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Jerry Garcia’s Monumental Influence On Bluegrass, On Exhibit

Susana Millman
A visitor investigates Jerry Garcia's early years in the Bay Area folk and bluegrass scene at Jerry Garcia - A Bluegrass Journey, which opened for a two-year run at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, KY.

When Robert Hunter penned the lyrics to “Truckin’” in 1970, and when Jerry Garcia and his bandmates set the story song to music and set it free at a show in August of that year, the line “what a long, strange trip it’s been” was perhaps more ironic than iconic. The Grateful Dead had been a band for just five years and on the road less than that. The oldest member, bassist Phil Lesh, was turning 30.

But Garcia and Hunter, the chief songwriting pair of this immortal band, had in fact been on a longer journey together than many in the audience appreciated. They met in 1961 as teenaged bohemians in Palo Alto, CA, and over the next few years, they made music together in various configurations. But they weren’t making psychedelic rock or even traditional blues. They formed a smokin’ bluegrass band, with Garcia on banjo.

It's taken decades for the true nature and impact of Jerry Garcia’s formative years as a musician and band leader to emerge and become semi-common knowledge, because for many, his devotion to old-time string band and bluegrass music between 1961 and 1964 doesn’t square with the quantum jams he’d be leading just a few years later. But they came from the same place, and they still do. Because of the Dead, we have jamgrass, an extremely popular branch of the family tree where instrumental interplay coexists with preservation of classic songs. And at last, this connection is made, and this story is told, in a new museum exhibit set for a two-year run, Jerry Garcia – A Bluegrass Journey, at the Bluegrass Music Hall Of Fame & Museum in Owensboro, KY. Episode 280 of The String takes you there with sound and voices from its grand opening weekend in late March.

“It's going to be a discovery for a lot of people,” the museum’s executive director Chris Joslin told me in a separate interview. “Even people who consider themselves pretty serious fans of Jerry Garcia and his work with the Grateful Dead or even bluegrass fans who feel like they know everything about bluegrass and the history, and I think that's one of the reasons why it was so compelling for us to pursue it.”

Susana Millman
Bluegrass Museum Executive Director Chris Joslin (L) joins Kyle Tuttle, Andy Thorn, and Peter Wernick in a banjo salute to Jerry Garcia, pictured in back.

Owensboro, a small city of 60,000 people on the banks of the Ohio river in northeastern Kentucky, has been earning its self-appointed moniker as “the bluegrass capital of the world” since the 1980s. That’s when the International Bluegrass Music Association held its organizational meetings and first conventions there, in part because it’s about 40 miles away from the birthplace of the genre’s founding “father” Bill Monroe. The IBMA World of Bluegrass moved to bigger facilities in 1997, but a Bluegrass Museum stayed on, operating out of a downtown building. Then in 2018, they christened a free-standing, 64,000 square foot home with a 450-seat theater and room for temporary exhibits. The Garcia exhibit, the first ambitious story to fill that space, was an idea kicked around early on, but it got legs when a couple of roots music lovers and Deadheads – artist manager Cliff Selzer and Leftover Salmon co-founder Vince Herman - volunteered to set it in motion.

“I don’t know what happened, but my right arm immediately went up - there was no thought process whatsoever - and I said, ‘I’m doing this for you!’ and Vince said ‘Me too!’” Seltzer told me a few days before the opening of an exhibit that’s occupied much of his time and brain power over the past five years. Seltzer, who is an old friend of mine and a valued supporter of WMOT and music culture in Nashville, spearheaded relationships with the Dead’s archives and the Jerry Garcia estate and family, while the museum staff – Joslin and curator Carly Smith – began raising funds and building support at the local level in Owensboro. Eventually, all three of them traveled west to interview key figures in Garcia’s bluegrass story – notably mandolinist David Grisman and 1960s band mates David Nelson and Eric Thompson – and to collect artifacts from Garcia’s family.

“Everybody was so enthusiastic about this. It's never been done before,” Seltzer says. “And then we drove back 4000 miles across the states, with a policeman, with a Glock, in the car - an armed guard. And every single night we stayed in very obscure Airbnb’s that were in the middle of nowhere. And we unloaded the car every night. And we reloaded it the next day. And all the instruments were wrapped up in shipping blankets. So it took an hour to load and unload, but you know, these are very valuable items. It's the largest collection of Jerry's instruments in one place at the same time.”

Carly Smith is interviewed in this hour too, saying: “I look at the instruments as the tool, basically, of how this music is created. You have to be a master musician to be a bluegrass artist. And obviously, Jerry was one. And he loved his banjos. So we have 12 of his instruments on display. Most of that came from his family. They were just so generous. I'm sure they get approached a lot, but we might have been the first to approach to really tell that bluegrass side.”

The exhibit’s rich mix of narrative, photography, video interviews, recordings, and artifacts documents three broad chapters of Garcia’s life. Between 1961 and 1964, he dives into bluegrass and masters the banjo and classic repertoire with a series of bands. Then (in a white Chevrolet Corvair that’s represented with a replica at the museum) he takes a pilgrimage east with friend Sandy Rothman when he sees some of his heroes perform and meets David Grisman.

Act two comes after the Dead have been playing about seven years when Garcia hooks up with Grisman, Peter Rowan, bass player John Kahn and fiddler Vassar Clements to form Old And In The Way, the short-lived but hugely influential bluegrass band where beloved songs like “Panama Red” and “Midnight Moonlight” were born. Act three comes in the 1990s, near the end of Garcia’s life, when he and Grisman record a series of duo albums that mine the American folk songbook with a style all their own. In the meantime, there’s Jerry’s pedal steel playing in New Riders of the Purple Sage and his Acoustic Band in the latter 80s with Rothman, Kahn, and Nelson. Not to mention the Dead itself, which integrated numerous old folk, blues and bluegrass songs into its repertoire, passing them on to new generations.

Susana Millman
Opening weekend of Jerry Garcia - A Bluegrass Journey included numerous panel conversations, here with Eric Thompson, Ronnie McCoury, Sara Katz, and Rob Bleetstein.

Besides Seltzer and Smith, this hour includes interviews with Dead biographer Dennis McNally, broadcaster and historian Rob Bleetstein, and Sara Katz, Garcia’s first wife, who sang with Jerry in a folky duo in the 60s and who is enshrined in the exhibit with her wedding dress. I also toss in some tape with Peter Rowan telling the story of how he and Grisman sought out Garcia to pave the way for the Old And In The Way band. And you’ll hear a bit from the three nights of live music that enriched the experience of the grand opening, including Leftover Salmon, the Travelin’ McCourys, the Sam Grisman Project, banjo player Pete Wernick, and Peter Rowan. Perhaps most remarkable were feisty performances by David Nelson and Eric Thompson, some sixty years after they’d been young pickers in cahoots with the future icon, Jerry Garcia.

McNally called the gathering a family reunion. “It was almost spine tingling, the sweetness of the vibe,” he told me. While Katz reveled in the connections among the musicians as they touched on songs from all eras of Garcia’s life. “To just feel the love between them and the respect,” she says. “It's generativity. They're passing on the wealth and (I was) so delighted to see what the young ones are doing with it. It's just pure gold.”

I’ve not tried to tell the whole story of Garcia’s bluegrass journey here or in Episode 280. That’s best understood by planning a trip to Owensboro.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>