A few years before his death last September, longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter partook of one of his usual traditions. He emailed a bunch of fresh lyrics to one of his post–Jerry Garcia songwriting collaborators and asked if that artist wanted to set the words to music. That year, the recipient was David Nelson, who had known Hunter and Garcia since their days playing bluegrass together in the early Sixties, years before the Dead.
Nelson, who went on to co-found New Riders of the Purple Sage, wrote melodies for those Hunter lyrics, recorded them, and released a few on an album. But one of the songs, “Movin’ Right Along,” was left on the shelf — until Nelson recently heard it again and realized how prescient it was. As a tribute to Hunter, who died of natural causes at 78, the David Nelson Band has finally released its 2016 version of “Movin’ Right Along” — the first unheard Hunter lyric since his passing.
Clocking in at over eight minutes, “Movin’ Right Along” demonstrates Hunter’s knack for inhabiting a character (à la “Black Peter” and “Wharf Rat”) and steeping a lyric in mythical, rugged Americana. Reminiscent of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” “Movin’ Right Along” features a narrator who has lived and died several times, including in a coal mine, on a picket line, “protecting contraband,” and in an unnamed fight for “liberty.” (Barry Sless’ brightly moving lead guitar parts also bring Garcia’s style to mind.) Hunter rarely penned politically directed lyrics, which compelled Nelson even more to want to finally unveil the track.
“It impressed me how timely it was,” says Nelson, speaking to Rolling Stone the day Iran sent missiles into Iraq. “It fits in with what’s happening now: ‘Loaded my gun and went to war/Movin’ right along/I shot left and I shot right, now listen to my song.’ Boy, that just stunned me in terms how current it was.”
The lyric is also imbued with a sense of mortality: “I’m about to blow this joint/So listen to my song/I have died to prove a point/Movin’ right along.” But Nelson insists Hunter wasn’t writing about himself. “I didn’t see it as a farewell song, and I don’t think he did either,” Nelson says. “But it’s a testament to him.”
Nelson’s connection to Hunter dates back to 1962, when the two young men, and Garcia, played in Palo Alto–area bluegrass bands like the Wildwood Boys and the Hart Valley Drifters. At the time, Hunter was also a fledgling musician. “I was just amazed that he was able to sing high harmony, and middle and low harmony too,” Nelson recalls. “He had a multifaceted voice and he could also play bass and mandolin. He seemed to be an amazing guy who could do all these things.”
But as Nelson saw, Hunter opted out of the musicians life. “We needed to do more gigs and he kind of said, ‘No, I’m more into writing,’” he says. “He always had that cantankerous edge. I remember one time when Garcia called Hunter and asked him to write lyrics for the Dead, and Hunter said, ‘I don’t write lyrics, I write novels.’ But Garcia had the wherewithal and will to talk him into it. And the next thing you knew, out came all those Grateful Dead songs.”
Like everyone in the Dead world, Nelson recalls the period when Hunter disconnected from the Dead community in the mid-Seventies, citing the cocaine use around the organization as one reason. “There was a gangster aspect to that whole world,” Nelson chuckles, “and it wasn’t doing it for Bob, so he took off for a while. Then he came back and re-integrated. He was able to live the thing, but he was always able to have his own world and be apart in his own way. He wasn’t one for the social life of it. He wanted to avoid that.”
Hunter’s death was as much a surprise for Nelson as it was for many in the Dead community, despite health issues that had dogged Hunter during the previous years. “Just shortly before he passed, I was talking to him on the phone,” he says. “I used to go to his house fairly regularly and we’d talk about ideas. Then one time I called and he said, ‘I’m not feeling well, so don’t come down to the house. We’ll get together some other time.’ Then I called another time and they said, ‘Bob’s passed away.’ It was devastating for me. First Garcia and now Hunter. There go the two big guys.“
To commemorate another part of his life, Nelson — who is recuperating from a recent bout with colon cancer — is hoping to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the New Riders, who first started playing live in 1970. Those plans are still in the early stages, but in the meantime he’s also considering releasing a few more Hunter-penned lyrics in his vault.
“He was one of the greatest songwriters of all time,” Nelson says. “We’re gonna miss that. But we’re very thankful that he contributed so much and so many songs. Once he started, it was amazing how much stuff came out.”