The Grateful Dead have many claims to fame, from being at the heart of the development of psychedelic rock in San Francisco and paving the way for the Summer Of Love in 1967, to being the giant touring machine of the ‘80s and ‘90s setting attendance records at major stadia across America. They also just happened to have one of the best songwriting partnerships of modern times in guitarist Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter. Those who have more than a passing interest also know that with their albums ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty’ they contributed to the development of country-rock.
Those with an even deeper knowledge will know that Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were very active in the Bay Area folk scene of the early ‘60s giving them an opportunity to develop a knowledge of American folk traditions including early blues, jug band, bluegrass and country music. Jerry Garcia himself was a prime mover in the ‘70s resurgence of bluegrass popularity with his group Old And In The Way.
This depth of understanding of roots Americana music comes through in their songwriting from all phases of their long career. From their popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s their songs seeped into the consciousness of some of the now leading lights in Americana such as Ryan Adams. The ten tracks below are a smorgasbord of artists that shows the breadth of influence the Grateful Dead have had and the quality of Garcia and Hunter’s songwriting.
‘Standing On The Moon’ (2020) Molly Tuttle is the only female guitarist to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player Of The Year Award which she did in 2018. As a native of San Francisco the songwriter, banjo player and guitarist is well aware of the Grateful Dead’s legacy. Here she gives a solo performance of her favourite Grateful Dead track from their 1989 album ‘Built To Last’.
‘Ripple’ (2000) The Grateful Dead and The Band were contemporaries and over the years both groups of musicians have recorded each other’s compositions. Here Band bassist Rick Danko covers one of the Grateful Dead’s most delicate and subtle songs from their 1970 ‘American Beauty‘ album in his own inimitable way on his ‘Times Like These’ album. While his voice is showing signs of wear and abuse he still manages a heartfelt version due to his innate musicality.
‘Friend Of The Devil’ (1991) Lyle Lovett first covered this classic Grateful Dead song from the ‘American Beauty’ album on the various artists Grateful Dead covers album ‘Deadicated’ . He has continued to play this outlaw ballad live over the years though at a slower pace than the origin Grateful Dead version.
‘Black Muddy River’ (1996) The Waterson’s always knew a good tune when they heard one and Norma Waterson recorded this version of the final track from the Grateful Dead’s 1987 album ‘In The Dark’. Backing musicians include daughter Eliza Carthy, husband Martin Carthy, Danny Thompson and Richard Thompson. It is the lead track on Norma’s self-titled album which included songs by then-contemporary writers.
‘Alabama Getaway’ (2010) With his brother Jim, mandolinist and singer Jesse McReynolds was one half of legendary bluegrass group Jim and Jesse. The young Jerry Garcia used to travel the country following bluegrass acts and one of his favourites was Jim and Jesse. When Jesse recorded ‘Songs Of The Grateful Dead’ at the suggestion of his wife with friends including David Nelson, Buck White and Sandy Rothman, it brought the wheel full circle and you can just imagine Jerry beaming with pride at the performances. The original track is from the Grateful Dead 1980 album ‘Go To Heaven‘.
‘China Doll’ (2020) Billy Strings is the latest in a long line of young hotshot bluegrass musicians with his stage name a reference to his virtuosity on all stringed instruments. He covers a number of Grateful Dead songs in his live performances but his version of ‘China Doll’, originally called ‘The Suicide Song’, from the 1974 Grateful Dead album ‘From The Mars Hotel’ shows he can deliver emotion as well as virtuosity.
‘Wharf Rat’ (2014) Ryan Adams recorded this track for MyMusicRx, which is a service that brings music to hospitalised children with cancer. This song appeared on the 1971 Grateful Dead live album ‘Grateful Dead’ and was never released in a studio version. Ryan has worked live with Phil Lesh. bassist with the Grateful Dead, over the years.
‘Ramble On Rose’ (2020) Wynonna Judd continues her move to an edgier more country rock, blues and soul sound on her cover of this Grateful Dead track from their 1972 live album ‘Europe ’72’. She is accompanied by Bob Weir, Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist and vocalist, on backing vocals for added authenticity.
‘Tennessee Jed’ (2009) Levon Helm won the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Americana Album in 2010 for his ‘Electric Dirt’ album that included this Grateful Dead song from ‘Europe ‘72’. Here, Levon gives it a New Orlean’s beat recalling the glory days of The Band.
‘Stella Blue’ (2006) While ‘Songbird’ is a 2006 Willie Nelson album he has referred to it as “the Ryan Adams’ project” as Ryan produced the album, selected the songs and his backing band, The Cardinals, provided the music. ‘Stella Blue’ first appeared on the Grateful Dead’s ‘Wake Of The Flood’ in 1973 and echoes the Great American Songbook.
Great article. I love the Dead and I hadn’t heard most of these before. Elvis Costello has covered friend of the Devil with Jim Lauderdale. I would add this one – Kurt Vile and j. Mascis doing Box of rain
Thanks for your input Matt. I agree with your view of Jim Lauderdale who had a live only Dead covers project, American Beauty, for years. I’ve also lost count of the co-writes he has with Bob Hunter. A bit of trivia, I read somewhere that Elvis Costello saw the Dead at Bickershaw in 1972 which wasn’t far from his then Liverpool home. I think the Dead’s songbook will have legs over the generations of musicians to come. I was lucky enough to see them in 1974 in London. Keep on trucking’.
Great selection. Personally I don’t think there is a better cover of Black Muddy River than Greg Allman’s which is an incredibly poignant version of the song. I’m also not sure that some songs can be bettered than the original such as China Doll. Grateful Dead are one of the best bands I saw live, I would put them in my Top 5 gigs!
I agree Gregg’s version is special as is all of ‘Southern Blood’ given the circumstances of its recording. Also this song shows they could still write classics even towards the end. On a good night there was probably no band that could touch them. China Doll was made for Garcia’s fragile vocals and very hard for anyone to better it. Hopefully their songbook will keep memories alive.