GREAT BARRINGTON -- The girl was 4 or 5 years old. She was shy. "You don't have to come all the way over here to sing," David Grover said as he sat in the corner of the dining room at Xicohtencatl, a Mexican restaurant that has been his Tuesday night gig for several months.
"You can sing it from there. Do you want to try it?"
The little girl said nothing, but she nodded ever so slightly. Grover started singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" slowly, encouragingly. He strummed a few chords on his guitar.
The girl joined in, tentatively at first. But she started to lose her inhibitions and began singing a little louder. Several other youngsters joined in. So did the parents.
By the time the last verse was sung, even the waitresses were mouthing the words. At the end of the song, everybody was clapping and laughing.
David Grover had won the room over.
Grover has played music for 47 of his 59 years on the planet. For the past 20, he's been the most popular performer in Berkshire County. Before that, he played in several rock bands, including the legendary Shenandoah, which was led by another local musical giant, Arlo Guthrie.
It is a hefty musical legacy, one that Grover has never focused on publicizing.
"I've never been good at blowing my horn," he said. "It just seems too much like bragging."
‘A children's performer'
Grover, who will perform a holiday show Friday at the Colonial Theatre with the Berkshire Theatre Festival Children's Chorus, is one of the few musicians in the county who makes his living entirely in the music world.
In addition to playing live, he records CDs, plays on others' CDs, is a producer, writes songs, and gives music lessons. He has put out more than 20 albums/CDs and has several guitars.
Popularly, Grover is known as "a children's performer." It is a label he does not resist, but it also is incomplete.
"I've never had a problem with that [tag]," he said, "because it hasn't ever stopped me from doing other things. But it's not the only thing I do. I don't like to be pegged as a certain type of performer."
Grover got started in children's music in 1983, when he had a gig at a local restaurant. He was off to the side, and no one was paying attention.
Grover began playing songs for a table of mostly pre-teen children and was pleasantly surprised at how well they responded.
"They loved it," he said.
There was no overnight metamorphosis. But Grover began playing more children's concerts, such as at elementary schools and at the children's wards in hospitals.
In 1989, Springfield PBS station WGBY contracted him to present a children's program, "Grover's Corner." The show ran for a few years, and "Chanukah at Grover's Corner with Ted Bikel" is still aired around the holidays.
Grover, a Pittsfield native who lives in West Stockbridge, began playing music at age 12 and performed in rock bands throughout his days at Pittsfield High School.
Old-timers in the city may recall a young "Dave" Grover strumming at the Pittsfield Boys' and Girls' Club in the 1960s, or performing at the many ethnic clubs and armories located throughout the Berkshires. But Grover also was interested in other forms of music, including folk and classical.
In 1969, he moved away from rock and began studying classical music privately with pianist and acclaimed composer Hall Overton at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
In 1974, Grover returned to the rock scene and formed Shenandoah, a local group that became Guthrie's backup band for six years. But as Grover grew older, the road became less exciting. He left Shenandoah in 1980 to spend more time in the Berkshires with his daughter, Jessica, from his first marriage. By 1990, he had overcome a severe drug problem, had quit drinking, and was delving more into children's music. He also scored movies. And toured China.
His collaboration with legendary songwriter Aaron Schroeder, who died Dec. 1, led to several albums and CDs. Schroeder worked with songwriting titans Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Randy Newman and Barry White, but said in an interview years ago that working with Grover was one of the "singular" pleasures of his career.
Steve Ide, one of the top guitarists in the Berkshires, praised Grover.
"David is a great all-around guitar player," said Ide, who performed with Grover in Shenandoah. "No one can touch him. He taught me a lot of things over the years. He didn't sit down and school me; it was sort of by osmosis. But he knows so much."
With David Grover, what you see is what you get. The laid-back charm, the aw-shucks grin, the calming voice. Ask him a question and you get an honest, often-self-deprecating answer.
This is a man who understands his role in the Big Picture, and a man who is comfortable with it.
"I've never wanted to be an ‘American Pie' performer," he said. "I've never wanted to play the usual songs."
An American Pie performer "just does those songs every frickin' person in the room knows," Grover said. "You know what I'm talking about. ‘American Pie.' ‘Margaritaville.' Those songs. You will never hear me play those songs. That's why I love playing at the Red Lion Inn [in Stockbridge]. I can do anything I want. From Harry Nilsson to Tim Hardin to the Ink Spots. It's great."
Most of the time when Grover performs, he has no set list.
"Here's the thing," said Kathyjo Grover, who has sung in David's band for 20 years and has been married to him for five. "There are thousands of songs in his head. Maybe tens of thousands. And he knows the chords to all of them, he knows the words to all of them. I don't know how he does it. But the motto of the band is: Be ready for anything."
Lest members of the Children's Chorus get nervous, there will be a set list for Friday's show at the Colonial.
For the most part.
"I may throw something in that I know they can handle," Grover said. "But I honestly don't know how some bands can have a finished set list. How do you know what the room is going to be like before you get there? How do you know beforehand what to play?"
And this, his wife said, is David Grover's second secret: He is a master at reading an audience, whether it's the lunchroom crew at Berkshire Medical Center, where he has played a holiday gig for years, or the generational mix at a small restaurant such as Xicohtencatl.
"When you're dealing with little kids, there's a time limit that I can set my watch by," he said. "Four-year-olds? Twenty-seven minutes. Five- to 6-year olds? Thirty-five minutes. And when you hit those marks, you have to do something, because with kids, it's all about attention span. When they go, they're gone for the night."
"It's amazing to watch," Kathyjo said. "Because he always finds a way to keep everyone's attention."
"Try not to make his sound too weird," David said. "But you can't think too much out there. It's almost Zen-like. I can get locked into a room. And I will play a song a minute or so before someone requests it. I know that, because people have come up to me countless times and told me. And it hasn't happened once or twice. It's happened dozens and dozens of times. I don't know quite how it works, but it happens."
And it isn't just kids. One of the more interesting gigs with his band Grover's Gang is the annual show at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City -- in the cafeteria, underneath the life-sized replica of a blue whale, the largest animal in the world.
"You have to get that whale out of the room," Grover said with a laugh. "It's up there, over your head, and you have to get people to focus on you. Sometimes it's not easy."
White House, etc.
Grover has, like the song says, been everywhere, man. In addition to China, he has played at the White House, at the United Nations, in Madison Square Garden. And, he said, in every town and just about every bar and restaurant in Berkshire County.
"Some of the newer ones I haven't played yet," he said.
But every town? Mount Washington?
"Oh yeah, we have a regular gig up there every two years at a private home," Grover said.
The town of Washington?
"Bucksteep Manor, and Arlo's house."
"Elementary school," Grover said.
"In fact, if a town has an elementary school, chances are we've played it," his wife said. "And if there's a school we haven't played, please give us a call."
Grover acknowledges he no longer can do six shows a week, but he can do two to three.
And where he plays, and to whom, is never the issue.
He never tires of it.
"No," he said. "Not the shows. Getting to them, sometimes. I don't like to leave my house some nights. But when I get there? I love it. I'm doing exactly what I want to do."
To reach Derek Gentile: email@example.com, (413) 528-3660.