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Robert Hunter: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

by Dean Budnick on September 17, 2013

Robert Hunter pauses for a moment before he discusses the ailment that hospitalized him last year. “I’m of two minds about whether I want to say anything about it because the last thing I want is pity,” he says. “I didn’t let any information out but I was seriously ill with a spinal infection. I don’t know where it came from. I think it was ebola or something like that, and it put me at death’s door.”

Prior to this setback, the longtime Grateful Dead lyricist had been in fine fettle, writing songs with Little Feat, Bruce Hornsby, Jim Lauderdale and old friends David Nelson, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and even Bob Dylan. As Hunter reflects on his career, he is quick to remark, “I’ll just say right out front that I am one lucky lyricist to have had Jerry Garcia to work with. I never get tired of those melodies. The man’s genius is there. He’s with those songs. It’s part of what he’s left.”

Hunter will revisit his expansive catalog of material in late September, when he embarks on his first tour in nearly a decade.

It’s been a while since you last performed live. I’m sure there are plenty of people who assumed that you had retired from the stage. What prompted your decision to return?

In a nutshell, I had the benefit of the experience of being extremely ill. When I got out of the hospital, I began thinking that time was precious and what I really would like to do, God willing and the creek don’t rise, is continue my performing career. I realized that I missed being on the stage. When I gave it up, it wasn’t the performing I was giving up—it was the travel, the hotels, the days between.

Since you hadn’t played guitar in a performance setting for quite some time, was it a challenge to bring your chops up to speed?

Oh, my God, yes. I get up before dawn and, as soon as the sun is up, I go out in the yard with my guitar. I find that’s the nicest place to do it with the birds singing, and I work about four or five hours in the morning. I’ve pretty much got my repertoire back together. My guitar playing is better than it’s ever been, by far, because I never really worked at it before. This time, I decided to sit down and put in the hours instead of just writing songs all the time. I’ve written plenty of songs in the time I’ve been off.

Speaking of which, do you plan on incorporating any of that material from the recent years into your show?

I’m planning to do “Patchwork River” that I wrote with Jim [Lauderdale]. I’ve been working it up and I really like singing it. Just because a song is kind of good doesn’t make me want to sing it. The song has to command me to sing. When I get out there, every song I perform demands to be sung.

I’ve worked out about 40 songs of which I’ll do about 18 when I do two sets. I generally do about six in my first set and a dozen in my second set. So, for example, will I do “Mission in the Rain” or some other one? I won’t know until I make up my setlist right before I go onstage.

I’ll be doing a couple I haven’t done before though. For instance, I’m going to pull out an “Attics of My Life,” which I’ve never dared to do solo before because everybody knows it takes at least three singers. [Laughs.] But I’ve worked my way around it and I’m feeling confident with it. I’ll be doing a couple songs that I’ve written for myself over a few years now, but I know what people come to hear from me and they’re going to get it. They pay their money, they’re entitled to hear what they want to hear and that’s largely Grateful Dead. I understand this.

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An awesome artist n musician walked many roads all Deadheads Worldwide loves you.

By Tommy Price - 09/17/13

Yes come to the NW next spring, please

By bdbeeler - 09/17/13

We love you, Robert Hunter, and thank you for your wisdom and words.
Peace and love, always…

By Addie Corn - 09/17/13

Coming to the Capt to see your show! Saw you years ago (1978) outside of Philly. All the years combine…

By Rachel Rodgers - 09/17/13

See you In Cambridge….. It has been awhile…. Thanx for coming to Boston. .Peace and Happiness.. Barry…....... Say to Phil for me

By hemphit - 09/17/13

We do love you Robert Hunter.  My life was much richer because you wrote great songs for us.  Thank you.

By Chris Marshall - 09/17/13

I got my Town Hall NYC tix.I’m excited because my wife married a Dead Head and now she will see who caused all this shit.hahaha

By Steve the Mayor of Deadville - 09/17/13

(((Robert Hunter))) “What’s your Hurry?” <3

By Adrienna, "Windhorse" - 09/17/13

Waiting patiently for a decade to see you again. Just like last time, we’ll be sitting right there with love and gratitude. Can’t wait. Much love.

By val - 09/18/13

Thanks for all the wonderful songs.It’s ok that you won’t be coming to Britain anytime soon.It’s good to know you are still out there

By vic millard - 09/18/13

WOuld love to hear some of your other tunes that weren’t recorded by the Grateful Dead.  A full length Ballad of Terrapin Station, Promontory Rider & any of the Jim Lauderdale material would be great! Glad to see you’ll be taking the stage soon.

By WoodWarbler - 09/18/13

good to see you back on the road hunter. have a great time and hopefully we will see you down florida way in the spring.

By bill wastrel - 09/18/13

Nice article…Glad Robert is in charge of the publishing and getting back on the Road ...Fare thee well !!

By Chris Paul - 09/18/13

wonderful news!  so glad to know Robert will be touring again, I hope I get another chance to see him play, great interview,
Welcome Home, Robert Hunter!!

By Celeste Ambrose - 09/18/13

I really hope Robert plays some of the Together Through Life songs. It’s All Good!

By Doodles Weaver - 09/19/13

I was excited before, but now after seeing his performance/acceptance speech at the Americana Awards last night I cannot WAIT to see the show he’s put together for us. Hooray Hunter!!!!!

By MargotBlue - 09/19/13

Oh, if there’s any way you can bring yourself to the Southeast, we would be so very much obliged, Mr. Hunter!

By JerryGrillo - 09/21/13

It would be a dream to hear his version of Terrapin in Red Bank, NJ! Been waiting patiently for years! Much love, Robert. Thank YOU!

By Drew from Phanphest - 09/27/13


Glad to hear the tour went well and that you’re thinking of going out in the spring.

Come on back to Denver, maybe the Gothic Theater or the Bluebird. We’d love to see ya here.

By Phil Carson - 10/15/13


By JAYNE WATSON - 11/10/13

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