Vintage Album Review – Workingman’s Dead
Those that have been around here for a while know that I like to come out of left field with my vintage album suggestions. You already have a big stack of records, no need for me to rehash through them. Still I know some of you are rolling up to this thinking, “What kind of hippy dippy Mickey Mouse Cali trash space jam bull honkey is The Triggerman try to peddle NOW?”
I have a theory: No matter what is happening in mainstream country, that uniquely country sound or “twang” that awakens something deep inside of us, usually driven home by a pedal steel guitar, will always be championed by someone. In the mid 70’s, when mainstream country was awash with “contemporary” string and chorus arrangements, it allowed The Outlaws to champion the twang sound and rise to power. Right now Music Row has gone in a pop/80’s hair direction, the “twang” has been picked up by people who cut their teeth listening to punk and metal.
But before the Outlaws and the current underground country crop, that “twang” sound was picked up by some of the psychedelic musicians in California, some of which were born and raised with that sound in the South like Gram Parsons and carried it with them West. Jerry Garcia, aka Captain Trips is best known for being the leader of The Grateful Dead, but while he was writing music to eat acid to, he was also working on the side as the West Coast’s most sought after pedal steel session player.
This might shock you, but Jerry Garcia might be in my top five pedal steel players of all time. His work was featured in the Crosby, Stills & Nash hit Teach Your Children. He worked solely as the pedal steel player for the country rock band New Riders of the Purple Sage. Jerry also played banjo, and in later years would be in bluegrass projects like Old & In The Way with country stalwarts John Hartford and Vassar Clements. But I digress.
The Grateful Dead’s first three studio albums were decidedly psychedelic projects, but their fourth, Workingman’s Dead, is a country music masterpiece. This isn’t an album with country influences, or some California interpretation of country, this is pure, true, REAL country at its finest.
Tight and exceptionally arranged harmonies, amazing and intelligent minimalist production by the legendary tapist Betty Cantor, and of course Jerry’s songwriting and pedal steel make this one for the ages. The Grateful Dead never got much radio play, but if this album had “hits” it was the harmonic-driven “Uncle Johns Band” and “Casey Jones” about a cocaine snorting train engineer. I like these songs, but I think “High Time” and “Dire Wolf” do a better job illustrating Jerry’s steel work and his uncanny mastery of rural themes.
Another good one is “Cumberland Blues,” which with the recent mine disasters, the release of the White Documentary and the recent flooding of the Cumberland River, is probably why this album has been on my mind. “Easy Wind” might be my favorite song. Dead member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, former lover of Janis Joplin who was already ailing from the alcohol abuse that would kill him 2 years later, belts out a hell of a blue collar anthem in this often overlooked track.
The “production” of this album really is its biggest strength. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is seen by most as the greatest country music album of all time, and the minimalist, dirty, rootsy production is given a lot of credit for that. Workingman’s Dead takes nearly that same approach, only half a decade before, and in my opinion, with better instrumentation.
The Dead’s next album American Beauty is the better known of their “country” projects, and though I like this album as well, it has more of a folky, mainstream feel to it. For my money, a good followup to Workingman’s Dead is their live Europe ’72 album which again features tight harmonies and amazing country songs.
You may hate hippies or California, or the sheer idea of The Grateful Dead, but if the blue collar tribute Workingman’s Dead is not in your collection, your prejudice has gone too far.
You can purchase and preview the tracks of Workingman’s Dead by CLICKING HERE.
May 24, 2010 @ 11:41 am
I didn’t know he played for The New Riders of the Purple Sage. I know Bobby Black did after Commander Cody. He definitely cut teeth listening to Ralph Mooney. That song sounds just like some of his work on the early Merle Haggard records.
May 24, 2010 @ 12:02 pm
Couldn’t agree more. A friend of mine insisted I hear American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead quite a few years ago. I blew up about the whole dirtheads, granola, fuck that, blah blah blah, hippies bullshit. But at the end of the day, he burnt copies, I gave them a listen, and loved both of those records ever since. Hell, I’ve even jammed on ‘Friend Of The Devil’ plenty of times with people.
I second what this review is pointing out. If you refuse to listen to this record because of who made it, you’re a fucking loon.
May 24, 2010 @ 12:22 pm
And guess where Merle Haggard is from? The Grateful Dead also covered “Mama Tried” on their eponymous live album. It’s funny, Merle was supposed to be the anti-hippie, and Jerry was supposed to be the King of hippies, but I have no doubt Merle was a huge influence on Jerry, and so was Ralph Mooney. Like you said, you listen to those Jerry steel songs, sound just like Ralph coming in at the beginning.
May 24, 2010 @ 12:25 pm
Friend Of The Devil is my favorite Grateful Dead song, period, and probably in my top five favorite songs of all time. Love American Beauty too, but as an album, I like Workingman’s Dead better. It’s more cohesive.
May 24, 2010 @ 1:02 pm
I had no Idea, I thought the Deads country was just limited to their side projects! I’ll have to give’m a listen. My favorite “Dead” like song is “Big Iron” by Bob Weir/Kingfish. If you have’nt heard it you can check it out in my profile music player on myspace. Thanks for the info!
May 24, 2010 @ 1:28 pm
well, right up my alley. great LP and one i had my folks send me on reel to reel while i was in nam. thanks, for clearing a few things up with the kids, triggerman. nice job. maybe something you should do more often.
if you aren’t listening to old stuff because you think someone is a hippy ass hole or just some old dumb fuck then you’re missing a ton of great country music and missing a load musical history as well.
May 24, 2010 @ 1:53 pm
Big Iron is a great song. I think Marty Robbins was the first to do it. Mike Ness of Social Distortion has covered it as well. Bob Weir has a couple other cool country songs he’s done, like “Me & My Uncle.”
May 24, 2010 @ 1:54 pm
If it was up to me, I’d do one of these once a week, but I always get sidetracked covering the news of the day. I’ve been wanting to write about this for probably 2-3 weeks, finally got the time. I really enjoy doing these vintage reviews.
May 24, 2010 @ 2:53 pm
This is easily my favorite Grateful Dead album, followed by the other two you mentioned. Actually I don’t really care for the Dead besides those three, and after Pigpen died they definately lost a lot of their soul sound.
I never thought of the Mooney influence, but you guys are right on. Ralph Mooney is my favorite pedal steel player, the stuff he rips out on the Waylon Live double disc is awe inspiring. Nice review man.
May 24, 2010 @ 4:46 pm
triggerman, i know. you’ve said that before. i do what i can as well but i get sidetracked too.
to clear some air, this LP and the first new riders ARE worth having or at least listening to. and they are my faves by the boys. not a big dead fan but did see them in concert way back. though there is something to be said for their tune, ‘cold rain and snow’. i’d love to see hank3 do a cover or any other GOOD c/w band.
keep the faith, my friend.
May 24, 2010 @ 5:05 pm
I was gonna mention “Cold Rain & Snow” in the review as an example of Jerry’s early interest in country since it was on their first album, but it was going long. You’re right, that’s a great song. I found a coll writeup about it:
May 24, 2010 @ 6:55 pm
I’m not a huge fan of psycadelic 60’s music, but I know the music I love most Americana (Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, etc.) grew out of that music. Psycadelic music started in Texas after all with The 13th Floor Elevators & ended with Janis Joplin also from Texas. I’ve never listend to The Greatful Dead but you make me want to.
May 24, 2010 @ 8:14 pm
I will have to check this shit out now. Thanks for the review!
May 24, 2010 @ 9:35 pm
Yes, the 13th Floor Elevators. The Texas Outlaw grew out of that scene, and psychedelic music was fueled by Texas musicians: Janis Joplin, Commander Cody, Doug Sahm when he was with the Sir Douglas Quartet. Michael Martin Murphy coined the phrase “cosmic cowboy” and got his start in California before he moved to Austin. Jerry Garcia played at the Armadillo World Headquarters a few times, once jamming with Leon Russel. It was all one big scene where people from different cultures and walks of life got along and appreciated the music.
“Where biker’s stare at cowboys, who are laughing at the hippies.” Hell even Hank III thanked the hippies in the liner notes of Lovesick, Broke and Driftin, before he started screaming and bloodletting and scared them all away.
But I can’t emphasize enough that Workingman’s Dead is NOT psychedelic music, it is REAL country, cover to cover. Jerry may be known as Captain Trips, but he’s got more country skins on the wall than 90% of the musicians in Nashville these days.
May 26, 2010 @ 4:12 pm
This and American Beauty are just brilliant records. By far the best of the Dead.
John Hartford was never in Old & in the Way. It was Vasser, Grisman, Rowan, Garcia, and Kahn. Just thought you should correct that since the Old and in the Way album is I believe the biggest bluegrass record in terms of units moved as sad as that may be.
May 26, 2010 @ 9:58 pm
I’m pretty sure John Hartford was a part of it, though he had a minor role. Wikipedia lists him as a member and says: John Hartford – violin (relieved Richard Greene during rehearsal sessions), and we all know Wiki is NEVER wrong. 🙂
I don’t think he was ever a core member but I also thought he toured with them a little bit, but I may be wrong.
I know I’m not as wrong as the hippie that one time tried to convince me Jerry Garcia invented bluegrass in a bar in Ashland, OR one night.
May 27, 2010 @ 10:51 am
So I see that on Wiki and Richard Greene’s site lists OAITW as a past project but I know that neither Greene nor Hartford are on any of the albums and not on any audience recordings as far as what I’ve heard. They were such a short lived band though who knows. They certainly did make an impact for never being in the studio or never leaving the West.
No, nowhere close to being that wrong. Some people think it was Newgrass Revival or Bluegrass Album Band. I swear man, people suck. December of 1945 Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.
May 24, 2011 @ 3:35 pm
I’m a year late here, but what the hell….
First off, there’s certainly no need to apologize up front for suggesting that the Grateful Dead is a smokin band, and that Workingman’s Dead is a great album. Keep spreadin the word!
Second, @UncleMary & Triggerman, both Richard Greene and John Hartford did at least play w/ Old and in the Way (there’s even a picture of Hartford in the liner notes of one of the CDs playing with them..I think.) With Greene, it’s well known (nice chronology of the band: http://www.thejerrysite.com/bands/43). I have a recording from 4/16/1973 w/ Richard Greene fiddling. His style is VERY different from Vasser’s.