Reflections: Jerry Garcia’s Life and Legacy (Warren Haynes, Jorma Kaukonen, Chuck Leavell, Ronnie McCoury, Brad Barr…)
In 1972 David Grisman made a trip to Warrenton,Va. Bluegrass Festival. He was an old friend of my Father Del McCoury. As my Dad puts it, “he had a fella with him who had real dark hair whom he introduced as his Banjo player Jerry Garcia.” They were there checking out all the bands and jamming with whoever. Their band was called Old And In The Way. That bands album would go on to become the best selling Bluegrass Album for nearly 20 years until a young lady named Alison Krauss came on the scene.
Throughout my early years of playing Bluegrass I would tell people my age that I played Bluegrass music with my father. Many times their reply was “cool, like Old And In The Way….Jerry Garcia”!
Growing up in PA in a household full of Bluegrass I really wasn’t that aware of The Grateful Dead.
Not until my late teens. I knew my mandolin hero, David Grisman ( Whom I affectionately call Uncle Dawg), had worked with them on American Beauty so I had to find out more. I started going to shows in DC and Philly and I had never heard anything like it before. It felt familiar and exciting and lonesome and moving!
In the late 80’s I had a chance to meet Tom Vennum who was working for The Smithsonian Folklife. He had written books on World Drumming and had become friends with Mickey Hart. He got me backstage to meet Jerry in DC. I gave him a bunch of live Bluegrass tapes I had made and he was very appreciative.
It was around this time that Jerry and David Grisman reconnected and started working together again.
I remember calling Uncle Dawg at his house and he would say “ hang on” and then put Jerry on the line. He always seemed to have a giggle in his voice…it made me smile talking to him.
Long story short, I bought some old-time Banjos for resale and I asked David what they were and what he thought the value was. He told me and then said “Hey, Jerry might be interested.”
The Dead were coming to DC again so I took my Dad, brother, sister, and my wife along. We met after soundcheck in catering with my banjos in tow. This was the first time my dad and Jerry had seen each other since 1972. He told us the first time he actually saw Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys was in CA 1963 with my dad on guitar and singing. He said it changed his life! He looked at me and said “Your Dad was a big inspiration to me.” I felt so very proud at that moment. We all talked Bluegrass, David Grisman, recording, singing, writing, scuba diving and finally, before he had to go get ready, I showed him the banjos. He picked them for a little, I told him what I wanted for them and he said “sure, I’ll take’em! Before he left I asked if they would do an old mountain song my dad had done for years called “Rain and Snow.” Twenty-five minutes later I heard the roar of the crowd and the beginning of that lonesome song with a lonesome singer carrying it on to another generation!
This was a great night for a young man with an inquisitive musical heart.
ARON MAGNER (THE DISCO BISCUITS, CONSPIRATOR)
Memorable Moment: Black Muddy River encore RFK 6/24/95
I had seen a few bust-outs after seeing the Dead since ’89, but this one felt different. Perhaps the fact it was a ballad made it more emotional than say the first “Unbroken Chain” ever, only a few months earlier, that carried a roller coaster ride’s worth of excitement. Maybe it was the fact that “Black Muddy River” is an encore song, and ballads in this position are meant to sum up the evening with a soft landing. It was also the first time the song had been played in 4 years. I certainly know full well that burying a song even for a couple of tours begets added inspiration when you finally play it again. Whatever is was, it was the last time I heard Jerry’s voice live. Now that I think about it, there was some closure in it for me. I don’t think I want my last memory tainted by walking out of another Throwing Stones—> NFA, as I had done so many times before. But now my boy Joe Russo plays in the Grateful Dead, so what do I know?
CONRAD DOUCETTE (TAKKA TAKKA)
Where to start with Jerry Garcia? Is it that guitar sound? To me, that clean tone is the aural equivalent of a Yosemite lake, as crystalline and darn near as inspiring. I was fortunate enough to have seen the Grateful Dead a number of times, and let me tell you, few things have ever floored me as much as hearing that tone burst forth from mammoth PAs, as powerful yet cool and sleek as Excalibur’s blade.
Jerry’s playing transcended its role as ensemble instrumentation. Many lamented the Grateful Dead’s forced exile into larger and larger hockey arenas and football stadiums, but not me. It was all I knew, and besides, this was a band that was the Grand Canyon, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge—how do you shoehorn that into a theatre? That band, those songs, Jerry Garcia… they deserved to deliver their benevolent rule from the grandest of stages. And once you heard the music, beautiful and loud, and you saw that sea of happy humanity, and you felt that surge of spiritual goodwill that can only be enjoyed on such a scale, well, ignoring a stadium’s tacky Budweiser banners was a snap.
I was there in Chicago on July 9, 1995—Jerry’s last performance and the Grateful Dead’s final concert. The last song Jerry sang that evening was “Black Muddy River,” a lyric which manages to straddle two sides of the Dead’s journey: the shared experience of something bigger than us—that muddy river that rolls on forever—as well as the lifelong odyssey that we must all travel alone. It’s a moving tune anytime, but on that evening the song was particularly heartrending. Was it the knowledge that this was the end of a tour, one that had been at times trying for both band and fan? There was that, yes, but also consider the grandeur of the setting, with that skyline and that majestic lake, and also the simple pleasure of hearing a beautiful song in the throes of a warm summer evening with a friend at your side.
It’s a moment that stands vividly in my memory, and it’s a testament to Jerry’s writing. His songs are as monumental, or as simple, as you need them to be.
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