The Grateful Dead, Jerry, and Bluegrass

The late, great Jerry Garcia two-timed the band he is most associated with – the Grateful Dead – to perform a purer bluegrass style of music in the 1970s.

Let it never be forgotten that the first instrument Jerry Garcia performed on was the banjo. The iconic lead in the iconic band, the Grateful Dead, first picked up the instrument in 1950 and played it for more than a dozen years before working up the nerve to audition for bluegrass legend, Bill Monroe.

And in all kinds of ways, “the Dead” itself was a bluegrass band, even if it and its progeny/survivor groups –RatDog, Phil Lesh and Friends, BK3, 7Walkers, Billy & the Kids, Donna Jean Godchaux Band, and of course Dead & Company – are regarded as a rich mix of bluegrass, rock, folk, country, jazz, blues, gospel, and psychedelic rock.

It’s been a long trip – strange too, but only for those who fail to understand how Garcia and band mates Bob Weir, Ron McKernan (“Pigpen”), Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann evolved. Pure products of the counterculture 1960s San Francisco Bay area, they picked up people (drummer Mickey Hart, lyricist Robert Hunter, keyboardist Tom Constanten, plus Keith and Donna Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick, and Bruce Hornsby) and musical influences along the way. Bands that included the Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, and the Lovin’ Spoonful led the Dead to more electronic music and what they later termed a “street party” version of psychedelic music. Traveling Deadheads, fans in the parking lots at their concerts, would likely concur.

But that trip was non-linear insofar as Garcia was not fully dedicated to the Dead the entire time. While Grateful Dead formed in 1965 and recorded its first album (The Grateful Dead) in 1967, Garcia also played and recorded with a purely bluegrass group, Old & In the Way. The instruments were guitar (Peter Rowan), fiddle (Vassar Clements), banjo (Garcia), mandolin (David Grisman) and string Bass (John Kahn), clearly not able to create the rock sound more associated with the Dead.

Old & In the Way – what many believe to be the best bluegrass band of the time – recorded five albums, all in 1973, although some were not released until as late as 1997, with additional live concert recordings released in 2008 and 2013.

Garcia was hugely influenced by bluegrass of the type that Monroe played. He toured with Monroe for a year before heading back to California to form his own bands (first, the Warlocks, which more or less became Grateful Dead). It’s said his fascination with the banjo – an instrument that’s considered more challenging than other strings – made him work harder in these years than people know.

That effort, and Garcia’s love for the genre, is reflected in later work from the Dead. Three-part harmonies in the group’s 1970s albums American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead are a Dead giveaway: bluegrass was in his soul.