Those of you who care know that I'm working on a book or two containing my own back pages while trying to carve out an income. Just so you don't think I've forgotten about you, here's a story that appeared a bit over a year ago in The Westview, the paper that became the Nashville Ledger. If you want to read this, I'd also suggest you sample some of the music.
The 81-year-old mandolin-playing, iconic country traditionalist doesn’t feel at all out of place playing songs embedded in fans’ hearts by Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead.
Doesn’t sound out of place either, reckons Jesse McReynolds, noting that he and his late brother, Jim, and their Virginia Boys were a source of inspiration for Garcia and his band mates.
“I think the whole thing is that Jerry would have liked to have been a bluegrass picker,” says Grand Ole Opry star and bluegrass legend McReynolds, relaxing at his home in Gallatin.
“He liked doing the old songs like the ones I grew up listening to,” says the mandolin player who has carved out a unique niche in American music by implementing his adventurous spirit.
That spirit is on full display in his newest album Songs of the Grateful Dead: A Tribute to Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter.
Hunter, who put the words to Garcia’s melodies for decades, even contributed an original to this collection, in large part because he was taken with the tribute project, credited to “Jesse McReynolds & Friends with David Nelson and Stu Allen.”
The latter two have deep ties within the Grateful Dead universe. Nelson is a member of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a band he founded with Garcia and John “Marmaduke” Dawson. Allen is a former member of Dark Star Orchestra – a Dead tribute outfit -- and is a member of JGB (formerly the Jerry Garcia Band, the late Dead leader’s primary outside outlet.)
“I got to know Robert (Hunter) some through Sandy,” says McReynolds. Sandy Rothman and Garcia took a pilgrimage to the South back in 1964, the idea being to capture on tape traditional country and bluegrass acts. A particular favorite of Garcia’s was Jim & Jesse’s band.
McReynolds and Rothman became friends when the bluegrass star began pondering a Dead tribute record. “Sandy told me the story about how he and Jerry used to travel in the 1960s, before the Grateful Dead.
“They followed us around. But he was too shy to talk to us. Jerry was a bluegrass fan and he was interested in our music. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t get the chance to meet him. But I do listen to their music. My wife is a big Deadhead.’’
Actually, it was due to that “Deadhead” – “Joy ‘n me are 15 years married. She’s 50-something” – that McReynolds seriously began to select the Dead songs he’d like to replicate in his own special fashion.
“She knows every song that the Dead ever done,” says McReynolds. “She was such a big help on me playing this project. She’d tell me how it goes.”
McReynolds met his current wife in the mid-1990s, when he was touring as one half of Jim & Jesse.
And what started as a business meeting – she was interviewing the McReynolds brothers for a New Jersey country publication – developed into something much more for Jesse, whose first wife, Darlene, died in 1993.
“We didn’t see each other for a long time, but….” laughs McReynolds, adding that his wife brought her Grateful Dead albums with her to Gallatin.
Listening to that music, much of which is built on traditional American music’s shoulders, convinced him that he could do a tribute record and stay true to the sound of that iconic rock band.
After all, it’s not that Jesse McReynolds and his late brother (Jim died of throat cancer in 2002) had ever been afraid of taking risks.
“I’ve recorded for a lot of different groups,” says the mandolin star. Of course, many were just studio tracks he was laying down in Nashville and neither knew nor particularly cared on whose album they would end up.
But he was hand-picked by Jim Morrison, the erratic genius behind The Doors, to play mandolin on The Soft Parade album. While “Touch Me” was the big hit from that 1969 album, “Runnin’ Blue,” with its lonely intro “Poor Otis dead and gone, left me here to sing his song,” is a Doors fan favorite. And Jesse McReynolds’ mandolin provides just the effect Morrison was seeking.
It also should be noted that Berry Pickin’ in the Country -- a 1965 tribute to rock ‘n’ roll workingman’s poet Chuck Berry – remains atop the stack of McReynolds fan favorites.
“That was one of the highlights of my recording career,” says McReynolds. “No bluegrass group had ever tried anything like that before.”
Bluegrass pickers always have shared some of the free spirit of rockers, but the musical forms seldom intersected, a notable exception being Elvis’ reworking of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
“I just was one who would never turn my back on any type of music,” says McReynolds. “I am surprised when people say ‘Wow, I’m surprised you listen to that kind of music.’
“But the Chuck Berry record is one of the most requested albums Jim and I ever done.”
Berry didn’t play on the album. But he did appreciate it. ”Chuck wrote the liner notes. I wish we could have got him to play on the project.”
Of course Garcia, who died in August 1995 after years of struggles with health and substance problems, does not appear on this album either.
But his spirit is here, according to McReynolds.
And so is his lyricist.
Hunter, a country music enthusiast, has been known to visit the Grand Ole Opry. He also paid a couple of visits to Nashville while McReynolds was recording the Grateful Dead album.
“I told him I was so impressed with all the words he wrote on those songs,” recalls McReynolds.
“So he said to me: ‘I’ll send you some words if you want to put some music to them.” That was the genesis of “Day by Day,” the album-closing track in which McReynolds channels Garcia.
Filling in for Garcia in interpreting Hunter’s lyrics wasn’t easy.
“It’s just a little hard for me to put music to words that somebody already wrote. But Robert was pretty happy with it. I’m just glad I got my name on a song with Robert Hunter.”
The only other song on the album that was not a Grateful Dead original is “Deep Elem Blues,” a traditional song that captivated Garcia when he first explored American roots music.
The song that details the perils and pleasures of the African-American red-light district in Dallas is of unknown origin, but it dates at least back to the 1920s. It was a Garcia staple in his coffee-house, pre-Grateful Dead days. And it was a regular part of Dead sets beginning at least by 1966, having both traditional acoustic and electric incarnations.
“Jerry liked things like ‘Deep Elem Blues.’ He liked some of the Carter Family recordings. There is a big connection on him and bluegrass music,” says McReynolds.
“I did ‘Deep Elem Blues’ because Jerry liked to do that one,” he adds.
While exploring Garcia and Hunter’s massive songbook, “I picked the songs that I figured I could do in my own way pretty much, ones that fit my voice.
“But it’s Grateful Dead music and I wanted to do it in a way that Jerry Garcia fans and Grateful Dead fans would accept it,” he continues.
“I didn’t want to copy the Grateful Dead, but I wanted to get the same arrangements, the same timing. I tried to get as close to the way it was originally done and then do it my way too,” he says.
Of course he knows the image of an 81-year-old mandolin master, a veteran bluegrass star, doing Grateful Dead tunes catches some people off-guard.
“When I tell people I’ve got a tribute to the Grateful Dead out, they look at each other and start laughing,” he says. What they don’t realize is that while they have been sitting in their seats at the Grand Ole Opry listening to the traditional-sounding “Black Muddy River” or “Ripple,” they’ve been listening to pure Dead.
And, of course, the jam band circuit, sprung from the Dead’s performance style and fan base, also has discovered this cutting-edge album by an 81-year-old bluegrass picker.
“It’s already accomplished more than I ever figured it would,” McReynolds says. “I’m thankful I’ve found an audience I didn’t know existed, as far as accepting me doing music like this.
“Nobody can come close to capturing the original version of the way they done them, but to know that the Grateful Dead fans accept me, well….”
Dennis McNally, publicist and official Grateful Dead historian, says the way the music comes from the picker’s soul is reminiscent of the work of his old friend.
“If Jerry Garcia had been born in the South and if he’d been permitted to live to be 80 he’d sound like Jesse McReynolds,” says McNally, whose A Long Strange Trip is considered the definitive history of the band.
Yes, his brother has been gone for eight years. Garcia’s been gone 15. But at 81 years of age, Jesse McReynolds, well, to borrow a phrase, plans to just keep on truckin’.
“I usually play 40 or 50 dates a year, but with this record I might be working a lot more in the next year. I’ll do as many as I can.”
He’s clearly enamored with the man and the band that first brought this batch of intricate music to the people.
“Back then, when this was going on, with the Grateful Dead and Woodstock and rock ‘n’ roll, we was so busy then doing our own roadwork, we was pretty busy doing our own thing.”
He laughs at the lifestyle differences, while celebrating the musical kinship.
“I’ve never smoked or drunk very little. And I know very little about smoking marijuana, although I smelt marijuana a few times,” he says.
“But the way they lived their lives has no bearing on me as far as doing their material. That was their way of doing things. They done things their way; we done things our way.”