Once upon a time on a faraway farm, a fiddler cast a spell over a family with his old-timey ballads, and when he was finished playing, he stashed his magic instrument by the baby’s crib.
“You know how kids will put things in their mouths?” says John Grimm, recalling his first taste of rosin. “I grabbed that violin and chewed on its scroll, and I think a splinter of it got into my bloodstream and just never left.”
So begins the story of the Grimms, Dahlonega’s first family of music. This tuneful brood of faeries, pixies, and sprites lives up to the storybook surname with otherworldly powers of song. John Grimm, the patriarch, is known primarily for his virtuosity on fiddle and guitar, but he can play pretty much all of the strings for sale at his shop, Vintage Music, which, with its new and used instruments, private lessons, and recording studio, functions as the seedbed of the mountain town’s flowering music scene.
Because he helped revive the tradition of downtown, weekend jams, Grimm’s influence can be heard in almost every note plinked and strummed around here, from guitar lessons he’s given to Zac Brown and other up-and-comers such as Spencer Durham, Kurt Thomas and Corey Smith to his contributions on Shawn Mullins’ early recordings. Playing seriously since he was an Ohio teenager, Grimm has performed in too many bands to list. Lately, he anchors the Georgia Potlickers and the Georgia Mudcats; works as sound engineer for the Crimson Moon; and serves as the go-to stalwart of the Mountain Music and Medicine Show and other theatrical and folkloric projects.
“John is the cornerstone of every single aspect of music up here and has played a major role in revitalizing downtown with music,” says Joel Cordle, a fiddler who teaches bluegrass history in the Appalachian Studies Center.
Grimm, who’s laconic with an intense, spectacle-framed gaze, evokes the old “still waters run deep” line, while his wife, Meredith, who sings and teaches piano, beams serenity at the din surrounding her. They have five offspring, each about three years apart: Joe, 31; Larkin, 28; Annelise, 25; Hannah, 22; and Spencer, 17. Some parapsychologists might dub them a litter of maturing “indigo children”—preternaturally intuitive and gifted. So far they’ve all attended Ivy League universities, usually with scholarships (Spencer is a high-school senior at Rabun Gap Nacoochee School) and excelled in eclectic pursuits with convention-defying felicity. In ways both mischievous and serious, the Brothers and Sisters Grimm are bending and distending all kinds of ancient sounds to innovative effect—freak folk, throat-singing, hip-hop, Balkan punk interpretations of Sousa’s marching tunes—and they give credit to their fey, free-thinking and aurally stimulating upbringing. Like their father, they were teethed on instruments: jaw harps and psalteries, dulcimers and mandolins, fiddles and pennywhistles, among others.
“One of my earliest memories: falling asleep to the sounds of my dad and his friends playing old-time music in the living room,” says Joe, a minimalist “peace noise” composer and performer known as “The Wind-Up Bird.” “The hypnotic drones of open strings resonated beneath the melodies, and the trance-inducing cyclic repetitions of the musical structure induced a kind of weird, propulsive stasis. The same material repeated and reworked with minute variations, toward the horizon and toward the past. It was mesmerizing.”
He eventually joined his dad for jams on the square.
“When I was older I played those same tunes with him,” Joe says. “Over time the tunes had warped and changed in subtle ways—bowings refined, rhythmic emphases shifted. Now I was a part of the process as well.”
After graduating from Yale with a degree in philosophy and then earning a master’s at Brown University, Joe was awarded a full-ride scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he’s parsing the more esoteric nuances of soundscapes.
“The music I’m doing now deals with resonance of vibration through physical materials, the overtone series, the statistical distribution of sound events in time, and the transmutation of flickering light-patterns into sound-patterns,” he says.
Or, in terms more accessible to the average radio listener: If you’ve heard of Mongolian/Tibetan throat singing, you have some idea of Joe’s current specialty. His father explains, “In some cases, you can play a note slightly off-pitch, and there’s this third part that is heard but not played, so you can have only two guys singing but hear this third part.”
Joe’s sister Larkin is equally ethereal, albeit in a more pell-mell way.
Ironically, she considers herself the “shy one” of the bunch, despite a recent rush of irresistibly confessional interviews and giddy publicity that has burnished her image as an outré, feral wood nymph—the darkling princess of “freak folk.” In promotional literature for her acclaimed 2008 album Parplar, Larkin recalls hitchhiking around Alaska until she found a “place so beautiful I couldn’t leave, camped out there in my tent for about two months with the plan to starve to death, get eaten or get enlightened.” There, a Cherokee shaman lyrically named Jezebel Crow initiated her into the “practice of using natural hallucinogens to gain spiritual wisdom. On one such trip, I got my first jolt of golden light to the brain and was possessed by a forest spirit who taught me to sing.”
That explanation makes perfect sense when you hear her shimmery, keening vocals, which seem to warble from Middle Earth. If there is any trace of hillbilly in that exquisitely hair-raising voice, it’s the spooky old Appalachia of haints, panthers and witchy wise-women.
Echoing other besotted promoters and reviewers, her Parplar co-producer, the avant-garde Swans founder Michael Gira, rhapsodizes: “Larkin is a magic woman. She lives in the mountains in north Georgia. She collects bones, smooth stones and she casts spells. She worships the moon. She is very beautiful, and her voice is like the passionate cry of a beast heard echoing across the mountains just after a tremendous thunder storm, when the air is alive with electricity. I don’t consider her folk, though—she is pre-folk, even pre-music. She is the sound of the eternal mother and the wrath of all women. She goes barefoot everywhere, and her feet are leathery and filthy. She wears jewels, glitter and glistening insects in her hair.”
Larkin, also a Yalie despite the institution’s off-putting “elitism,” divides her time between Dahlonega and New York. She toured recently with the Mountain Goats, and she’s at work on another album with Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s longtime producer. She’s also mastering the harp.
Her father shakes his head and says, “We gave all of our children music lessons except Larkin,” who studied visual art, “so she just started playing out of nowhere, without much academic knowledge. She makes up her own, alternate tunings and comes up with melodies that are simple, beautiful and completely unique, with great feeling. The first time I heard her play, I said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t take lessons.’ Of course, she has never wanted to do anything in a conventional way, ever, even when she was an infant.”
Look ma, no amps
Nor, apparently, does sister Annelise, perhaps the most kinetic and high-decibel of the Grimms. She plays a bass drum for What Cheer?, a 19-piece punkish, marching brass band of street performers based in Providence, R.I. The northern cousin to Atlanta’s wacky Seed & Feed troupe, the costumed marchers incorporate influences from the Balkans, India, Bollywood and Brazil into “Luddite Hardcore: loud, mobile music requiring no electricity” with the goal of reclaiming public spaces and shaking folks out of their patterns of “rampant consumerism and prefabricated culture.”
What Cheer?, which was reportedly how the American Indians greeted the state founder Roger Williams, has camped it up at Lollapalooza and toured Europe, where the musicians performed at a festival in a small town in Serbia, reportedly leaving the locals “really excited and confused”—a fun irony for Annalise, who studied international relations at Brown.
She also raps with an all-women hip-hop quartet called Wide (())n, which performs snappy numbers such as “Relaxin’s the Shit.”
“Annalise has to be able to dance and move,” Larkin says fondly. “She’s a little like Beyonce or Rihanna, dancing and singing at the same time—to loud, pre-arranged beats and guerilla party music that can be played anywhere, like parks, warehouses, under bridges.”
Hannah, who just graduated from Princeton, teaches at Rabun-Gap Nacoochee. She sings, too, with a preference for old folk songs and traditional music, Larkin says, and little brother Spencer recently started writing and playing songs.
“He’s sort of a surfer dude who likes Brazilian samba,” Larkin says, as if those elements routinely link up in north Georgia. “He’s been a little shy and secretive about what he’s working on, but I know he’s writing, and I know it’s going to be very good.”
Post-war… as in ‘Civil’
All of this progressive experimentation is even more arresting given John Grimm’s decidedly old school tastes. Walking up the narrow wooden stairs to his shop, with its mandolins, banjos, and Civil War-era guitars lining the wall, can feel like wading pleasantly into a daguerreotype. “What is that scent in the air—resin, rosin?” someone asks, and Meredith smiles and says, “It’s the smell of old instruments.”
The couple met in San Francisco’s counterculture and then lived for a time in Memphis, starting a family at the utopian Christian community called the Holy Order of MANS, an acronym for Mysterion, Agape, Nous, Sophia. (“I was very, very shocked and disturbed when we left the commune and entered ‘the real world,”’ Larkin has said in other interviews. “I am still very idealistic and believe very strongly in the power of kindness, openness, and love… This is not as easy and flowing and peaceful as you might think.”)
When John Grimm was in his 20s, his retro enthusiasms took hold during a fiddlers convention when he encountered Tommy Jarrell.
“Jarrell was an old moonshiner from North Carolina who had learned to play from Civil War veterans,” Grimm says. “His playing was rough, archaic, primitive. If you didn’t pay attention, you might not realize how incredible it actually was.” He nods toward a wall in his shop where an outsider-art style portrait of Jarrell hangs with the straightforward motto: “He drank some good corn likker and played the violin for awhile. Then he died.”
“Of course,” Grimm says, “you had to catch him early in a show because he would get so drunk.”
Hooked, the young musician took lessons from Bruce Molsky, a venerated Jarrell protégé, and learned the finer points of old-time fiddling—how to rock his bow, how to sing while playing, and how to saw “crooked tunes,” jumping a beat and compensating with the next note. “That always trips up the square dancers,” he says, “so with modern music, there’s a tendency to smooth it out, to refine it and cram as many notes in as possible. But a less perfect sound sounds more perfect to me.”
So Grimm can trace his techniques directly to the Civil War era. This unusual skill set helped him land the role of Fiddlin’ John Carson in the PBS film The People v. Leo Frank, which aired last fall. The gig marked a full-circle moment; Carson, the first artist ever to record a country record, used to play in jam sessions on Dahlonega’s square in the 1920s.
Grimm’s oldest son, reflecting on his roots, says, “I work with sensory thresholds, with physical phenomena that cross back and forth across the border of perceptibility. But I’ve always carried with me the experiences that I first had with my dad’s old-time music—the experience of trance, of deep listening, and the orientation toward the infinite.”
Surprisingly, though, family time at the Grimm home was never one big, toe-tapping sing-along, the kids point out. “We support each other, and we’re proud of each other, but we all turned out so differently,” Larkin says. “We’re all passionate, creative, very stubborn individuals who are totally on our own trips. We never wanted to be the Partridge Family.”