not until the group took a meal break, and someone turned up the record player.

“I stopped dead in my tracks, then sat myself in front of the stereo, tuned out and listened,” said a still reverent Craven. “It was the first record by the David Grisman Quintet, in 1977. I was just ‘Oh my God,’ that’s really different, a string band playing to my ears very jazzy music. It sounded nothing like the music I heard at these parties. It was so fresh.”

The record owner didn’t agree with Craven’s assessment; he gladly gave Craven the album because the music was anything but traditional string band music.

“I went through several copies, drove my roommates crazy, wore the grooves out,” said Craven, who was so determined to hear Grisman live that he skipped two days of college classes to attend a concert in Atlanta.

“I was peeing in my pants, it was so great seeing the David Grisman Quintet,” said Craven, who moved West after college and would buy tickets whenever Grisman was at a nearby gig.

To make a long story short, Craven ended up in Grisman’s band after the quintet leader invited the fan to his house. Grisman heard Craven was a collector and wanted to check out a mandocello.

“I was very excited and honored to go to his house. After David realized I could also play, one thing led to another,” Craven said.

Just as important today to Craven as playing with Grisman is keeping alive American folk music through his reinterpretations.

That will be the case Saturday at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley during a CD release party for his new CD, “Mo’ Joe,” a follow-up to Craven’s debut instrumental recording, “Camptown.” His 1996 debut CD received great reviews from music critics; Craven made the cover of Dirty Linen.

“Mo’ Joe” was a labor of love for Craven.

“‘Camptown’ was this international treatment of fiddle tunes and reflected my interest in world music as a percussionist. But ‘Mo’ Joe’ is a continuing tribute to folk music,” Craven noted.

Pointing out that a lot of commercial and mainstream music is treated as disposable commodity by major record companies and commercial radio stations, Craven said that is not so for folk music.

“It’s really great to know music can have that kind of longevity and can exist today,” said Craven, using the new CD’s eighth song, “Midnight on the Stormy Deep,” to illustrate his point.

“Midnight on the Stormy Deep’s” earliest set of lyrics is dated 1727. That song today is a popular bluegrass tune, although it was written in Germanic ballad tradition.

“Some of this stuff goes back to medieval times. It’s something that builds upon itself and changes through time, which is so great,” Craven exclaimed.

“So many versions – it’s a wild journey that music goes through to become what it is today in people’s ears,” added Craven, who is determined to keep this music alive.

“That’s the purpose of ‘Mo’ Joe’: to share history and a sense of place, where we are, where we came from.”


WHAT: Joe Craven Quartet CD release party

WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m.

WHERE: Center for the Arts, 314 W. Main St., Grass Valley.

ADMISSION: $15 Tickets at Herb Shop Records, BriarPatch, Book Seller and at the door.




spends time

performing and educating

When he1s not performing from March to November across the country with the David Grisman Quintet, Joe Craven is on the road performing solo and making guest appearances with ensembles such as Mumbo Gumbo, a group he belonged to during the late 1980s, and Psychograss.

He has also performed and/or recorded with the late Jerry Garcia, Stephane Grapelli, Darol Anger, Rob Ickes and Ramblin1 Jack Elliott.

In addition, Craven provides music for commercials, movies, TV shows and computer games.

Craven is just as involved in projects which educate kindergartners to graduate students.

3I1m an educator, I1m not a teacher in that I have students. In fact I1m a student myself in all this,² Craven explained. 3I do presentations to inspire people to become more deeply involved in music, to bring music more actively in their lives.²

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