In 1964, a young Jerry Garcia and his friend and later musical collaborator Sandy Rothman embarked on an extended road trip East, traveling to see their bluegrass heroes in the South, North, and Midwest. Scholars and fans tend to focus on their meeting with Bill Monroe, immortalized in a homemade recording that Jerry made of one of Monroe’s sets at Bean Blossom, but just as important to the young musicians was seeing brothers Jim and Jesse McReynolds, the already famed bluegrass duo from Dothan, Alabama.
Garcia’s path would stray far from the roots music he heard on that trip, but his heart remained close to that wellspring for the rest of his life, returning to it periodically to refresh and renew his eclectic muse. Some of the wonderful results of those periodic renewals can be heard in releases documenting his work with Old & In the Way in the 1970s, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band in the 1980s, and his later work with David Grisman (whom he also met on that 1964 trip) in the 1990s.
By then, of course, Garcia’s own contributions to music had been recognized, critically and collegially, and after his death, efforts like Pickin’ on the Grateful Dead made clear the ease with which his compositions could be reinterpreted from a bluegrass perspective. Now, 46 years after he met Garcia, Jesse McReynolds makes the definitive case for that with his new release, Songs of the Grateful Dead: A Tribute to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter (Woodstock Records). It represents a remarkable achievement artistically, and for Dead scholars, it also demonstrates the degree to which the Dead’s artistic achievement is thoroughly and inextricably interwoven with the broader currents of American music.
“Jesse absorbed the gestures of Grateful Dead music, then crafted his interpretations,” Sandy Rothman explained. Each of the thirteen songs has its own flavor, its own feel; McReynolds let the songs breathe and find their own resonances with a first-rate band of players also steeped in the Dead’s ethos. Sharp-eared fans will be able to discern contributions from Sandy Rothman, who played with Garcia in the 1960s and again in the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band with Stu Allen, another featured player, and David Nelson, longtime Garcia collaborator and founder of the New Riders of the Purple Sage as well as his own band.
But this is not an exercise in nostalgia. McReynolds didn’t take the easy way out, limiting his choices to obvious candidates like “Friend of the Devil” and other mainstays of the Dead’s acoustic catalog. To be sure, the disc features haunting versions of “Ripple” and “Stella Blue” and “Deep Elem Blues,” but tracks like “Alabama Getaway” and “Standing on the Moon” will surprise and delight jaded fans: McReynolds and his colleagues find hidden treasures in all of the songs they assay, and the results remain in memory long after the CD finishes.
The final touch is a new song, “Day by Day,” composed by McReynolds to words by Robert Hunter, who enthusiastically champions McReynolds’ effort: “Jesse’s singing voice is like a long-lost brother voice between Jerry Garcia and David Nelson,” Hunter observed, and open-eared listeners will agree. (Those who keep up with Hunter’s online journal remember when he commented that he was writing lots of new lyrics but wouldn’t say who they were for.) For fans, “Day by Day” means the CD is much more than a tribute; it is a statement that the Dead’s corpus is now a living part of the American musical heritage, growing with each interpretation and musician who delves into it.
For Deadheads accustomed to feeling that their musical tastes are decidedly less than mainstream, it is especially gratifying to have a musician of McReynolds’ stature make such a heartfelt statement of appreciation. McReynolds celebrated his sixty-third year in the music business in July of this year, looking back on a career that includes 45 years in the Grand Ol’ Opry, dozens of awards and Grammys, and “membership in any Hall of Fame that means anything to this music,” as Dennis McNally put it recently.
Perhaps the only sadness is the absence of Garcia’s voice and playing. As Hunter commented, “What a trio you’d all have made! The singing is steady and strong. Jerry would approve, I’m certain.” So do we.