The Grass Is Dead Play Bluegrass Versions of Grateful Dead Songs
The Grass Is Dead is a Grateful Dead tribute band, but rather than trying to emulate the legendary San Francisco band, the Grass Is Dead does bluegrass renditions of Dead tunes. In their own way, the country-flavored banjo-fueled Florida band is keeping the spirit of the Dead alive, having fun with the music and letting the songs wind their way into new settings. The Grass Is Dead play Greensboro’s Blind Tiger on Wednesday, Sept. 20 with special guest David Gans, a musician, songwriter, radio host and music journalist who has written about the Grateful Dead. I spoke by phone with drummer Brian Drysdale as the band made its way to Vermont from New York last week.
It might have been easy at one point to assume that the music of the Grateful Dead was a relic from the ‘60s and ‘70s (and later the ‘80s and ‘90s), an artifact of what was once the counterculture, with hippie overtones, connotations of LSD, wandering packs of diehard fans, a tie-dyed micro-ecosystem that swirled on its own, at odds with and independent of the rest of the world. But the music of the Dead didn’t stop with the death in 1995 of founding member, guiding songwriter, singer and icon Jerry Garcia.
The songs of the Grateful Dead continue to ricochet and thread through the world, in all kinds of forms. Since the demise of the Dead, numerous tribute bands — dozens — have kept the wide-open, loose, groovy and improvisational spirit of the music alive. Last year saw the release of Day of the Dead, an epic five-CD tribute featuring 59 covers of Grateful Dead tunes by mostly indie rock bands. It was yet another sign that the Dead’s music continues to pulse with light and life, influencing a generation of artists who mostly weren’t old enough to catch the Dead’s famously free-flowing live shows.
Other indicators include a new four-part documentary series about the Dead streaming on Amazon this year and recent books and memoirs by band members like drummer Bill Kreutzmann. Meanwhile, different configurations of surviving members of the band continue to tour and to team up with other musicians, showcasing the Deadhead side of pop stars like John Mayer and Joan Osborne.
Despite all those permutations, as any Grateful Dead fan will tell you, there’s bluegrass baked into the music from the start. Garcia was, of course, a student of bluegrass, an accomplished banjo player as well as a talented and unique pedal steel guitar player. Garcia had numerous bluegrass-inflected and old time-tinged side projects over the years. Many of the Dead’s iconic songs, like “Friend of the Devil,” “Ripple,” “Dire Wolf” and “High Time” have a country flavor that calls for banjo, mandolin and airy vocal harmonies. In addition to their fondness for traditional blues and early rock ’n’ roll, the Dead routinely covered songs made famous by country artists like Merle Haggard and Hank Williams.
The Grass Is Dead has been around for nearly 20 years. They started in 1998. Drysdale is a relative newcomer to the group, having been a member for only about two years. But his involvement with the Grass Is Dead, and his admiration for his bandmates, speaks to the way that the band embodies the ethos of both the Dead scene and the tradition of bluegrass. Drysdale, who attended high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts as a theater student, was a fan of the Grass Is Dead long before he ever joined the band. He met up with the members of the group at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in north Florida.
“We all played at the campsites together informally over the years,” Drysdale said. His bandmates include founding member Billy Gilmore on banjo, mandolin, fiddle, pedal steel, guitar, vocals and more; Jared Womack on dobro and vocals; and Jon Murphy on bass and vocals. All share the music beyond just getting on stage to perform. Drysdale said that there’s an interest in teaching or playing with kids as young as 8, 9, or 10, in that informal festival-campground setting, casually working on music as a form of social cohesion and cultural continuation.
“That’s just kind of the spirit of bluegrass,” he said. It’s what Drysdale describes as a “community of pickers.”
The communal aspect is part of the Grateful Dead scene as well, certainly. People know this music inside and out, and the fans have a deep connection to the songs, but they’re also willing and eager to see new interpretations of the music. So when The Grass Is Dead take a song like “Row Jimmy,” which in the Dead’s hands had a strange off-kilter reggae feel, the bluegrass iteration of it, with syncopated percussive mute-strumming on the mandolin and sweet harmonies, it all sounds like a fitting twist. The same can be said of the way The Grass Is Dead will make the backing instrumentation double-time on a song like “He’s Gone,” giving the song a peppy walking bass line and racing feel while keeping the gentle phrasing of the original vocal.
“We’re not trying to play it the way the Dead did, and at the same time we want to respect the tunes and the people that want to come hear them,” Drysdale said. “The Dead are our heroes, and it’s really humbling honestly [to participate in this tradition], there’s so many songs, a treasure trove of material. Just to be a part of it is a real honor.”
Drysdale said that a recent performance concluded with a version of “Ripple” in which the entire audience was singing along, with a palpable, timeless communal feel that gave him chills.
While some might prefer live vintage bootleg recordings where others return to the Dead’s original studio albums, still others connect with these songs by listening to free-jazz renditions of the material, the occasional muscular punk take on the songs, or silky four-part vocal versions of the Dead songbook. Plenty of others enjoy the bluegrass tribute that bands like The Grass Is Dead offer. What’s becoming clear is that, as Drysdale puts it, 200 years from now, people will still probably be listening to the songs of the Grateful Dead.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See The Grass Is Dead at the Blind Tiger with special guest David Gans on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at 9 p.m., $10, 1819 Spring Garden St., Greensboro, theblindtiger.com