If Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead represents the first seedlings in a new strain of their music, American Beauty (released 11/1/70) is the ripe fruit at peak maturity. Recorded by much the same efficient means as its predecessor, this second studio work of 1970 coalesced from no little turmoil in the band’s world: Garcia’s mother died in September, as the band was wrapping up the recording, while Lesh saw his father pass soon after. In addition, the album was produced after the discovery that the group’s manager, Lenny Hart (father of drummer Mickey), had renewed their contract with Warner Brothers Records without their knowledge, and then skipped town with a sizable chunk of the unit’s wealth (such as it was).
To further complicate matters, recording not only began just a few months after the release of the previous LP, but without their regular sound crew, who were out on the road as part of the Medicine Ball Caravan tour (which the sextet was originally scheduled to join). Yet that particular circumstance proved fortuitous: studio staff engineer Stephen Barncard, a specialist in acoustic sounds and vocal harmonies (who also engineered David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name), replaced Bob Matthews as the producer of what was a plentiful batch of fresh original songs including Bob Weir’s “Sugar Magnolia,” one of the few numbers he ever wrote with Robert Hunter, as well as “Operator,” Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s sole singing-songwriting effort on a Grateful Dead studio album.
Not surprisingly though, the most stellar and enduring of this lot of compositions came from the collaborative team of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. “Brokedown Palace” and “Ripple” proved to be two of the most enduring in the Grateful Dead canon, but neither really compare to the exquisite “Attics of My Life:” the band sang with impeccable harmonies ideally suited to the poetic nature of words that may be the most evocative lyrics the lyricist ever wrote for the band. Then, of course, there’s “Truckin’” perhaps the best known of all Dead tunes (despite the mainstream success of “Touch of Grey”), as much for the frequency of its live performances over the years as its reference to ‘what a long strange trip it’s been.’
But that widely-quoted line is a mere snippet of this tale of enlightened survival in the face of travails cosmic (“…Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me…Other times, I can barely see…”) and mundane (“…But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in…”). And it’s all set to a modified blues shuffle that subtly hearkens to the band’s earliest days with Pigpen as the main frontman, the changes of which sextet renders with the sleek economy it was mastering at this point in their career. little wonder it proved such a staple of live shows either as the simplicity of its structure accommodated all manner of free-wheeling improvisations and segues. And within that particular frame of reference, i.e., pacing, it is hardly a coincidence it is the last of the ten tracks of this LP.
As duly noted by Grateful Dead scholar David Gans in his essay on the remastered edition of 2001, American Beauty is further notable for the absence of a single electric guitar solo from Jerry Garcia, who was still immersed in self-education on the pedal steel at the time. Yet that anomaly becomes a moot point with the incorporation of other musicians during this recording including the titular leader’s long-time friend David Nelson (who does solo on bassist Phil Lesh’s “Box of Rain”) and his current bandmates in the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Dave Torbert and John “Marmaduke” Dawson. Even apart from the more practiced singing (coached by the latter as well as Crosby Stills & Nash), the emphasis on structured ensemble playing also hints at the elevated level of confidence this new material instilled in the Grateful Dead, on its own terms and as the second giant step in the new direction they had initiated a few months prior.
Until 1987’s In The Dark (including that aforementioned hit), this iconic ensemble never made another album so quickly or efficiently as American Beauty, not to mention anything so true to their folk and country roots. The singular cover art produced by Kelley–Mouse Studios mirrors that vivid authenticity too: depicting the rose from which the album takes its name, the album title is scripted around the flower itself as a text ambigram that can also be read “American Reality.” It’s an interpretation no more or less clear with fifty years hindsight, but, as has often been the case with this deservedly mythic band, the image transmutes into something more than first meets the eye, just like the music behind the art strikes the ear.