There are many Grateful Dead fans—I among them—who believe that some of the most interesting music Jerry Garcia played from the late ’80s until his death in 1995 was with his acoustic side projects, first with the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band and then with David Grisman and some of the mandolinist’s musical pals (including Tony Rice). For Garcia, those comparatively low-pressure playing and recording situations represented a return to his early ’60s pre-Grateful Dead roots, when he was diving headlong into bluegrass, folk, blues, and old-timey music in an area south of San Francisco known as the Peninsula. Those years had an enormous impact on the musician he became when he plugged in with the Dead (originally the Warlocks) in 1965; indeed, some of the old repertoire followed him into the Dead, and he often spoke about how his electric guitar style had been informed by his four years playing acoustic guitar and banjo in a succession of short-lived acoustic groups.
Now, several hours of Garcia’s early folk forays have been brought together in a spectacular new box set called Before the Dead, a project spearheaded by executive producers Marc Allan and Kevin Monty that’s scheduled for a May 11 release by the Jerry Garcia Family LLC. It’s available in several formats: as a 4-CD set, via digital download, and—most striking of all—in a beautifully designed limited-edition (2,500) 5-LP box that includes a full-size 34-page book loaded with original essays about the songs, the origins of the mostly homegrown recordings, the folk milieu on the Peninsula, Garcia and his musical mates in that era (1961–64), and loads of rare photographs and memorabilia. The set was lovingly put together by co-producers Dennis McNally—who was the Dead’s longtime publicist, official biographer, and friend of Garcia’s—and Brian Miksis, an archivist and researcher of the Bay Area folk scene (as well as a location sound mixer for TV/film) with a deep, scholarly interest in Garcia’s pre-Dead days.
McNally had tracked down numerous tapes from Garcia’s friends and other sources over the course of more than two decades researching his 2002 tome, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, and when Miksis, who was starting work on a documentary film about the period, cold-called McNally to glean any info he could, the two compared notes, and the germ of their eventual partnership on this project was born.
Though much of the music has been in circulation among hardcore Deadhead collectors for many years, Miksis and McNally managed to hunt down the master reels of several tapes previously available only on inferior-sounding cassette copies. The search also unearthed never-before-heard tapes that shed more light on Garcia’s formative years. These included a wonderful, high-quality 1962 recording of the bluegrass Hart Valley Drifters made at the studio of Stanford University radio station KZSU (released in 2016 as a single CD called Folk Time and also included here), and, perhaps most exciting of all, the oldest extant recording of Garcia, from May 1961: He’s 18, still fresh out of the Army, playing old folk tunes, with his future lyric-writing partner Robert Hunter helping out on vocals, at the 16th birthday party-turned-hootenanny of his close friend Barbara (now Brigid) Meier. Even though he’d only been playing a short time, Garcia already shows great promise, and it’s a kick to hear the duo sounding so confident and leading sing alongs on folk standards such as “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Santy Anno, “Rake and a Rambling Boy,” and more.
“With that first tape, you’re hearing him mostly strum,” McNally said in Relix magazine last year. “And what’s striking about that tape, among other things, is the way people glued onto this 18-year-old kid. He had a presence as a performer that was way beyond his skills as a player from day one. There’s just something about his personality, and that’s why he had an audience spellbound at 18.”
From that auspicious opening, the box follows Garcia’s evident musical maturation as he starts playing publicly in various old-time and bluegrass configurations, including a duo with his first wife, Sara Ruppenthal, and groups with colorful monikers such as the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, the Wildwood Boys, the Black Mountain Boys, and the Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys. Along the way, such (now) nationally known pickers as Eric Thompson, Jody Stecher, David Nelson, and Sandy Rothman cycled in and out of the groups. (Nelson and Rothman were also in the late ’80s Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band.) The material spans the history of folk, country, and bluegrass music, from traditional mountain tunes all the way up to the then-contemporary murder ballad “Long Black Veil.” Garcia and his fellow travelers were very serious about this music, and they treat it with the utmost respect.
“From what I’ve learned,” comments Miksis, “it seems that Jerry worked harder than anyone to study and emulate his heroes. And he seems to have done so quite successfully. I suppose the proof of that is in the story of Bill Monroe suggesting that Jerry audition for [banjo player] Bill Keith’s spot when he left the Blue Grass Boys. It’s fascinating to consider music history if he had actually done it. But to realize that he was essentially self-taught on guitar and banjo, and then taught others, is pretty amazing as you listen to these recordings. He began to play acoustic guitar in 1961 and by the following year, he had developed quite a level of technique, as heard on the Hart Valley Drifters’ material. Then, in 1963 he went from frailing on the banjo to quick-study of Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith’s five-finger bluegrass technique. The level at which he developed his vocal style shouldn’t be overlooked either.”
Though the box is certainly aimed primarily at Deadheads, Miksis says, “My hope is that the set will have appeal to a wide base of music lovers. For Deadheads, I hope that they will enjoy being able to track some familiar songs, like ‘Deep Elem Blues,’ back to their rich heritage and see where Jerry got much of his initial spark of love for the American Songbook. It will hopefully become more clear that Hunter and Garcia drew from this material deeply for a lot of what they wrote together, particularly during the Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty period. But I also hope that lovers of general folk and bluegrass will enjoy this as an important archival release. It covers the story of the early ’60s folk revival quite well in scope.”
What began as what Miksis calls a “shoot-for-the-stars idea I had ten years ago” more than lives up to its promise. The combination of outstanding music, thoughtful essays by Sara Katz and bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg, deep historical context provided by McNally and Miksis—including the known origins of every song—make this a valuable and entertaining document of a very special, now vanished time. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that less than a year after playing the last music on Before the Dead, Garcia would leave this scene behind for electric blues, rock ’n’ roll, and the psychedelic explorations that would make him a legend. Still, these formative folk years stayed with him until the end. His final recording session, shortly before his death in 1995: An acoustic version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 9.”
Here’s a seriously caffeinated version of “Rosa Lee McFall,” based on Charlie Monroe’s late ’40s recording. The Grateful Dead later performed the song a few times during their acoustic sets in 1970 and 1980.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.