Vintage Album Review – Workingman’s Dead

The Grateful DeadThose 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.

Jerry Garcia Pedal Steel GuitarThis 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.

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