Robert Hunter — the lyricist, poet and songwriter who died on Sept. 23 at the age of 78 — wasn’t a member of the Grateful Dead in any traditional sense. But as the band’s “in-house lyricist,” he helped write the majority of its most memorable songs — from the poetic “Dark Star” and the autobiographical “Truckin’ ” (which included the signature line “What a long, strange trip it’s been”) to its lone hit single, 1987’s “Touch of Grey.” Jerry Garcia, with whom Hunter usually collaborated on songs — and with whom he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015 — called him “the band member that doesn’t come out onstage with us.”
Hunter shaped the Grateful Dead as much as any of its musicians, giving a band known for psychedelic improvisation a lyrical voice that ranged from aphoristic to deliberately cryptic. The songs he helped write for Workingman’s Dead, like “Casey Jones” and “Uncle John’s Band,” evoke a mythic America, while “Box of Rain” and “Ripple” from American Beauty have an almost oracular quality — they can be quoted in high school yearbooks, but also stand up to deep reading.
A performing musician as well as a lyricist, Hunter released two well-regarded solo albums on Round Records, a label co-founded by Garcia, and several more on Relix Records. He rarely toured and preferred to stay behind the scenes, but when the Dead was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, he joined the other members onstage — the only nonperformer to do so.
“As much as anyone, he defined in his words what it meant to be the Grateful Dead,” wrote bassist Phil Lesh after hearing of Hunter’s death. “His lyrics, ranging from old border ballads to urban legend, Western narratives and beyond, brought into sharp focus what was implicit in our music.”
Hunter — born Robert Burns in Oceano, Calif. — met Garcia in Palo Alto, Calif., when they were both teenagers. They began to play music together, initially in 1961 as the short-lived duo Bob and Jerry.
Hunter soon became a key figure in the Grateful Dead’s involvement with psychedelic drugs. Along with author Ken Kesey, he was an early volunteer test subject for LSD and other psychedelic chemicals in a Stanford University study that was later revealed to be sponsored by the CIA. Hunter later drew on the resulting hallucinations for the lyrics to some of his early songs, including “China Cat Sunflower.” After mailing his writings to Garcia, he was invited to meet with the band in 1967, beginning a relationship that would last for decades.
In addition to his work with the Dead, Hunter wrote songs with Bruce Hornsby, Jim Lauderdale, Los Lobos and Little Feat, among others. His most prominent songwriting partnership outside the band was with Bob Dylan, with whom he wrote two songs for Dylan’s 1998 album Down in the Groove and all but one on 2009’s Together Through Life. (“Hunter is an old buddy,” said Dylan when Together came out. “We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”)
“The songs were about other worlds, other times, other places than most of the audience had ever experienced,” says guitarist Warren Haynes, who joined the Dead when they re-formed following Garcia’s death in 1995. “They’re not just songs, they’re stories, and they took place not in the here and now, but in some place that requires imagination.”