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Jerry Garcia's Bluegrass Journey

Jerry Garcia’s magnetic influence on bluegrass music – and indeed his early obsession with the genre – has finally been formally recognised with the opening of a new exhibit dedicated to Garcia at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky.


Titled Jerry Garcia: A Bluegrass Journey, the exhibition – in a 1,000 square foot gallery - was officially unveiled with a special three-day celebration around Easter weekend on March 28-30 with music featuring special guests together with film screenings and panel discussions


Perhaps the most significant enunciation during the whole event came when Carly Smith, the curator of the museum, declared on the eve of the opening: “This is not a Grateful Dead exhibit.”


Garcia was, of course, idolised as co-founder, lead guitarist and principal vocalist of the psychedelic rock band Grateful Dead, the San Francisco group which became as famous for its cult followers, known as Deadheads, as it was for its music. While his frenetic improvised electric-guitar solos – both live and recorded – will forever be etched in the archives of music history, Garcia’s musical roots were purely acoustic and, in particular, the banjo.


“From what I have learned from his family and early collaborators, he was completely obsessed with the banjo. He played for hours and he would be playing it while he was carrying on a conversation with you,” Smith told Relix


In fact, three years preceding the founding of Grateful Dead, around 1965, Garcia performed essentially bluegrass and old-time music with various groups, the most notable being a bluegrass act called the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers.


And it has been revealed in publicity surrounding the Bluegrass Hall of Fame exhibit that Garcia had designs on joining the actual outfit which is credited with founding bluegrass music – Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.


Someone familiar with the facts of the time is Peter Rowan, a long-time music collaborator with Garcia who himself was hired in 1964 as lead singer and rhythm guitarist for The Blue Grass Boys. “A lot of people forget Jerry and Robert Hunter were bluegrass guys before the Dead became ‘the Dead’”, said Rowan.


He detailed in Rolling Stone how Garcia is believed to have traveled to Sunset Park in Chester County, rural Pennsylvania, in the early 1960’s to audition for Monroe. “I think Jerry took a look at the scene and realized if he did get the job, this would be his life. Everything was just starting in California. Jerry couldn’t envision himself in a coat, tie and cowboy hat working with Bill Monroe.”


It was Rowan who was instrumental in Garcia finally delving big-time into bluegrass around a decade later. By then, Rowan had long left Monroe’s boys and had teamed up with mandolinist David Grisman, who would go on to be one of the most influential figures in acoustic music. The pair would move to San Francisco, where the Dead were all the rage, and soon Garcia, always seeking out his bluegrass roots, would be on their radar.


The trio started jamming together and soon Garcia had a notion that they should form their own bluegrass band. And, as with the Grateful Dead, it was Jerry who invented a name. Rowan said: “After a few hours of picking, Jerry turned to us and said, ‘We’re old and in the way.’” And so Old & In the Way, the first bluegrass supergroup was born.


Because of Garcia’s solid commitments with the Grateful Dead – and his desire to form The Jerry Garcia Band – OITW was a short-lived bluegrass combination, playing around 50 gigs in just under two years.


But it was one particular live outing, over two nights on October 1 & 8, 1973, at a little-known San Francisco venue called The Boarding House, that would change bluegrass forever. By now the OITW line-up had narrowed down to Garcia, on his beloved banjo, Rowan on Guitar, Grisman on mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle and John Kahn, one of Jerry’s sidekicks, on bass.


The two concerts at The Boarding House were recorded by eight microphones (four per channel) and mixed live onto a stereo Nagra tape recorder. The tapes ended up holding one of the most valuable recordings of bluegrass music. For when the self-titled first album of the October 8 concert was released two years later, it would be one of the biggest selling records in bluegrass history.


And there was no doubt that it was Garcia’s presence which inspired sales. A review by Relix’s Jesse Jarnow summed it up: “While it was Peter Rowan’s sweet silvery holler and the quintet’s close dynamics that sold the Stinson Beach supergroup to audiences, it was Jerry Garcia’s presence that sold the band’s live LP to hippies, and – in turn – linked banjos to beardos forevermore.”


Rowan recalled: “Jerry was the draw. And there were Deadheads going, ‘What is this? Fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and acoustic guitars?’” He added: “Bill Monroe had a vision that his music was much more appealing than just to a rural audience – Old & In the Way was the catalyst to prove that point.”


In fact what Old & In the Way laid down as those two San Fran shows proved the forerunner to what became known as progressive bluegrass and, quite simply, newgrass. The inspired multi-faction set-list of Old & In the Way personified this.


At one end of this wonderful collection sat the newbies –the Rowan-penned “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” and “Land of the Navajo,” combined with the likes of the Rolling Stones “Wild Horses.” In the centre were the bluegrass oldies – “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home” and “White Dove.” At the other extreme, were the classic gospel numbers – “Angel Band” and “Drifting Too Far from the Shore.” And in the centre of all this, Garcia was plucking his banjo.


Of the ground-breaking quintet, only Rowan, 81, and Grisman, 79, remain. Garcia died of a heart attack at the age of 53 in August 1995, Kahn in 1996 and Clements in 2005.

Garcia’s contribution to modern music – whatever the genre – is simply staggering and the number of albums in which he was featured tallies in the hundreds.


Of course, the most publicised of his work – whether it be with the Grateful Dead or the various line-ups of the Jerry Garcia Band – was rock, rhythm and blues. But one trawl through his archival material – much of it recorded live – shows sufficient acoustic work, with or without a banjo, for him to be honoured as a bluegrass musician.


And perhaps the best example is what was labelled as The Pizza Tapes, an album of an unrehearsed acoustic jamming session featuring Garcia on guitar and vocals, Grisman on his mandolin and another acoustic legend, guitarist Tony Rice. It is widely regarded as one of the finest live acoustic sessions ever recorded.


It was taped in Grisman’s Californian studios on February 4 & 5, 1993, but not released – on Grisman’s Acoustic Records label – until April 2000 and only after bootleg copies of the recorded tapes were widely distributed. While this session occurred two decades after the Old & In the Way recordings, it demonstrates that Garcia’s desires as an acoustic artist had never waned.


Once again, Garcia and Grisman, together with Rice, dish up a wonderful mix of acoustic gems -  from gospel (“Amazing Grace”), traditional (“Man of Constant Sorrow”) and contemporary (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”).


As expected, the Bluegrass Hall of Fame exhibition includes an extensive interview with Grisman, someone who has done more than most to conserve and promote acoustic music, and, in doing so, has advanced the case of honouring Garcia’s role in a genre like bluegrass. In fact, it was Grisman’s son and his band, the Sam Grisman Project, which kicked off the opening celebrations on March 28.


So, apart from the extensive audio and video exhibits, what can visitors expect to see at the Garcia tribute? Well musical equipment is an obvious expectation. Garcia was said to have used around 25 guitars – ranging from cheapo to a custom-made pedal steel. Some have been subject to lawsuits regarding ownership since his death, while some of his memorabilia has fetched almost two million dollars at auction.


Curator Carly Smith said instruments, including of course the banjo, were obviously going to be the main focus of the exhibition as they were Garcia’s tools. “So we were just hoping to get one, maybe two, and we’ve ended up with 12,” she said. “It’s been phenomenal that people are so generous to loan us these instruments for display.


 “We don’t just have banjos, we have a mandolin of his. He was even scratching around on a fiddle, although we don’t have a fiddle of his. But it’s been wonderful. The instrument side of things really helps tell this story.”


Garcia’s first wife Sara Katz (Ruppenthal) was more than happy to assist the conservation team.


“She has a really unique perspective in terms of the time frame when they were together because that’s when he was bitten by the bluegrass bug,” said Smith. "She still has Jerry’s bluegrass album collection, which is full of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse.”


Katz was also interviewed for the exhibit’s documentary film project.


“I think what really opened the doors for us was that we were exploring the bluegrass side of things, which hasn’t been done all that many times,” Smith said. “We learned from people in his inner circle that he would travel with a banjo when he was going to Hawaii. Things like that just really affirmed we were on the right track.”


While the opening sessions of the exhibit were sold out, it will be open for two years and the organizers – as indeed the town of Owensboro - are well geared up for visitors – Deadheads et al.


Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation.




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