Believe it or not, the Grateful Dead had a far-reaching influence that stretched way beyond their inner circle of improvisational minded bands. Since playing their first shows 50 years ago the Dead have earned their place in the lexicon of culture as perhaps the quintessential American band. In light of their final shows, which take place June 27 and 28 in Santa Clara, CA and 4th of July weekend in Chicago, without lead guitarist Jerry Garcia of course, and to commemorate their legacy as a whole, we’ve decided to launch a special column that focuses specifically on the impact of the Dead within many different musical communities. In each installment of Easy Answers (get the reference?) we will question a different musician or band, ranging from the obvious to the not so obvious, about the importance of Grateful Dead on their own life and musical path. We could easily keep this column within the jam band community – and we will most certainly turn our focus to some of those acts – but the goal of Easy Answers is to get insight from musicians who most wouldn’t expect to be influenced by or fans of the Dead.
Michigan’s Greensky Bluegrass are part of a wave of younger musicians who have fused a love of the Grateful Dead and jam bands with traditional bluegrass music. To a certain extent, this style has been done in the past by groups like New Grass Revival and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, but younger groups like Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth and Greensky Bluegrass have added a loose, rock and roll spirit to it that attracts the same kinds of people who can space out for hours on Jerry Garcia’s solos. Unlike lots of other acts in the jam scene but right on par with the Dead, Greensky Bluegrass have managed to actually write poignant songs that are sang with prowess by multiple band members and still improvise for long periods of time. The balance of actual good songwriting, singing and playing is something of a rarity in the jam scene, but these guys nail it. Greensky Bluegrass released a new studio album called If Sorrows Swim not long ago and have a packed summer of headlining shows and major festival slots, and the band’s guitarist and vocalist Dave Bruzza was more than happy to take a minute and reflect on his love of the Grateful Dead.
How did you first get into the Grateful Dead?
I was really young. I was 12years old and in a record store and I bought a copy of Wake of the Flood because I really liked the cover. I played it over and over for weeks.
Are there any personal memories of the band or a concert experience you’d like to share?
The first time I went to a show my uncle took me. He had a friend at Q101 in Chicago, where he lived, that got us front row tickets right in front of Jerry. I’ll never forget that! It was so incredible to me to see all the people in the lot, and I saw some guys playing bluegrass and my uncle told me about Old And In The Way, and that’s where I was about to fall in love with bluegrass music.
What is your personal favorite Grateful Dead song and why?
Well, this changes a lot for me. When I really think about it I’d have to say “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” because that was the first song that I really heard of the Dead.
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Do you have any particular memories around this song?
I did see them play it in Chicago I think in 1994, and I went bananas!
What is your favorite era of the Grateful Dead and why?
I love the early 70’s. The cosmic cowboy jazz stuff. It just sounds so amazing to me.
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What Grateful Dead offshoot (The Other Ones, Furthur, The Dead, Phil and Friends, Ratdog, etc) did you feel did the strongest job of playing the material?
I really enjoyed all of it.
Pipgen, Tom, Keith, Brent, Bruce or Vince on keys and why?
I love Brent’s playing. His time with the Dead was really expressive. With all the experimentation with the evolving technology of the 80’s it was really interesting to hear how the band had morphed into that era.
What do you feel is the greatest misconception a lot of people outside the Dead’s circle have of the band?
That it’s all drugs and no talent, a waste of time, and that the band had no impact on the future of music and culture.
Do you remember where you were when you heard of Jerry’s passing?
I was with my friend Scott in Michigan. The night before we had talked about going on fall tour together, we were listening to Dylan and the Dead and just were becoming very excited about our master plan. The next morning we got in Scott’s van to go get some breakfast and the first thing we heard on the radio was the news of Jerry’s passing. I asked Scott to take me to my house – I had lost my appetite – where I played “Stella Blue” over and over.
Greensky Bluegrass will be on tour all summer! For dates and additional details check out greenskybluegrass.com!
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