Hear Jerry Garcia's Early Bluegrass Band Hart Valley Drifters - Rolling Stone
Country Flag
Home Music Country Music

Hear Jerry Garcia’s Early Bluegrass Band Hart Valley Drifters

Unearthed recordings – including a take on “Sitting on Top of the World” – show the Grateful Dead co-founder’s fascination with traditional music

In 1961, at 20 years old, Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia first met bass player and future Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The following year, the pair began working in folk and bluegrass bands together, playing several clubs throughout California, with a fluid lineup of musicians joining them in groups such as the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers and the Asphalt Jungle Boys. One of the groups, the Hart Valley Drifters – made up of Garcia, Hunter, New Riders of the Purple Sage co-founder David Nelson on guitar, Norm Van Maastricht on Dobro, and Ken Frankel on banjo, fiddle and guitar – booked a session at Stanford University’s KZSU studio to record several modern and traditional folk and bluegrass tunes for the station’s popular Folk Time program.

The session had been recorded but the tape reels were believed to be lost. In 2008, 46 years later, the tapes were discovered by former Stanford student Ted Claire, who had produced and recorded the original session. On November 11th, the songs will be released on an LP titled Folk Time, featuring Garcia on lead vocals, banjo and guitar. Along with tunes from Garcia’s bluegrass heroes, banjo icon Earl Scruggs (“Ground Speed,” “Flint Hill Special”) and the Stanley Brothers (“Clinch Mountain Backstep,” “Think of What You’ve Done”), several traditional folk tunes such as “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Cripple Creek” are included. Also featured is the Thirties classic “Sitting on Top of the World,” first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930 and since recorded by a wide array of artists including Bob Wills, Howling Wolf, Cream, Willie Nelson and Jack White. A version would also surface on the Grateful Dead‘s 1967 debut LP. (Listen to the song below.)

A simple, stripped-down take on the tune, Garcia’s buttery smooth vocals and Frankel’s fluid finger-picking highlight the song’s casual vibe, with this version standing in stark contrast to the rocking, electrified rendition the Dead would cut five years later.

“I was getting pretty good at finger-picking guitar, and we wanted to do a song that showcased my guitar and Jerry’s singing, with nothing else recorded,” Ken Frankel tells Rolling Stone Country of the tune now enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame. “Jerry and I loved this song, and felt that this clean version with one guitar and one voice would best allow the beauty of the song to come out.”

Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter

Frankel says he and Garcia “loved playing music together, because we loved playing music,” noting that their early performances retained a carefree attitude and provided their own mind-altering aspects. “Whether we were just playing for fun or preparing for a show, it never felt like we were rehearsing or working on anything; it felt like we were having pure enjoyment in the moment. Every time I played with Jerry, I felt high from our music.”

In the years before he became one of the pioneering founders of the San Francisco music scene – and an eventual rock legend – Frankel says Garcia’s creative spark was his intense love for the music they played.

“This love was un-tempered by any outside factors, like money or fame or the need for stage presence or the importance of the people he was playing with,” he explains. “This meant that when Jerry was playing, he was in the music in a very pure way, which allowed him to play what he felt without outside interfering factors, and allowed his creativity to surface unblocked.”

Folk Time is currently available for pre-order

Here’s the track list for Hart Valley Drifters’ Folk Time:

1. “Band Introductions”

2. “Roving Gambler” (Traditional)

3. “Ground Speed” (Earl Scruggs)

4. “Pig in a Pen” (Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith [traditional] arr. by J. Garcia)

5. “Standing in the Need of Prayer” (Traditional)

6. “Flint Hill Special” (Earl Scruggs)

7. “Nine Pound Hammer” (Traditional)

8. “Handsome Molly” (G.B. Grayson/Henry Whitter)

9. “Clinch Mountain Backstep” (Ralph Stanley/Ruby Rakes)

10. “Think of What You’ve Done” (Carter Stanley)

11. “Cripple Creek” (Traditional)

12. “All the Good Times Have Past and Gone” (Traditional)

13. “Billy Grimes, the Rover” (Traditional)

14. “Paddy on the Turnpike (Boys, My Money’s All Gone)” (Traditional)

15. “Run Mountain” (J.E. Mainer)

16. “Sugar Baby” (Moran Dock Boggs)

17. “Sitting on Top of the World (Walter Jacobs Vinson/Lonnie Carter)

In This Article: Jerry Garcia


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.