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Acoustic legacy of Jerry Garcia well preserved

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

Before there was a Grateful Dead, there was Jerry Garcia, acoustic picker. Garcia – born Aug. 1, 1941; died Aug. 9, 1995 – had as his first musical love the electric guitar. As a teenager in and around San Francisco, Garcia fell in love with early rock ‘n’ roll – Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Garcia followed that affection to electric blues players like Albert King and Freddie King.Thanks to a teacher at the California School of Fine Art, Garcia was turned onto acoustic music. It was the early ’60s, the midst of the great folk scare, and Garcia got swept up in it. He practiced banjo and guitar fervently and, with his future songwriting partner Robert Hunter, formed a succession of folk/bluegrass bands: the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, the Black Mountain Boys, the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers. Garcia was so hooked that, in 1964, he and bandmate Sandy Rothman spent a month traveling the Southern and Midwestern bluegrass circuit. Not until 1965, when he and his mates in the jug band Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions saw the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” did Garcia decide to plug in.Garcia would periodically unplug, sit down and become the acoustic picker again. Garcia was usually coaxed in this direction by mandolinist David Grisman, who Garcia had met in that summer of ’64. Garcia, on banjo, and Grisman – with guitarist Peter Rowan, bassist John Kahn, and fiddler Vassar Clements – formed Old & In the Way. The band was short-lived, playing only a handful of 1973 gigs. But Old & In the Way would prove influential. Its album would become one of bluegrass’ biggest sellers. The Garcia-Grisman partnership would be a lasting and productive one. After the two pickers became estranged, they reunited in the late ’80s for occasional gigs and numerous picking sessions. Grisman always had his tape recorder running, and Garcia’s acoustic side is now well-preserved.Here’s a look at Garcia’s acoustic legacy.* “Old & In the Way” (1974, Rykodisc) – For many Deadheads this recording, from San Francisco’s Boarding House in October of 1973, was their introduction to Garcia as banjoist. For some time, apart from rare bootlegs and the Dead’s rare acoustic outings, it would be the only such example. The material – traditional tunes “Pig in a Pen” and “Knockin’ On Your Door,” Peter Rowan’s “Land of the Navajo” and “Midnight Moonlight” – would become staples of bluegrass repertoire, thanks in part to being included here. * Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, “Almost Acoustic” (1988, Grateful Dead Records) – For reasons not completely clear – perhaps it had been too long since Garcia played acoustic music; maybe due to the reunion with Grisman – Garcia assembled an acoustic band that played New York and California in late ’87 and early ’88. Sandy Rothman is on mandolin, and another early associate, David Nelson, is on guitar. The album, recorded at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre, has some great traditional songs – “Oh, the Wind and Rain,” “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” and “Casey Jones” (but not the Dead’s “Casey Jones”). * Old & In the Way, “That High Lonesome Sound” (1996); and “Breakdown” (1997) (Acoustic Disc) – Fans got a treat when Grisman unearthed a trove of additional material from the Boarding House gigs.And they would be thrilled to discover how much more material there was. “That High Lonesome Sound” features versions of “The Great Pretender,” “Orange Blossom Special,” Rowan’s “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” and a trio of Bill Monroe tunes. “Breakdown,” clocking in at 70 minutes, had bluegrass gospel tunes “Working On a Building” and “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” and “Old & In the Way Breakdown,” the only bluegrass tune credited to Garcia.The two CDs are packed with notes and photos.* “Garcia/Grisman” (1991, Acoustic Disc) – Garcia and Grisman reteamed for this eclectic recording. With members of Grisman’s quintet, Garcia and Grisman play blues classics “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Walkin’ Boss,” Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullabye,” the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” and a new instrumental, “Grateful Dawg.”* Garcia/Grisman, “Not For Kids Only” (1993, Acoustic Disc) – Uncle Jerry and Uncle Dave go into family mode, and come up with a gem. With versions of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” “Jenny Jenkins” and “There Ain’t No Bugs On Me,” there’s enough humor and weirdness here to leave most kids music in the dust.* Garcia/Grisman, “Shady Grove” (Acoustic Disc) – Backed again by members of Grisman’s combo, the duo make one of their more focused efforts. “Shady Grove” doesn’t come off as a casual session. They add a bunch of folk songs to their repertoire, including the title track, “The Handsome Cabin Boy,” “Whisky in the Jar” and “The Sweet Sunny South.” A high point of the collaboration.* Garcia, Grisman, Rice, “The Pizza Tapes,” produced by Grisman (2000, Acoustic Disc) – In early 1993, while Grisman and guitarist Tony Rice were working on another project, they invited Garcia over for two nights of jamming. At one point, Garcia and Rice profess how long they’d been waiting to play together. There are versions of traditional songs “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Amazing Grace,” “House of the Rising Sun” and “Long Black Veil,” as well as Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” It was named “The Pizza Tapes” because the recordings were missing for several years, and the working theory was that a pizza delivery guy had swiped them from Garcia’s kitchen.* Garcia/Grisman and others, “Grateful Dawg,” produced by Grisman (2001, Acoustic Disc) – This soundtrack to the documentary “Grateful Dawg,” directed by Grisman’s daughter Gillian, is on a par with the surprisingly well-reviewed film. With several of the tunes recorded live with the Grisman Quintet, Garcia and Grisman get the rare opportunity to stretch out, so there’s a 16-minute “Arabia” and a seven-minute take on Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting Here in Limbo.” Interspersed are tunes by Bill Monroe and Ewan MacColl.


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