Part 1: The Grass Is Dead
First Appeared at The Music Box, June 2001, Volume 8, #6
Written by Eric Levy
The recording of the Grateful Dead's songs by other artists has become something of a cottage industry, and new Dead-oriented covers are being released at an astonishing rate. In late 2000, three full-album collections of the group's material as interpreted by other artists were released, and each stands head and shoulders above the rest.
First is a self-titled bluegrass album by The Grass Is Dead, an offshoot of the Miami-based, Grateful Dead cover band Crazy Fingers (and not to be confused with Dead Grass, another fine bluegrass outfit). The Grateful Deadís songs quite easily lend themselves to bluegrass arrangements, and there already have been several very strong albums done in this style. However, none have flowed so easily and so beautifully as The Grass Is Dead. Second is the fascinating and equally pretty compilation by Wake the Dead, which features Celtic arrangements of several of the Grateful Dead's tunes. Unlike bluegrass, this is the first time that Celtic interpretations of the Grateful Deadís work have been attempted, and the results couldnít be lovelier as evidenced by Wake the Deadís self-titled debut. Finally, on Might as Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead, a cappella legends The Persuasions reinvented fifteen of the Deadís songs to suit their unique vocal style, with results that will melt the ears off the most jaded listener.
Listening to all three of these albums, one is struck by another detail: the exquisite poetry of Robert Hunter. Are there any other contemporary songwriters that have stayed so unceasingly strong? Hearing songs from the length of his writing career shows how consistent his work has remained. That early songs like Friend of the Devil and Sugaree sit so comfortably next to later compositions like So Many Roads and Lazy River Road is a testament to the power of his words and his vision-perfectly captured on all three discs under discussion here.
I interviewed members of The Grass is Dead and Wake the Dead and also spoke with Rip Rense, the executive producer of Might as Well. More comments about each album, plus those interviews follow.
The Grass Is Dead
The Grass is Dead
(Sugaree/China Doll/They Love Each Other/Row Jimmy/So Many Roads/Heís Gone/Lazy River Road/Here Comes Sunshine/Althea/Black Muddy River)
Jerry Garciaís earliest musical romance was with bluegrass. Years before Deadheads began following their favorite band across the country, Jerry, along with his pal David Grisman, set out on the road to follow their own heroes like Bill Monroe. Indeed, Jerry and Grisman formed Old and In the Way in 1973 to bring the music they loved so much to a new audience. The group interplay pioneered by Monroe had a lasting impact on the Dead, so it is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary bluegrass artists are now recording Grateful Dead songs.
What makes The Grass Is Dead work so well is virtuoso playing, combined with an excellent choice of brilliantly arranged tunes. Every song fits the bluegrass mold-even China Doll, which retains the originalís haunting quality thanks largely to Lew Londonís subtle fiddle work. The band works in the extra verse from the early versions of They Love Each Other, and Here Comes Sunshine features the repeated-chorus coda, common to the Deadís í90s versions of the song. More than anything, an obvious love for both the music and the songs shines through in every note. The joy the band obviously felt while making the album contagiously leaks through the speakers.
Hereís what banjoist/mandolinist/singer Billy Gilmore, guitarist/singer Corey Dwyer, and bass player Bubba Newton had to say about the album:
First, can you tell me about the history of Crazy Fingers?
Bubba: The band formed in 1990, and we just refused to stop.
How did The Grass Is Dead come about?
Bubba: Shortly after Crazy Fingers began, we met Billy from the band Stonehouse and the rest is history.
Billy: I've had my band Stonehouse together playing original music for ten years. I met Bubba at a Crazy Fingers gig in Palm Beach nine years ago. We thought it would be a great idea for our two bands to play on the same bill, and it evolved from there.
Corey: For me it really started about four years ago at the Magnolia Fest in Live Oak, Florida. I had known Billy from Stonehouse for years. Heís been playing traditional bluegrass for a long time, and I had been playing Grateful Dead songs in Crazy Fingers for years but was not really turned on to bluegrass. We were sitting around the campfire trying to come up with songs to jam, and we started to grass up some songs that you wouldnít necessarily expect. So thatís how the idea started, but it was a couple more years before we really thought about putting it on a record.
Bubba: The three of us enjoyed jamming together and started a side project that became The Grass Is Dead. It all just rolled into one. And it did come for free!
Billy: I had heard Tim OíBrien's bluegrass Bob Dylan tribute album, Red on Blonde and I thought that the Hunter/Garcia material would work even better because of Jerryís bluegrass background.
Are you familiar with the other bluegrass Grateful Dead tributes out there? David West's Pickiní on the Grateful Dead Vols. 1 & 2, Jonathan McEuen & Phil Salazarís A Tribute to Jerry Garcia, Dead Grass?
Bubba: Yes! Keep up the good work, folks!
Billy: Yes. I think they are great.
Black Muddy River is one of two songs thatís common to all three albums under discussion here. Was the fact that it was the last song that Jerry ever sang live a factor in choosing it?
Corey: For me, not really. It is just one of my favorite Jerry tunes, and it lent itself well for the acoustic instruments.
Bubba: Was it the last song he sang live? I never knew that.
You make the songs sound so effortless. Was arranging the songs for a bluegrass setting difficult?
Bubba: I found it to be quite enjoyable. We couldnít wait to add our own little twist to things. But really, these songs lend themselves nicely to a bluegrass style. I really wish Jerry was around to hear this.
Billy: I didnít find it to be difficult. Mostly it was a ton of fun.
How did you choose the songs?
Bubba: We didnít choose them, they chose us.
Corey: I just came up with songs I liked and thought would translate well. I didnít want to do the usual Grateful Dead acoustic numbers like Friend of the Devil. I thought we'd stretch the ideas a little.
Billy: Basically the idea was to take the slower Jerry songs and grass them up.
Were there any other songs you rehearsed that didn't make it to the album?
Bubba: Of course. The other 350 songs we havenít gotten around to yet.
Billy: There are a lot of songs that we have in mind that havenít made it to tape yet.
Lew London is a real find. What can you say about him?
Corey: He was a great influence on me. Inspired me to pick up the violin and begin learning to play. He made it look so easy, which it isnít.
Bubba: He was a godsend! He walked into a gig one night and said, "Can I jam with you guys?" and he melted our meters. Lew added his own personal touch to these songs. Lew was not as well versed in the Dead's material, so we just put a mic in front of him and said, "Have fun buddy."
Billy: Super nice guy with a great ear for music. We were very privileged to have him lend his talent to our project.
Eric Levy would like to thank Jean Petrolle, Marty D'Ambrose,
David Gans and John Metzger for all their help.
Special thanks to Corey, Billy, Bubba, Danny, Paul, and Rip
for their time and enthusiasm.
Eric Levy saw the Grateful Dead over 60 times between 1982
and 1995. Since 1999 he has been a writer for Relix Magazine, where
he published three articles about other artists covering Grateful Dead songs.
He lives in Chicago.
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box