Bob Weir… country crossover star? Not exactly: The former Grateful Dead member’s appearance Thursday at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville was in conjunction with the musically left-leaning Americana Music Festival, so he’s not likely to show up as a guest presenter at the CMA Awards. But the venue wasn’t entirely coincidental, since Weir and his collaborators have described his new solo album, Blue Mountain, as a collection of “cowboy songs,” and he was eager to discuss country’s inexorable influence on the Dead.
“In all likelihood, without the Grateful Dead and without Bob Weir, there would not be an Americana community,” said Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association, introducing the combination performance and interview, which marked the first time the lobby of the Country Hall of Fame has filled up with hundreds of people looking for a proverbial Miracle Ticket. Hilly wasn’t referencing just the Dead’s signature mixture of regional roots music with more forward-looking flourishes, but how “knowing or unknowing, they created the (indie) business model that in many ways we have had to conform to today.”
The fandom force was strong as fans waited to file in. “We’ve been waiting for Bobby to do this record for 30 years,” sighed one fan, noting the gap between his last all-new studio solo album and Blue Mountain. Calling it a “cowboy” record is both accurate and reductive; though some of the album would sit comfortably alongside a Michael Martin Murphy record, some of it veers off any blue shadows on the trail, like the rockabilly-influenced “Gonesville.” But close enough for rock-and-Western.
“I love that we’re at the Country Music Hall of Fame doing this,” said the program’s host, celebrated guitarist/producer Buddy Miller, “because I think you brought so many people to country music through the back door of the house. A lot of people got turned onto country music with the songs you cats were singing,” Miller said, referencing Weir’s rendition at the previous evening’s Americana awards show of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” a song the Dead covered on record back in 1971.
“Jerry (Garcia) and I were huge into Buck Owens particularly — and Dolly Parton, we were both more than smitten,” Weir said. “Back in that era, we weren’t the only guys listening to Buck Owens. If you listen to the early Beatles records, they were huge into him. I haven’t spoken to those guys about it, but I can just hear it in their music. Yeah, they did a Buck Owens tune, but it’s more than that. Paul McCartney can play a better Bakersfield shuffle than, I venture to say, anyone in this town today.”
Some anonymous ranch hands had just as big an influence as Buck on the album — and, actually, on Weir’s entire historic approach to guitar playing, he explained.
“When I was a kid I was drawn to the cowboy culture and the American West,” he said. “My folks used to take us up to Squaw Valley, and in the winter it was a ski resort, but in the ‘50s and early ‘60s in the summer it was a cattle ranch… I spent a lot of time at the stable, and the old cowpokes took a shine to me, showing me how to ride and a few of the skills a young cowpoke should know… When I was 15, after one summer I thought it’d be a terribly romantic thing to do to run around and be a cowboy, and so found my way out to Wyoming and got work on a ranch, where I was in a bunkhouse with a bunch of old guys who had grown up in an era before radio had gotten that far, to Wyoming. So the very notion of how to spend an evening was to pop a cork and tell stories and sing songs. I was the kid with the guitar, so I had to listen to the melody and the words and figure out where’s the next chord coming in and what it’s gonna be and be there with it, or I was going to get a little abuse. It was great ear training for a young musician. At the same time, I got steeped in a culture that just stuck with me.”
All of the songs on the new album are credited to Weir and Josh Ritter, though a couple are based in traditional tunes, like the title track, which he performed on an acoustic guitar. “There was one that I never quite got that just haunted me for 50-some years, and I could never find it again,” he said. “It was one called ‘Blue Mountain,’ a genuine old cowboy tune. After literally years of looking for it on and off, I finally stumbled on some reference to it on the web somewhere… I took what I could get from that and reshuffled the lyric and fluffed up the character a little bit.”
Weir’s appearance could just as easily have taken place as a Jazz Hall of Fame, given the equal time devoted to that genre. After Miller praised the Dead’s improvisational/listening spirit — “You changed rhythm guitar playing for me. There’s not a night when I’m playing on stage that I don’t reference the interaction that you guys had in every tune I play, in the back of my head” — the topic turned away from Owens to some other players who bucked conventional instrumental thinking.
“I was in my mid to late teens when both the Beatles and the Coltrane quartet caught me and took me away,” said Weir. “I based a lot of my guitar playing on what I would hear from McCoy Tyner, the keyboard player in the Coltrane quartet… He would continually feed Coltrane ideas — just this oftentimes plush, oftentimes spare or spiky carpet of stuff for Coltrane to put his furniture on.”
Miller pointed out the huge leap from the Dead’s lackluster, traditionally song-oriented debut album — which Weir explained away not just as bowing to convention but also a desire to hike publishing royalties by putting a lot of short songs on one LP — to their breakthrough sophomore effort, which established a more free-form m.o. “Anthem seems like one continuous piece on each side,” said Miller, although “it had a lot of names of songs on it.”
“A lot of names were bogus,” responded Weir, to knowing Deadhead titters. ”’OK, from here to here we’ll call this one ‘Crystal Envelopment.’ People ask me to this day to play ‘Quadlibet for Tender Feet.’ ‘OK, could you tell me which side that’s on, to begin with?’”
Miller is a serious Deadhead, but he has serious competition in that category from Josh Kaufman, Weir’s co-producer on Blue Mountain, who also participated in the Country Hall of Fame program, talking about the new project and playing occasional lead electric guitar parts. Kaufman brought in Ritter to write the lyrics, though all of Ritter’s contributions came via long-distance collaborating. The album took shape over a period of three years, culminating in sessions in upstate New York at a couple of churches-turned-studios as well as Weir’s west coast facility.
Kaufman is best known for his work with the National and first worked with Weir in 2011 at a benefit concert called the Bridge Sessions, where he and the National backed up their hero on a series of Dead, Dylan, and even National songs. Weir took a shine then to Kaufman’s playing: “We had five guitarists on a given song… and it wasn’t trashy. People weren’t walking all over each other’s lines. I was duly impressed.”
Kaufman also worked with the National’s principals on producing Day of the Dead, a tribute project released in May featuring Mumford & Sons, Courtney Barnett, Bruce Hornsby, Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Lucinda Williams, and a host of others. A serious host, given the five-CD length of the thing.
“We ended up doing 70 songs,” said Kaufman. “They stopped us. They wouldn’t let us put on more than 60.” (The final track listing was 59.) “It’s 10 pieces of vinyl and no one could afford it.” Miller helpfully suggested a Vol. 2, which Kaufman didn’t balk at. “There are a couple big ones we didn’t get to. We didn’t get to ‘Weather Report Suite.’”