High on Bluegrass: Grateful Dead Guitarist Jerry Garcia’s Acoustic Side
In 1992, on a rainy winter morning, I had the opportunity to interview Jerry Garcia at the Grateful Dead’s office in a two-story clapboard Victorian in a shaded residential neighborhood near downtown San Rafael, California. We sipped hot tea and Garcia chain-smoked as he spoke affectionately of the acoustic guitar, his love of bluegrass, and his long relationship with mandolinist David Grisman.
It was one of the most celebrated bootleg recordings in pop history. In 1993, mandolinist David Grisman invited his old pal Jerry Garcia—then enjoying some of his most commercially successful days as the Grateful Dead’s guitarist—to join him and bluegrass picker Tony Rice for a laid-back afternoon session at Grisman’s home studio in Mill Valley, California. The result was an intimate gathering that evoked a friendly front-porch feeling.
Some months later, Grisman heard that the jam session had found its way onto WBAI radio in New York City, and Deadheads were swapping the tapes at shows. The recording even popped up in a shipment of bootleg CDs that the Dead confiscated.
But then Grisman discovered that a pizza delivery boy had lifted a cassette copy of the sessions from Garcia’s kitchen counter.
That episode is immortalized in The Pizza Tapes (Acoustic Disc), released 15 years ago on Grisman’s label. It’s a real gem, sometimes brilliant, sometimes not, but filled with warmth. The recording retains the banter—and false starts—that took place during the session. The trio tries its collective hand on Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late” (a hit a few years earlier for country star Dwight Yoakam), jams on George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and noodles its way through Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” There’s even a rare Garcia rendering of a tentative “Amazing Grace,” sung at the request of Grisman’s wife.
The closing track, on which Garcia sings “The House of the Rising Sun,” alone is worth the price of admission.
RAISED ON THE OPRY
For Garcia, the sessions at Grisman’s marked another return to his country roots. “My grandmother was a big Grand Ole Opry fan,” he recalled, adding with a sly smile, “Yeah, I grew up in San Francisco listening to the Opry every Saturday night on the radio without knowing what I was hearing. In fact, my first 45 was a Hank Williams record, a song called ‘The Love Bug Itch.’ It was a really stupid song,” he added with a belly laugh, “but, hey, it was Hank Williams.”
At the time of the interview, Garcia—long regarded as one of rock’s most innovative electric guitarists—had started nurturing his affinity for bluegrass breakdowns and spirituals, playing occasional concerts with Grisman and recording with some of the hottest country pickers this side of Kentucky (he considered himself a neophyte acoustic guitarist). Grisman had just released Bluegrass Reunion, the first of six Acoustic Disc recordings featuring the duo, to which Garcia contributed two tracks. That CD was a traditional outing with Red Allen and also featured banjo player Herb Pedersen, fiddler Jim Buchanan, and bassist Jim Kerwin.
Their working friendship would be captured in the film documentary Grateful Dawg, directed by Grisman’s daughter, Gillian. Toward the end of the film,Billboard noted in a 2001 review, the mandolinist and Garcia are shown working through an old-timey song in the living room of Grisman’s Northern California home: “With the sun pouring in the room from a nearby sliding glass door, Grisman is pickin’ away on mandolin, and Garcia is doing the same on acoustic guitar. Grisman is loose and playing off of Garcia, who seems totally oblivious to Grisman’s dog and children walking in and out of the room. They finally take a break and Grisman gets up for a sandwich. Garcia starts to do the same, but stops, seeming almost to have had an epiphany. He grabs his guitar, sits back down, and with his head down, returns to work on the song.”
“That’s like my favorite spot in the movie,” Grisman told the magazine. “That was just a camera left on a shelf. Nobody staged that.”
Added Billboard: “The moment captures the essence of Garcia and Grisman’s musical relationship, which, as the movie explains, was based on a true passion for everything from bluegrass and folk to jazz and blues.”
There’s no question it was a productive relationship. In 1992, Garcia and Grisman had teamed up for a gorgeous self-titled duo album featuring bluegrass-inflected renditions of B.B. King’s signature song, “The Thrill Is Gone,” the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” and Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby,” among others.
“For me, that was a rich experience,” Garcia said of the recording, while puffing on a low-tar cigarette and showing satisfaction at being “one of the guys” during the no-frills sessions.
The Grisman/Garcia projects clearly were close to Garcia’s heart, coming at a time when the Grateful Dead had ramped down its acoustic material. “He’s a real livewire and kind of a perfectionist,” Garcia said of the notoriously finicky Grisman. “We fire each other up in a way that I think is very interesting—and it’s interesting for the audience. But it’s one of those things that doesn’t bear too much analysis.
“After all, musical chemistry doesn’t yield to a rational yardstick.”
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
Ironically, the pair had first met by chance in 1964, when Garcia was on a pilgrimage to the East Coast in search of authentic bluegrass music. At the time, Grisman was leading a group of upstart bluegrass players called the New York City Ramblers, still fresh from their upset victory at the prestigious Union Grove fiddle competition in North Carolina.
“I had my banjo, he had his mandolin,” Garcia explained of their meeting at a Bill Monroe concert at Sunset Park in West Grove, Pennsylvania. “We cranked a little bit and he kind of tested me. I guess he wanted to see if these guys from the West Coast could play.”
Returning to San Francisco, Garcia fretted over the lack of good bluegrass players in the Bay Area and found himself hampered by what he perceived as his own lack of virtuosity. “I wanted the bluegrass stuff to be perfect, and I wasn’t happy if it wasn’t,” he said.
Instead, he passed his time in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, a local jug band he formed with guitarist Bob Weir—then a rebellious 15-year-old kid who’d been expelled from high school—and blues harmonica enthusiast Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.
In 1965, the band went electric, changed its name to the Warlocks, and added drummer Bill Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh (who three years earlier had taped the English ballad “Matty Groves” and other tunes with Garcia on a home recorder). In December of 1965, the band changed its name again, this time to the Grateful Dead, moved to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, and began playing at Bill Graham’s psychedelic emporium, the Fillmore Auditorium, and other local venues.
Yet bluegrass continued to influence Garcia. With their prominent acoustic instrumentation, three-part vocal harmonies, and narrative lyrics, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, both recorded in 1970, marked a momentary shift from the band’s trademark freewheeling jazz-rock jams. “For me, it was one of those things where I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life making records that are too fucking weird for anybody to listen to,” Garcia said. “Besides, we recorded [Workingman’s Dead] around the same time as Live/Dead, which gave us a chance to scratch our itch for the weird shit.”
Coincidentally, American Beauty features Grisman playing mandolin on two tracks: “Ripple” and “Friend of the Devil.” Two years later, he settled in Stinson Beach, an artist community, near Garcia and fellow musician Peter Rowan. Grisman and Rowan soon persuaded a moonlighting Garcia to pick up his five-string banjo for the first time in a decade for the short-lived Old & in the Way.
On October 8, 1973, that band—which included fiddler Vassar Clements and bassist John Kahn—recorded a live album, at the old Boarding House nightclub in San Francisco.
In 1975, the Grateful Dead’s Round label issued that album of live sessions, also called Old & in the Way—widely regarded as a seminal event in the progressive bluegrass movement. In 1996, Grisman released the stellar collection of outtakes called Old & in the Way: That High Lonesome Sound, following that the next year with Old & in the Way: Breakdown, also culled from the Boarding House performances.
More recently, Grisman released the complete October 8 concert along with another show at the same venue from October 1.
Despite what would become a long break between projects with Grisman, Garcia maintained that bluegrass remained “a vast reservoir” to which he returned time and again. “I think of this as an ongoing thing in my life,” he said. “And as long as it’s comfortable for both of us, I’d be happy to keep doing it part of every year.”
Fittingly, Garcia’s last known recording, made just two weeks before his death in 1995, was with Grisman, at his friend’s modest home in Mill Valley, in the small basement studio in which he had found so much peace and contentment and comraderie.