Notes From The Road: This is my “Pete’s-eye view” feature on this site, with reports on interesting people and events I encounter in my travels. I posted this piece in July 2006 on the BGrass-L discussion list when a number of posts brought up Jerry’s early years as a bluegrasser to share my recollections of Jerry in the 60s and 70s.
Interesting to hear people recounting what they know of Jerry as a bluegrasser back in the pre-Dead days. I’ve never put my own recollections in writing, so this is as good a time as any.
I met and played a bunch with Jerry during the summer of 1963 in Palo Alto. By weird coincidence, I was out there with my family for the summer (my first time west of Pennsylvania), at the age of 17, due to my dad working on writing a math book at Stanford. I fell in with the bluegrass crowd, which I found surprisingly developed considering the distance from the source. Jerry, David Nelson, Eric Thompson and others were as deeply steeped in bluegrass records available then as anyone I knew back east. They’d been trading tapes with folks like Grisman and Mike Seeger, and would make long trips to Berkeley to a record store that carried bluegrass albums, and they studied them. Monroe had come to CA a few months previously, and Jerry, the most advanced banjo player there at the time, had studied Bill Keith’s technique and was working hard to develop that part of his picking. He had a lot of it pretty well mastered, at a time when few others did.
I was about the first bluegrass-playing easterner these guys had had a chance to meet and pick with, and they welcomed me and my banjo picking. Garcia and Nelson and Robert Hunter (later famous as G. Dead lyricist) had had a band called the Wildwood Boys. Their band photo was patterned after a shot of the Greenbriar Boys (wearing white shirts with vests, and Garcia posed just like Bob Yellin was on that first GB album cover), and were highly regarded. I saw their last gig, just before Hunter left for S. California to be part of supervised research on LSD. Soon after, Nelson and Garcia and I put together a little band we called the Godawful Palo Alto Bluegrass Ensemble. Jerry switched to mando since I could only play banjo. We did a few gigs at the folk club the Tangent and other places. I headed back for college in NYC before the end of summer.
At this time Jerry had recently married. His wife was pregnant, and he was making his living mainly giving lessons at a music store in Palo Alto. He had quite short hair and interestingly, was rather scornful of people who used pot. I clearly recall him arriving for a band practice, noticing that one picker was not straight, acting disgusted, and turning right around and leaving. Imagine my surprise when a few years later he had turned into Captain Trips, with long hair and a top hat.
Jerry was already great musician then, with a real spark for the music. He sang a lot of Stanley material and was always strong and soulful. He was very fired up to develop his music, and wanted to know everything I could tell him about the scene around New York City.
I later found out that the following summer he took off for points east, on a bluegrass quest that others on the list have recounted. I know he and Grisman met that summer, I believe at Sunset Park in Pennsylvania, and started an alliance that in many ways was pivotal for the development and popularization of bluegrass.
The whole “taping” aspect of the jam band culture today is an outgrowth of the Dead’s open policy toward “tapers”, and I assume this in turn grew out of the eagerness of that early west coast bluegrass scene to hear any tapes of live shows they could get hold of. There were very few bluegrass LPs back then, and live show tapes of Monroe, Jim & Jesse and other important bands really expanded their knowledge of the music and who was making it. Monroe was at that time possibly the only eastern bluegrass artist who’d performed in California, so the tapes helped fill a large gap.
The last time I saw Jerry was ten years later, summer of ’73, when I spent a day with him at his house, picking banjo, reminiscing about those early days, and talking about all sorts of subjects. This was around the time of Old and In the Way, and he was up on his banjo chops and wanting to learn new licks, etc. He was a very special person, a complete music devotee, very well informed on a lot of different kinds of music.
It had taken quite an effort to reach him, as there already was a wall of protection around him as a celebrity, but when I finally did make contact, he was eager to rekindle our friendship, as he said he felt most comfortable with and trusting of the people he knew before he was famous. Later that night I went with him to a recording studio and saw the Dead attempt to record something they wound up finding too complicated, and gave up on.
I would make it to Dead concerts now and then up to that point, but when they started drawing huge crowds, the security became so tight, it seemed too much of a challenge to try to penetrate that, just to say hi. So I stopped trying, stopped going to see the Dead, and never did see Jerry again. Seeing him and Grisman in the sweet movie Grateful Dawg gave some touching tastes of Jerry as an acoustic musician, and I recommend it for anyone curious about this very important musician, one of the most influential ever in America.
Hard to imagine what might have happened had there been a place in the world for Jerry as a full-time bluegrass musician.