Those well-versed in Grateful Dead history know that the band, in the early days of their Northern California life, first went by the Warlocks, but that wasn’t actually the beginning of their story. Before becoming the leader of one of the most iconic groups of all time, Jerry Garcia was a young man extremely interested in fingerpicking, early folk and bluegrass, gigging around town as the Black Mountain Boys with friends like future Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and singing with Stanford student Sara Ruppenthal as the duo Jerry and Sara – a woman who would become his first wife. Many of the recordings from these days have gone unheard until now, when they will be released as part of a Garcia box set Before the Dead, out May 11th via Round Records – with two songs, Jerry and Sara’s “Deep Elem Blues” and the Black Mountain Boys’ “Raw Hide” premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country.
“Deep Elem Blues” is a song that would later become part of the Dead’s repertoire, and in this performance, from a 1963 gig at the Top of the Tangent in Palo Alto, it’s fascinating to trace how the sharp fingerpicking and bluegrass harmonies on this Shelton Brothers track would evolve and inform the folk psychedelia that would be the band’s signature. About a year later, on “Raw Hide,” Garcia delves into the Bill Monroe classic with players Geoff Levin, David Nelson (of New Riders of the Purple Sage) and Sandy Rothman, exploding into an instrumental version. Both “Deep Elem Blues” and “Raw Hide” make unique appearances on Before the Dead, a collection that delves as far back as 1961 and begins with a recording from Garcia’s girlfriend’s 16th birthday party.
Co-produced and curated by longtime Grateful Dead publicist and author Dennis McNally alongside documentarian Brian Miksis, Before the Dead is a rare and insightful look into the songs and styles that would later inform records like the Dead’s classic LPs Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, where Garcia integrated elements like pedal steel into the mix – an instrument he occasionally played on stage in the early Seventies, and then again with Bob Dylan as part of Dylan and the Dead.
For many Americana and country artists, the Grateful Dead is a gateway from rock to roots – and how they discover icons like Monroe, Doc Watson and the Carter Family, as Garcia did during the folk revival of the 1960s. Before the Dead documents Garcia’s early love affair with these performers and songs, and how they became the essential building blocks of the Dead.
Available as a four-CD set and a limited-edition five-LP boxed set on 180-gram vinyl, Before the Dead also includes a 32-page collection of essays featuring McNally and Miksis, detailed notes on each song by musicologist Dr. Neil V. Rosenberg, and photos and memorabilia.