Now Spinning: Robert Hunter – Tales of the Great Rum Runners

The world lost one of the very best lyrical poets last week with the death of Robert Hunter, principle lyricist for the Grateful Dead as Jerry Garcia’s longtime songwriting partner. Though Hunter was fairly reclusive compared to the rest of the band, he was, apart from Garcia, the most quintessential member, combining folk imagery, strains of ancient classical poetry and bursts of psychedelic color in his carefully woven tales. And though he preferred to stay behind the scenes, it’s been touching to read the flow of tributes over the past week affirming the integral and irreplaceable role Hunter played in the band’s mythos.

For myself and so many other deadheads around the world, Hunter’s words ‘rang true and glowed like burning coal pourin’ off of every page like it was written in my soul’. He had a knack for arriving at universal truths through tales covering the daily minutiae and everyday trials of familiar characters. While Hunter’s best work remains his masterpieces crafted with Jerry Garcia, his creativity continued to bubble in the years following Garcia’s death in 1995. His poetry never declined and both the quality and volume of his post-Jerry catalog is staggering. From five criminally overlooked albums with Jim Lauderdale and a collaboration with Bob Dylan to a series of efforts with New Riders of the Purple Sage, Warren Haynes and others in the post-Jerry Grateful Dead orbit, Hunter has left a wealth of recent material behind, some widely cherished, more sadly nearly forgotten. Jambase has an excellent summary and introductory playlist featuring these latter-day collaborations that gets my highest level of recommendation. You’ll find quite a few undeniable Hunter masterpieces among the twelve-hour playlist’s whopping 158 songs.

You’ll only find one area missing from this non-Grateful Dead playlist, and that’s because it never existed as far as the limits of Spotify are concerned… Hunter’s relatively fledging solo career. When the always adventurous Grateful Dead started Grateful Dead Records in 1973, they simultaneously started Round Records as a vehicle for members to release solo albums. With the Grateful Dead going on hiatus towards the end of 1974, the focus shifted to respective solo projects and Hunter was coaxed into the studio for an album on the label. We’ll focus on that solo debut in this post – a true one-of-a-kind effort in the Grateful Dead family catalog.

Hunter was joined by some familiar friends in the studio. Mickey Hart and Barry Melton produced, Jerry Garcia handles the mixing and each plus more contribute instrumentally to the album, which has a far more pronounced rock influence than the solo acoustic folk style of his latter-day live performances. Having said that, this is very much a Robert Hunter album rather than the Grateful Dead backing a new voice. ‘It Must Have Been the Roses’ is the only song from here that found it’s way into the Grateful Dead live repertoire, and musically, this album holds less in common with the Grateful Dead than other early seventies albums the band also collaborated on like David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, New Riders of the Purple Sage or Bob Weir’s Ace.

Hunter’s lyrics are of course the centerpiece, and up to the standard delivered on the Grateful Dead’s recent string of albums where Hunter had grown into a singular songwriter. It doesn’t take long for Hunter to make his lyrical presence felt: the opening song is a 24 second-long jingo, but ending with lines only he could write: ‘Believe it implicitly/Love is tranquility/If you don’t know that/Then nothing is known’. An uncanny ability to deliver a universal truth with a couple of lines and knowing wink, akin to the Gandalf of rock lyricists.

Another of those classic Hunter lines pops out in the next song, ‘That Train’ – ‘Yeah, but when you learn the rules they change the game’, is the kind of down-on-his-luck line one can so easily imagine Garcia singing, and the song is musically similar to the Grateful Dead with swirling organ from Keith Godchaux, vocals from Donna Jean Godchaux and bursts of guitar from Barry Melton over a romping funky rhythm. Hunter sounds surprisingly adept singing over the rocking San Francisco groove and trading lines with Donna Jean, whose vocal contribution here quite frankly outshines anything she ever added to Grateful Dead songs.

Perhaps ‘That Train’ sets a somewhat unfair standard for Hunter’s singing – ‘I Heard You Singing’ finds him straining over a thick wall of horns and fuzzy guitar that never quite comes together, and ‘Arizona Lightning’ suffers similarly from near-shouting over saxophone. The same occurs on ‘Mad’, but, given the content of the song, the slightly out-of-tune shouts over chaotic playing seem to fit on that one.

Hunter sounds more comfortable singing in a folkier context, sounding most effective when mimicking a gentler Johnny Cash type on ‘Tales of the Great Rum Runners’ and ‘Children’s Lament’, both of which also feature beautifully haunting pipe organ. ‘It Must Have Been the Roses’ features another quality Hunter vocal over a relaxed country bluegrass backing that showcases Buddy Cage of New Riders of the Purple Sage on pedal steel and pleasant harmonies from Donna Jean.

Of course it’s probably no surprise that the two songs featuring Garcia also find Hunter at his best and serve as additional album highlights. On ‘Standing At Your Door’, Hunter simply sounds far more confident vocally, while Garcia adds his breathtaking tone and leads the band through their niftiest interplay to be found on the album. ‘Keys to the Rain’ showcases Garcia’s trademark touch once again, on a country-rock flavored tune with surprising bursts of ‘Ring of Fire’-style mariachi horns.

The ‘Boys in the Barroom’ is another must-hear highlight: an a cappella tribute to the life Hunter and his musical brothers chose, the song that he ended each live show with, triumphantly belting it out unaccompanied as an encore:

Many’s the night we spent pickin’ and singin’
In hopes it be pleasing both here and above

– Robert Hunter ‘The Boys in the Barroom’

Though the album is not on Spotify and virtually impossible to find on CD, the vinyl is more common and one you’ll likely find in any record store with a prominent Grateful Dead collection. If it’s not in your local store, the album currently available for reasonable prices on Discogs. If you must sample digitally first, the album is also uploaded on YouTube.

Or you can pull out a beaten up copy of Workingman’s Dead (Grateful Dead trivia alert: the only album to feature Hunter photographed with the band on the cover), enjoy some classic Dead live recordings etc… but take some time to enjoy one of the world’s very best songwriters and the everlasting gifts he left behind.

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