Octogenarian singer/mandolin player Jesse McReynolds is quick to point out in his liner notes that Songs of the Grateful Dead does not mark the first time this venerable bluegrass musician has ventured into the rock realm, having played on the Doors' Soft Parade and, with his brother in their duo Jim & Jesse, cut a Chuck Berry tribute album, Berry Pickin' in the Country. This tribute is not nearly as much of a stretch as that one, however. As Deadheads know, Dead leader Jerry Garcia was a big bluegrass fan, and his songs for the group often reflected that taste. Also, he sometimes played bluegrass in his side projects, and McReynolds has enlisted some of Garcia's sidemen in this effort, the "friends" of the artist credit specifically referring to David Nelson of the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Stu Allen of the Jerry Garcia Band, with Garcia friend Sandy Rothman picking a banjo on "Deep Elem Blues" and penning his own liner notes in which he attests to his and Garcia's affection for Jim & Jesse. With all this mutual admiration, then, it's not surprising that the album comes off so well. McReynolds has not restricted himself to what might seem like the obvious choices from such country-oriented Dead albums as Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, also including some of the later songs by Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, such as "Black Muddy River" and "Standing on the Moon." Just as Garcia's melodies reveal bluegrass and country influences, so Hunter's aphoristic lyrics, full of Western imagery, work just fine with McReynolds' rural inflections. And the players are not averse to going for some Dead-style space jamming on such selections as "Bird Song" and "Franklin's Tower." It all comes to an appropriate close with a new McReynolds/Hunter composition, the lightly philosophical "Day by Day." "If Jerry was here, he'd be playing on this album," writes Rothman, and that's hard to doubt; even without his actual presence, his spirit is evoked.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann