50 Years Ago, With Twin Masterworks, The Grateful Dead Opened A Portal To Americana

Nov 11, 2020

The Grateful Dead are the Rorschach test of American music, and given the chemistry, social science and voodoo technology that have come out of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and San Francisco where the Dead were born, I’m not even sure this is a metaphor. Maybe it was all a big clinical trial, run on our peculiar national psychology. Stare into the Dead’s kaleidoscopic ink blots and you’ll see something about yourself and the culture. Skeptics and fanatics of the band don’t know quite what to make of each other (we’ve long been a divided nation). If you don’t embrace ambiguity, you may never get it.

As controversial as the Grateful Dead have been though, almost everybody loves at least a song or two from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, two landmark albums that are being widely celebrated and extrapolated in this, their 50th anniversary year. Opus four and five in the band’s studio catalog marked a shift in style and a new level of mainstream interest. Often regarded as bookends or even a virtual double album, the 1970 releases – June 14 and Nov. 1 respectively – marked the band’s “transition from psychedelia to songcraft,” as historian Jesse Jarnow puts it in a new podcast about the albums. With the nation in turmoil and the Bay Area scene in flux, the Dead served up American roots two ways, drawing on their shared folk and bluegrass history. Jerry Garcia and co-writer/lyricist Robert Hunter went way back as bluegrass pickers. Even so, the albums reached beyond three-chords-and-the-truth, evoking a novel acoustic mysticism and a postmodern blues. The albums gave us the songs “Uncle John’s Band,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Casey Jones,” “Ripple,” “Box of Rain” and many more standards, for the band and for American music.

The anniversary brings a stash of new ways to hear and understand Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Warner Records and Rhino have released Deluxe Edition CD packages pairing new masters of the albums with live shows from February of 1971 in Port Chester, NY, where much of the albums’ radically new repertoire was integrated into the evenings. Also this year, the Grateful Dead’s in-house operation has digitally released hours of session outtakes, rehearsal passes and studio banter from both albums under the title The Angel’s Share. “Compiled from dozens of 16-track reels that were recently discovered in unlabeled boxes, The Angel’s Share includes outtakes for every song on the album, which have been unheard since they left the studio over 50 years ago,” the organization says. Moments from that remarkable tape help enliven the new Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast series, an audio documentary in which historian/fans Rich Mahan and Jesse Jarnow burrow into the albums’ history and implications at the detail-rich, cut-by-cut tempo of a song per episode. There’s even a new limited-edition American Beauty inspired D’Angelico hollow body guitar for sale. Whether you’re a devotee, a dabbler or a puzzled newcomer who never took the trip, this is the time to reckon with a pair of masterpieces that directly inspired folk-rock, alt-country and the Americana movement of the past half century.

“There wouldn’t be Americana without the Grateful Dead,” says Rob Bleetstein, a co-founder of the Americana radio chart and a host on Sirius/XM’s Grateful Dead Channel. Yet he’s quick to remind that in the 1990s, Americana’s inner circle wasn’t generally so warm to the band. “I was the lone Deadhead for a long time. At least the only one who would fess up to it. So when the community embraced them years later, like ten or fifteen years ago, it was totally great to see.”

That evolution was clear by the time then-AMA President Jessie Scott (WMOT’s program director) named Jerry Garcia the recipient of the posthumous President’s Award in 2008. Then at the Americana Honors and Awards of 2013, Robert Hunter made a rare personal appearance to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting. Bob Weir was granted the same award for performance in 2015. Today, the Dead’s influence is widely assumed and affirmed. Jim Lauderdale claims the 1970 albums as fundamental to his development, and his friend and colleague Buddy Miller taped Dead shows in the 70s. The Colorado jamgrass scene rests on the shoulders of the Dead and Garcia’s many acoustic and folk projects with Peter Rowan, David Grisman and others. Contemporary acts that proclaim love for the Dead include The Band of Heathens, Billy Strings, Cordovas and the Jon Stickley Trio.

I noticed Dead Aversion Syndrome more broadly in Nashville after I moved here in the late 90s, particularly in and around the song trade of Music Row. The recurring complaints were about solos that went on too long, mediocre musicianship and disrespect of the Platonic ideal of ‘the song’ as the guiding light of popular music. I took this up with Dead drummer Mickey Hart on a phone interview in 2004 before the reconstituted post Garcia Dead played the second-ever Bonnaroo festival. “The Grateful Dead sort of sprung out of chaos. Nashville is order,” he told me then. “We have no interest in order. It’s just a different way of looking at music. If you can do it in four minutes, more power to you. That’s more entertainment; we’re more into transportation. For us a song has to transport, and we were never able to do it in four minutes. That’s just not our line.”

Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty achieved a balance of those ideals. Hunter and Garcia unlocked a highly prolific period of collaboration. And the band arrived at a junction, five years into its cosmic run, where change became inevitable. The Acid Test era couldn’t go on forever. San Francisco’s Summer Of Love had overstayed its natural life and grown sour. Add the chaos and tragedy of the Altamont festival in December, 1969, and Act 1 of The Dead’s rise was over. By this point the country rock and folk rock revolutions were well underway, with Bob Dylan’s run of Nashville albums, the Byrds’ epic Sweetheart of the Rodeo homage to country in 1968 and the rise of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The Dead, with its abstract, imagistic lyrics, its surround-sound volume and its unpredictable sonic excursions, didn’t seem a vessel for the country/folk phenomenon, unless you were aware of their origins. The band had cohered out of a folk revival scene and launched as a jug band and a blues band. The roots were there, laying dormant.

In 1969, mellower, more country leaning material began debuting in Dead sets, including “Uncle John’s Band,” “New Speedway Boogie” “Dire Wolf” and “Casey Jones.” Garcia played pedal steel guitar from time to time, and they covered country hits like “Mama Tried” and “The Race Is On.” Certain dyspeptic fans protested the “cowboy” music, to no more avail than when similar folks had scorned Bob Dylan’s electric band years before. Garcia is quoted in David Fricke’s new liner notes to the Workingman’s Dead re-issue about rethinking volume and impact, leaning into groove as the most important thing, believing that it was better to “be clear than loud.” With more space in the soundscape, the band started executing close vocal harmonies, clearly influenced by CSN.

That’s why we’re served the warm, layer cake joy of “Uncle John’s Band” leading off Workingman’s Dead like an invocation of the muse. Its simple strum and lead melody is made a bit angular with some skipped bars and formal quirks. The drumming is barely there, a gentle guide decorated with hand percussion. Hearing the instrumental parts of this one come into focus through a number of passes on the Angel’s Share release is one of the more thrilling and illustrative lessons from the collection.

Then it’s on to “High Time” where we hear the first pedal steel guitar, with Garcia playing a suggestive ambience on the wickedly hard instrument. Then his twang is in our faces, Bakersfield style, on the brilliant intro to “Dire Wolf,” one of many songs here where Hunter’s lyrics allude to myths, even modern ones like The Hound of the Baskervilles. As the album courses through its two sides and eight tracks, WD benefits from mutually reinforcing forces. Not only was the songwriting becoming more economical, The Dead were consciously trying to slash their studio expenses, having been indebted by the time-sucking over-thinking of their prior albums. Workingman and its follow up were conceived, sequenced, rehearsed and demoed as album experiences in pre-production, so the performances feel organic and emotionally charged. By the time the July release comes to a close with the snappy, folkloric “Casey Jones,” countless listeners realized they’d heard something fundamentally new from a band with unplumbed depths. Jim Lauderdale is quoted in the Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast calling it a “perfect album.”

So could American Beauty, recorded in August and September and released on Nov. 1, 1970, be even more perfect? It’s a personal, difficult call, but for me it’s a yes. “Box Of Rain” is immediately seductive and meaningful, with a new voice out front. It’s bass player Phil Lesh who wrote the music to go with Hunter’s lyrics. He sings beautifully of working through grief, as several band members lost parents that year. Track one’s bittersweet country sentiments give way to “Friend Of The Devil,” a song of infinite durability and outlaw cool. It’s a staple today for Trey Hensley and Rob Ickes for example, a prime showcase for vocal interpretation and instrumental interplay. On the album cut, the Dead are joined by 25-year-old guest mandolinist David Grisman, lending a bluegrass anchor and foreshadowing the immense body of work Garcia and Grisman would produce over the years to come as a folk duo.

“Sugar Magnolia” is profoundly personal for me, my companion during a golden college-era summer I spent on islands in Puget Sound, where I did indeed “discover the wonders of nature” and had my own sweet blossom for high times. If it was the last recording I ever heard that’d be fine. Moving on, “Candyman” is a masterwork that any band today would kill to invent, with an easy blues sway that came from devoted listening to the bluesmen who were all over the festivals of the day - Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins. “Ripple” is an inward looking pean about opening channels to the muse, a song named for radiating energy waves that feels astonishingly good to pick and sing. Grisman returns on this one with his tremulous mandolin. Onward the experience goes through the sunny boogie of “Till The Morning Comes” and the hymn that is “Attics Of My Life” and then on to a finale that became the band’s mission statement. It’s a danceable country shuffle that puts us on the road with the ultimate road band, joining their “long strange trip.” There’s a certain rush that ensues when the opening triplets of “Truckin’” swell into existence at a show, and on the album it’s no less thrilling.

For countless music lovers, myself included, the Grateful Dead opened the portal to the world of American roots music, illuminating its diversity and interwoven legacies. These vital gateway albums emerged out of the smoke and blood of some of America’s hardest years, giving them a calming resonance in today’s fraught climate. The mini box sets, well annotated and mastered, even if the packaging feels a bit spendthrift, are physical goods that speak of the works’ permanence in an ephemeral music space. They are albums for owning, and they’re out on vinyl picture LPs as well. They’re part of a larger, longer enshrining of the Grateful Dead that’s been going on, including the magnificent four-hour documentary Long Strange Trip from 2017 and an exhibit being readied for 2022 about Jerry Garcia’s acoustic career and influence at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Owensboro, KY. Living band members - Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann – tour as Dead & Company. Their dates for 2020 were canceled like everyone else’s, but a message at their website says: “We will return. We will get by. We will survive.”

Correction: Bassist Phil Lesh was incorrectly included among members of Dead & Company.