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Robert Hunter: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Dean Budnick | 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.