My recent Grateful Dead listening phase has gone off road into bluegrass. My first exposure to bluegrass was in the early Seventies by performers who themselves were influenced by bluegrass. Besides the Dead, I remember hearing David Bromberg doing fiddle tunes like Arkansas Traveler and listening to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 record “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, a record that featured the band collaborating with a who’s who of country and bluegrass musicians such as Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements and Doc Watson. The deep dive came when my best friend Allen decided he wanted to learn Earl Scruggs style 5 string banjo. It was with Allen that I saw bluegrass legend Bill Monroe play in a small auditorium in Greenwich Village and with who I had what is one of my favorite concert memories: a triple bill of David Bromberg, the Earl Scruggs Revue and Doc Watson playing a summer concert in Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park, NYC.
David Bromberg – Arkansas Traveler
The Earl Scruggs Revue – Earl’s Breakdown
Guitar Artistry of Doc Watson
With a lot of my current listening being the Dead or bluegrass, it was sort of inevitable that I would come upon the overlap of bluegrass versions of Dead songs. The ones that I were particularly drawn to were interpretations that took a Dead song not normally considered to be “country” and rearranged it as a song that could fit comfortably within the bluegrass tradition. Many of the songs from the early seventies (what I refer to The American Beauty Trilogy” period, see my earlier post: https://roymusicusa.com/2015/07/05/jack-straw-from-wichita-the-missing-third-album-of-the-grateful-deads-american-beauty-trilogy/) are prime candidates for this treatment.The songs from this period have deep ties to the folk music tradition that Garcia was an avid student of. One of the best is the version below of “Loser” performed by the Travelin McCourys. These guys are the real deal, with mandolin player Ronnie McCoury and banjo player Rob McCoury being sons of bluegrass legend Del McCoury. They’re true keepers of the bluegrass flame but are not afraid of going outside of the bluegrass tradition for new source material. This version of Loser does both their father and Jerry proud.
The Travelin’ McCourys perform Grateful Dead tune “Loser” at DelFest 2015
I’m not that familiar with the band Grass Is Dead and at first I thought the concept (bluegrass versions of only Dead songs) was a little cheesy. I feel that some of their versions are not as successful as others but when they work, they work extremely well. “Comes A Time“ has always been one of my favorite Garcia ballads and what I love about this version is that it really re-imagines the song as a bluegrass tune. Many of the bluegrass covers of Dead tunes I’ve heard didn’t really sound like bluegrass. They sounded more like the original version of the song, only played with bluegrass instruments like banjo and mandolin. Unlike “Comes A Time”, I never was that big on “Ship Of Fools” but this version has given me a new appreciation of it’s song craft. That these songs can be recast into a different genre that their original version and still hold their own is a testament to the timeless quality of the songwriting of Garcia/Hunter.
The Grass Is Dead – Comes a Time
The Grass Is Dead – Ship of Fools
Remember what I said about my preference for the bluegrass versions of non-country Dead tunes. Well, forget that. Yes, featuring a bluegrass cover of “Friend Of The Devil” is a bit obvious but you got to hear these guys play. Your face might fall off. As the video clips of Dave Bromberg, Doc Watson and Earl Scuggs demonstrated, bluegrass is no stranger to technical virtuosity but as we say in guitar geek speak, these guys shred. Rob Ickes (on dobro) and guitarist/vocalist Trey Hensley are Nashville pros with long resumes and here, along with guest Chris Luquettet on guitar, they tear the roof off of the song. You’ve been warned.
Friend of the Devil – Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley (with special guest Chris Luquette) at Bluegrass From the Forest, Shelton, WA. – 2016
In memory of Allen Asaf.