Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass roots

Hart Valley DriftersReams, actual and virtual, has been written about Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass music roots.

In his musically formative years, Garcia was a member of the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers and the Asphalt Jungle Boys, both consisting of a fluid line-up of musicians that he had met during the very early 1960s.

The first of his bands to present a professional level of musicianship and vocal harmony mastery was the Hart Valley Drifters – featuring with a 20-year old Jerry Garcia on lead vocals, banjo and guitar, were future Grateful Dead co-founder and fellow-lyricist Robert Hunter on bass, New Riders of the Purple Sage co-founder David Nelson on guitar, Ken Frankel on banjo, fiddle and guitar, and Norm Van Maastricht on Dobro.

In the fall of 1962 the short-lived quintet booked a session at Stanford University’s KZSU studio to record several then-modern and traditional folk and bluegrass tunes for the station’s popular Folk Time and Flint Hill Special programs; Garcia’s first known studio recordings.

The tapes, long-believed to have been lost, were discovered in 2008, 46 years later, by former Stanford student Ted Claire, who had recorded and produced the original session.

A further eight years on, these 17 recordings, with Garcia, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, singing the lead part on every song, are being made available commercially.

They include selections from Garcia’s bluegrass heroes, banjo icon Earl Scruggs (Ground Speed, Flint Hill Special) and the Stanley Brothers – apparently Carter Stanley was an early influence on his guitar style – (Clinch Mountain Backstep, Think of What You’ve Done); several traditional folk tunes such as Roving Gambler, Nine Pound Hammer and Cripple Creek; and a stripped-down version of the classic Sitting on Top of the World, first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930, contrasting the rocking, electrified rendition the Grateful Dead cut in 1967. The last-named features Garcia’s smooth vocals with only Frankel’s fluid finger-picked guitar for accompaniment. Another highlight is a version of Sugar Baby, on which Garcia re-creates the essence of Dock Boggs’ haunting original vocals while honouring the Folkways’ version by Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley.

Hart Valley Drifters Folk Time (Round Records/ATO) is due for release on November 11, 2016, and is available for pre-order now.

Meanwhile, here is Hart Valley Drifters’ rendition of the opening number Roving Gambler to whet the appetite.


The full track list is as follows …….

Band Introductions / Roving Gambler (Traditional) / Ground Speed (Earl Scruggs) / Pig in a Pen (Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith [traditional] arr. by J. Garcia) / Standing in The Need of Prayer (Traditional) / Flint Hill Special (Earl Scruggs) / Nine Pound Hammer (Traditional) / Handsome Molly (G.B. Grayson / Henry Whitter) / Clinch Mountain Backstep (Ralph Stanley / Ruby Rakes) / Think of What You’ve Done (Carter Stanley) / Cripple Creek (Traditional) / All The Good Times Have Past And Gone (Traditional) / Billy Grimes, The Rover (Traditional) / Paddy On the Turnpike (Boys, My Money’s All Gone) (Traditional) / Run Mountain (J.E. Mainer) / Sugar Baby (Moran Dock Boggs) / Sitting On Top Of The World (Walter Jacobs Vinson/Lonnie Carter).

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.