By Eric Renner Brown
Updated October 04, 2016 at 05:06 PM EDT

Before they became avatars of the hippie counterculture, the Grateful Dead’s members honed their skills through traditional American music. Frontman Jerry Garcia taught banjo lessons in the early ’60s. Freewheeling sideman Ron “Pigpen” McKernan earned his stripes playing in folk and jug bands. And Bob Weir — who formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions with Garcia and McKernan a couple years before creating the Grateful Dead — played guitar around the campfire as a teenager ranching during summers on the Wyoming frontier. A half-century later, Weir’s latest solo album, Blue Mountain, brims with a dozen lived-in cowboy tunes that honor his deepest musical roots.

It’s logical that the 68-year-old Weir would return to contemplative Americana late in his career. The Dead’s dual 1970 masterpieces, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, are steeped in country, folk, and bluegrass, and over their three-decade touring career the band commonly covered songs by Jesse Fuller, Sonny Boy Williamson, Merle Haggard, and other seminal American artists. But the way Weir updates the style for a modern audience, while retaining its inherent, timeless spookiness, is remarkable. Weir’s collaborators — the National’s noted Dead acolytes Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner, Scott Devendorf, that band’s frequent collaborator Josh Kaufman, and versatile folk songwriter Josh Ritter — help to give Blue Mountain a contemporary sheen, without overpowering the traditional current that permeates the album.

Like the best Grateful Dead shows, Weir deftly balances high-energy cuts with reflective ones on Blue Mountain. The set opens with “Only a River,” his evocative, mid-tempo take on the ubiquitous “Oh Shenandoah” melody, but it quickly pivots to spirited rockabilly (“Gonesville”) and spine-tingling blues (“Ghost Towns,” with terrific backing vocals from New York trio the Bandana Splits). While some of the ballads drag — “Gallop on the Run” calls to mind Garcia’s more interminable live moments — others are profoundly affecting. With Ritter-penned lyrics, the cinematic “Storm Country” describes “ghost towns with no names” and “the sky above the canyons” where “lost dogs and coyotes are gathering,” capturing the unique loneliness of the Great Plains. And the more personal “Whatever Happened to Rose,” its lyrics also by Ritter, finds a narrator vividly searching for a lost loved one’s grave.

As those song titles and others (“Lay My Lily Down,” “Darkest Hour”) suggest, Blue Mountain is an album rife with death and general melancholy. But though the themes are often morbid, the music is full of life: Flourishes like the joyous accordion solo on “Darkest Hour” populate the nooks and crannies of every song. The occasional cracks in Weir’s voice (on the title track, for instance) or unoriginal songwriting (“Ki-Yi Bossie”) only add a sense of endearing familiarity to the set.

Five years younger than Garcia, Weir often played the youthful foil to his bandmate’s greying sage; here, he’s settled into a groove as a worldly raconteur, eager to share stories with his grizzled growl. Weir, who could’ve kept on truckin’ with various iterations of the Dead, chose instead to strike out on a new adventure — not unlike he did, so many years ago, when he headed to Wyoming — and produced a moving group of tunes worthy of any campfire.


“Only A River”

A modern reimagining of “Oh Shenandoah,” Blue Mountain‘s opening cut encapsulates the album’s pastoral aesthetic.

“Lay My Lily Down”

One of Blue Mountain‘s darkest cuts — about a father burying his daughter — is also its most magnetic, its lyrics underscored by a heady blend of Hammond organ, thumping percussion, and twangy guitar.