This week (August 9, to be exact) marks 12 years since Jerry Garcia passed. The legendary Grateful Dead frontman and godfather of all jam bands would have been 65 years old had he kicked that nasty drug habit and survived the heart attack that took his life. And where would he be now? Still performing upwards of a hundred shows a year? Would the Dead get top billing at Bonnaroo? Would Jerry be a panelist on Real Time with Bill Maher or on the cover of AARP Magazine?
Remembering Jerry and his musical legacy made me think about the Dead’s audience and where they are today. I was a loyal follower myself through most of high school, college and beyond. Of course, I only caught the tail-end of their run, and truthfully, I transitioned pretty quickly into a passionate (and early) Phish adopter — I’m talking 1989, my friends, when I rocked a self-made “Reba” bumper sticker on the back of my Acura (pictured at left: said car and yours truly, circa 1992). But by 1995, I was pretty much done with the “touring” phase of my phandom (in the irresponsible-and-aimlessly-directionless-following-of-a-band sense). My swan song was Phish’s killer Madison Square Garden New Year’s show that year, which even Wikipedia acknowledges “is often regarded as one of the best Phish shows ever.” (I also caught a few of the festivals later on, like Lemonwheel and the Great Went.)
So where did I end up going from there? Knee-deep into alt-country, as it turned out. It started with an Uncle Tupelo fascination in the early ’90s, later Whiskeytown, Old 97s, Scud Mountain Boys and the Jayhawks. Then, I devoured every Gram Parsons recording I could find. And, of course, I was a proud and dedicated Wilco devotee.
Thinking back on it now, I credit the Dead for introducing me to those bands. Not directly, but it was through their live shows — combining elements of folk, bluegrass, country, and psychedelic rock into their set list on any given night — that many a musical taste evolved. Think about the Deadheads and Phish fans who worship all things bluegrass. Essentially, they rescued those old-timey mountain songs from the religious right by making them cool.
So it makes sense that today, some of those same Deadheads wouldalso be taking refuge in the Americana/alt-country world. After all, atthe time of Jerry’s death in 1995, alt-country was enjoying its musicbiz moment as “the next big thing.” The Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass album, which included the instant-classic “Blue,” had come out earlier that year, and Wilco’s debut AM hit the shelves in June. (To be fair, though I wasn’t a huge fan, I should also mention Son Volt’s Trace, which saw a September release and swift sales soon after.) And upon hearing Wilco’s latest album, Sky Blue Sky,which I recently bought in an actual record store and am totallyobsessed with, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Jeff Tweedy and Co.were on to the hippie factor in their crowd and were maybe even playingto it.
Crucify me if you must, but on songs like “Either Way,” “ImpossibleGermany” and “Side with the Seeds,” I can’t help but hear a littleJerry in those trill-y guitar solos and meandering melodies. And thejams, which were already in full effect on previous albums like A Ghost is Born(“Spiders,” you may recall, clocks in at over 10 minutes), seem to begetting trippier. “Alt-country troubadour” (as press releases like torefer to him) Ryan Adams took the connection a step further, joiningDead bassist Phil Lesh for a series of shows in 2005, during which hetackled Dead staples like “Shakedown Street,” “It Must Have Been theRoses,” and “Wharf Rat” (see their amazing performance of it at the Jammy Awardsthat year). At Phil’s invitation, Ryan even played one of Jerry’sguitars, which, as I understand, some Deadheads found absolutelyblasphemous. But Phil must think very highly of him. And Ryan hascertainly worn the Dead’s influence on his sleeve, particularly on thealbum Cold Roses, which includes the Workingman’s Dead-inspired “Magnolia Mountain.”
Another example: Gary Louris, one of the Jayhawks’ two mainsinger-songwriters, is releasing his solo album later this year. It wasproduced by Black Crowes frontman (and big-time Deadhead) ChrisRobinson and features a vocal choir that sounds straight out of 1967Laurel Canyon (full disclosure: my husband worked on that album aswell). Imagine hippie imagery coupled with Cosmic American-style lapsteel — the cowboy with the flower in his ten-gallon Stetson. Itdoesn’t get much better than that.
Now sure, there are plenty of Deadheads who noodle-danced their waystraight into jam-band world and never came out, the kind of folksyou’d see at a Widepsread Panic show bemoaning Phish’s retirement(though, in all honesty, Phish didn’t really sound much like the Dead),or singing the praises of String Cheese Incident and the DiscoBiscuits, certainly regulars at Phil & Friends and Ratdog shows,and likely at the upcoming Vegoose festival and the Jammy Awards. Plus,there’s always new bands who may have missed the climax of jam-bandmadness but continue to chase a never-dying scene. Like 40 Points, a four-piece I saw in Austin at this year’s South by Southwestconference, whose guitar chops and insanely twisty melodies immediatelyconjured images of those long-haired, sun-kissed friends I made in theRFK Stadium parking lot almost two decades ago. They would love thisband, which, not surprisingly, is fronted by a country kid: LukasWilson, a.k.a. the son of Willie. Am I on to something here?
UPDATE: Though Garcia never topped the bill at Bonnaroo, commenter Hunter (as in Robert?) is correct to note that the post-Jerry Dead did headline the fest in 2004. I should have posed the question about his side project: “Would the Jerry Garcia Band get top billing at Bonnaroo?”