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Grateful Dead Founding Member Bob Weir Draws Inspiration From 'Old Cowboy Songs'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On New Year's Eve in 1963, a 16-year-old Bob Weir ran into Jerry Garcia at a music store in Palo Alto. They decided to start a jug band which evolved into the Grateful Dead.

They got their first break as the house band for Ken Kesey's acid tests and epitomised the psychedelic sound of the counterculture. In the band, Weir was one of the two main singers and songwriters and played rhythm guitar. The Dead toured almost constantly until 1995 when Jerry Garcia died.

Bob Weir has continued to play music and has just released his first album of completely new material in 30 years. It's called "Blue Mountain." Many of the songs were co-written with Josh Ritter. Weir says the album was inspired by the time when, as a teen, he ran away to work on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. The ranch was owned by the parents of John Perry Barlow who later became Weir's songwriting partner. Bob Weir recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association. Weir spoke to FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with the opening track from "Blue Mountain." It's called "Only A River."


BOB WEIR: (Singing) Well, I was born up in the mountains, raised up in a desert town. And I never saw the ocean 'til I was close to your age now. Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you. Hey, hey, hey, your rolling river. Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you. Hey, hey, hey, only a river going to make things right, only a river going to make things right, only a river going to make things right.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's "Only A River," the opening track of Weir's new album "Blue Mountain." Bob Weir, welcome to FRESH AIR.

WEIR: Well, hi.

BRIGER: You said that this album was inspired by a summer when you ran away to become a cowboy in Wyoming. How old were you?

WEIR: I was 15.

BRIGER: So did you already know how to ride? Were you herding cattle?

WEIR: Yeah. When I was a little kid, my folks were sort of in the horsey community, and also we used to vacation up in Squaw Valley which in the wintertime was a - California here - in the wintertime it was a ski resort. In the summertime, it was a cattle ranch. And during the summers, when we were up there, there was a riding stable that we spent a lot of time at. And the old cowpokes in the - who ran the riding stable a couple of them took a shine to me and sort of taught me how to ride, and some of the basic skills of cowboy and, you know, how to cut cattle and stuff like that. I never did really learn how to rope very well. But by the time I was 9 or 10, I had a pretty good grasp of the basics.

BRIGER: Through your career, you've seemed to be drawn to cowboy and country songs, some of them you've written like "Mexicali Blues" and then you've also covered a lot of songs like "Me And My Uncle," Marty Robbins song "El Paso." You've also done songs like Johnny Cash's "Big River." Why do you think you're drawn to those tunes?

WEIR: You know, I've actually wondered that myself. And, you know, it just - it occurs to me that I just - I lived that lifestyle for a little bit, not just that summer, but I go back out there and work with Barlow, and, you know, part of working with Barlow - when I was doing that - was we'd live on the ranch. And we had the ranch to run, and if I helped out, we'd have more time to write. So I spent a lot of time doing that kind of stuff, and I kind of got steeped in that tradition a little bit.

And also, for what it's worth, when I was a kid living there in the bunkhouse, there were, you know - in the evening, the old boys would - they'd pop a cork, and they'd tell stories and sing songs. And I was the kid with the guitar, so I was their accompaniment. And so I learned a bunch of that stuff, and, as I say, got steeped in that tradition, and I just sort of carried it around in my hip pocket for, you know, the rest of my days. But it's not so much the songs that stuck with me as the delivery.

And particularly the story-telling aspect of singing those songs and putting them across.

BRIGER: I wanted to ask you about that because it - I've noticed that it feels like you like songs that have a narrative to them. A lot of your songs - they tell some kind of a story which I think contrasts with the other main songwriting team of The Grateful Dead Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Their songs were often, like, impressionistic. They were like - they would - generally like a vocal mood or something whereas when I listen to your songs, I find myself imagining a specific narrator character. Do you think that's true?

WEIR: Well, that's kind of my approach. That's what I'm most comfortable with. For years, I've held forth with the opinion that every artist of any stripe is first and foremost a storyteller, and the story can be impressionistic or it can be linear in nature, and I'm comfortable with either of them. Though, when I set pen to paper, more often than not, it comes up more or less linear. You know, I see songs as little movies, you know, short movies. And, you know, I try to let the characters most fully - as fully as possible express themselves and let the story develop, so that there's, you know - there's intrigue and all that kind of stuff.

BRIGER: So you have a song on the new album "Blue Mountain" that's called "Ki-Yi Bossie" which is about 12-step meetings and addiction. What inspired that song?

WEIR: Well, a lot of the guys that I lived with in the bunkhouse hadn't come from, you know - from cowboys stock. They hadn't grown up on ranches or anything like that. They'd found their way there from other places, and a number of them had found that they really didn't feel real comfortable in polite society, if you will, and thought that they'd best just sort of stash themselves out somewhere where they can't get in trouble or they were running from something, some of them from heartbreak that kind of thing.

And I was kind of going - when I was writing that lyric, I was kind of going for a guy that you would find in a bunkhouse who is there for that reason. He'd run afoul of love and was trying to sort out how he was going to go about his life probably without someone that he'd lost and someone that he'd intended to make a big part of his life. And so, you know, I just sort of invited that character through, you know, into our little world. And he told me that he wanted to start someplace real bleak. And in the curtain wants to come up on that particular act, on that first act on the bleakest possible settings. And so, you know, sort of nosed around and found a pretty bleak place for him, you know, a church basement on a Friday night when he would otherwise have been out having, you know, some sort of blowout or a real swell time. And I put him in, you know, a 12-step meeting.

And then I let him tell his story, you know, and the story went from there into how his relationship had gone south. He'd taken up the bottle, probably among other things, but that's where we settled. And what that led him to - and so he just threw up his hands and said I'm going somewhere where things are simpler. And so that's where we end up with the song, and he's punching cows.

BRIGER: You know, the Grateful Dead had a long and intense history with drugs. Like, the band got its break as the house band for Ken Kesey's acid tests. And ever since then, the Dead had been linked to psychedelics. And, you know, you've been forthright saying that for a time LSD was very informative to your way of thinking. But, you know, there's also - there was a lot of tragedy around drugs and alcohol in the Grateful Dead. Band members, you know, either died from overdose like Brent Mydland or from drug or alcohol related illnesses like Pigpen and, of course, Jerry Garcia. And I'm not really sure what my question is. But I guess I was thinking about all that history - and we'll listen to that song - and I was wondering how it might have informed the way you wrote it.

WEIR: Christ, I don't know how to address that. Well, I can't deny that I had a fair bit of, you know, either personal experience with drugs or alcohol or whatever or close friends of mine had intense experiences with them. So I kind of - I guess I know what I'm talking about to some degree when I'm helping a character flesh himself out in that regard.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Bob Weir. His new album is called "Blue Mountain." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Bob Weir. Weir has just released his first album of new material in 30 years. It's called "Blue Mountain." Weir co-founded the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia. Here's one of the songs Weir co-wrote for the Dead, "Sugar Magnolia."


GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty and I don't care. Saw my baby down by the river, knew she'd have to come up soon for air. Sweet blossom come on under the willow, we can have high times if you'll abide. We can discover the wonders of nature, rolling in the rushes down by the riverside. She's got everything delightful. She's got everything I need. Takes the wheel when I'm seeing double, pays my ticket when I speed.

BRIGER: When the Grateful Dead started playing, you were 17 years old. You lived on Ashbury Street at the height of the counterculture in San Francisco. And the Grateful Dead and its music was really at the heart of that movement in a lot of ways. You know, at 17, were you prepared for that? It seems like such a young age to have all that thrust upon you.

WEIR: I was ready for anything, come on.


WEIR: I was 17, 18 and the Haight-Ashbury was popping. Now, this was the - this was the summer of '66, spring and summer of '66. That was the real summer of love - '67, the media made it into something that we didn't recognize, you know, called attention to it and everything that had rattled loose in the rest of the country ended up in the Haight-Ashbury, and things went - things went kind of sideways there by then. But in '66, the Haight-Ashbury was a youth ghetto. But it was - you know, it was a joyful place.

BRIGER: You were adopted when you were born. And you met your birth parents pretty late in life, when you were around 50 years old. And I guess you had a close relationship with your father until he died last year. What did you learn about yourself from finally getting to meet him?

WEIR: Well, for instance, little things like - I always go outdoors to clip my fingernails and toenails.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

WEIR: And he did, too. There are little mannerisms that you would think - that would be - you'd pick up by watching, but they were there. We we walked, we carried ourselves the same way. We had the same sort of sense of humor, that kind of thing. He was a gentleman. He was an innate gentleman, and I think of myself as such as well. And he had a quality of leadership. He was basically born to it, and people always relied on him for it. And I've found that that's more or less come my way as well. You know, it's a gig. Everybody has to have one. And people looked to me for leadership a lot. It's just something that I can provide. It is not something that I want. You know, I'd rather people left me alone, but - in that regard. But someone's got to do it.

BRIGER: So over the years, you must have imagined what your birth parents were like. How did that compare to actually meeting them?

WEIR: As it turns out, my dad - he had no idea I existed to begin with. He had had an affair with a girl in Tucson, where they were going to school, and she got pregnant and very quietly slipped away and had me in San Francisco, the famous liberal city back then, and then came back and never let on that anything had happened. And so when we met, you know, it was - it was a big surprise to both of them.

Now, I found out about his existence - my birth mother, after my adopted parents - a number of years after my adopted parents had checked out, she contacted me because I'd tried to find her in the - it was not possible. So she ended up contacting me, and she had 12 other kids, so...


WEIR: ...I didn't - I didn't feel like I needed to complicate her life all that much. But we kept in touch, and I'd call her on Mother's Day. And every now and again we'd see each other and stuff like that. I'd send her flowers, that kind of thing. But she gave me - she gave me my birth father's information, the last she knew of it. And he was a guy named Jack Parber. And he had been a student at University of Arizona.

And so I got a private eye with her about - within about 10 minutes, he turned up the information that he was the commanding officer at the local - at our local Air Force base. And I sort of packed that under my pillow for a few years because I'm pathologically anti-authoritarian. And - (laughter) and I didn't figure that I needed the rejection that I was sure to find from this guy who's probably some sort of military authoritarian kind of guy.

Then not long after Jerry checked out, my curiosity got to the point where I couldn't live with it anymore. And so I had to find that out. And so, you know, I figured I had three choices. I could drive up to his house in Nevada, up north of where I live, you know, about, oh, maybe eight, 10 miles from - as the crow flies from where I live. And I'd just knock on his door. And I figured, OK, I don't want my first and last vision of my father watching him clutch his heart and fall over backwards.


WEIR: I figured I could write him a letter, but he might crumble that up and throw it away. So I figured, OK, I'll call him. And so I did, and he was on another line. You know, I was disturbing him at the time. And he said, listen, can you call back in 10 minutes? I told him, listen, I'm - my name is Robert Weir, and I live in Mill Valley. And I've been doing some research and turned up some information that might be of considerable interest to you. And he said, OK, well, I'm on another line right now. Can you call me back in 10 minutes? And so that was a long 10 minutes I waited.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah, I bet.

WEIR: Called him back and said, can I ask you a question or two regarding certain events that took place in Tucson 50 years ago? And he got real quiet. And he said, well, OK. And I said, well, did you know and were you perhaps romantically involved with a young lady by the name of Phyllis back in that time? And he said, well - and he was alone. I could kind of hear it over the phone. He said, well, yeah. And I said, OK, well, sir, I don't know how many kids you have, but there is a strong, strong likelihood that you have one more than you know.

And he got real quiet, and then he said, OK, the only Bob Weir that I know of is this guy who sings and plays with the Grateful Dead. Apparently, his kids were fans. And I said, well, sir, that would be me. And then it got quiet again. And we talked for a little while, and then we met the next day for lunch at both of our favorite Mexican restaurant in - here in Marin County. And we got real tight, real fast.

BRIGER: As you say, he was a retired colonel. He - I think he flew bombing missions in the Korean War. And, as you said, you were anti-authoritarian, and as a kid, you know, you were anti-war and a peace lover. Do you think in some ways that you were able to accept him more when you were older and more mature than you would have if you had known him as a teen?

WEIR: It would have been harder had I grown up in his house for both of us. But by the time we met, we were more than - more than ready to see the other sides of ourselves because I guess I can tend to be a kind of authoritarian in my own way. And he was more or less a peace and love kind of guy in his own way. It's just that life had not called on him to be that way and - or called on me to be the other way. And so we saw in each other a lot of ourselves, love it or hate it.

BRIGER: There's a touching story that - one of his sons, I think, died of spinal cancer.

WEIR: Yeah.

BRIGER: But he was a musician, too.

WEIR: Yeah.

BRIGER: And the family gave you that guitar. And for a long time, you would play that guitar on stage, right?

WEIR: Yeah.

BRIGER: And he...

WEIR: It finally got stolen.

BRIGER: Oh, it did? Oh, that's...

WEIR: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...Terrible.

WEIR: Yeah.

BRIGER: And the son was a Grateful Dead fan, wasn't he?

WEIR: Well, all four of his sons were Grateful Dead fans, though the one who I never met was probably the least a Grateful Dead fan. He was more on his own. He was kind of into, you know, that country-esque style of music that was real popular back in the '70s. He was a flashy but good Telecaster player.

BRIGER: Well, if anyone's who stole that guitar, you should really give that back.

WEIR: Right.

BRIGER: So this album...

WEIR: '56...

BRIGER: That was a '56 Telecaster. Yeah, that's...

WEIR: Yeah.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Bob Weir. His new album is called "Blue Mountain." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Bob Weir. Weir co-founded the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia. He's just released his first album of new material in 30 years. It's called "Blue Mountain."

BRIGER: In the documentary about you called "The Other One," you say, chances are I've spent more time onstage playing guitar and singing than any other human that ever lived. And the Grateful Dead played thousands of shows, had an endless touring schedule until 1995 when Jerry Garcia died. And then you kept that pace up for a very long time afterwards. You've really spent a lot of your life on the road. Why do you think that lifestyle suits you?

WEIR: I'm not sure it suits anyone, really. But if you have to have the music, then - if you have to have that interaction with people, then you don't have much of a choice. You just have to take the good with the bad with that lifestyle. Once you've had goose bumps in front of a bunch of people, the spirit, I guess, of - the spirit of joy or whatever it is that the music is carrying with it comes through you and you share it with a bunch of folks, it's going to define your existence. And you're not going to be drawing much of anywhere else, I don't think.

Now, not everybody gets to live that. But once you do live that, it's - there's no other place to go.

BRIGER: You and Jerry Garcia were the two lead singers of the Grateful Dead. And he died in 1995. And you've said before that he was like an older brother to you. At some point, you started singing his songs in shows. Was that - was that tough for you? Was it an easy decision to make, and was it - or was it hard for you to sing those songs at first?

WEIR: No. Actually, it was a while before I decided I was going to go ahead and do it. I just had to feel it out. I knew it was coming, but I didn't know when. You know, so I just waited until - you know, until the time was right.

You know, early on with RatDog, after Jerry checked out, I didn't do much Grateful Dead material at all. I did as little as I could to still keep people coming in the doors. But I wasn't - I wasn't quite ready to go back there. And I - it's not an emotional sort of deal. I guess there was a little of that involved. But I just wanted to take a pause. It just seemed like I ought to. And then when I started doing it again, slowly it - all the songs came and one by one they - they just sort of - they demanded that, OK, it's time. I've got to breathe again, and you can help me do this. And so I went with it.

BRIGER: Well, Bob Weir, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WEIR: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Bob Weir spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Weir's new album is called "Blue Mountain."


GROSS: If you want to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with Bruce Springsteen, check out our podcast. You'll catch that and many other interviews.


WEIR: (Singing) Well, if I'm alone, will you take my hand? Will you stand by me in the pouring rain? With my certain sins, my contraband in the vanity that still remains. I'm going, gone to Gonesville. I'm going, gone to Gonesville. Go, going, gone to Gonesville. I'm going all the way hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.


WEIR: (Singing) Well, here come the thunder, here come the rain. Hear that whistle moan, here come that misery train. Well, they say it might rain forever, but it sure can't rain on me. I'm about to get gone. I'm about to be free. I'm going, gone to Gonesville... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.