Although the Grateful Dead enjoyed a reputation for lengthy musical improvisations, their career was based on a solid core of songwriting craft. Robert Hunter, who has died aged 78, wrote the lyrics for many of their best-loved songs, and his work was vital in developing the mystique that earned the American band an extended international family of loyal followers, the so-called Deadheads.
A list of the songs that bear Hunter’s byline amounts to a road map of the Grateful Dead’s career. Dark Star (1968) and St Stephen (1969) were emblematic of their psychedelic beginnings, while Truckin’ (1970), Playing in the Band (1971) and Uncle John’s Band (1970) were imaginatively embroidered chunks of the Dead’s autobiography. Friend of the Devil (subsequently covered by countless other artists) had the feel of an old west fable, and like many other of their compositions tapped into the folk and blues roots that Hunter and the guitarist-songwriter Jerry Garcia had grown up with. Touch of Grey (with its trademark lines “I will get by, I will survive”) was an ode to the group’s longevity and earned them their only Top 10 hit in the US in 1987.
Although it is his work with the Dead for which he will be chiefly remembered, Hunter engaged in several other successful collaborations. An intermittent partnership with Bob Dylan began when he co-wrote the tracks Silvio and The Ugliest Girl in the World on Dylan’s 1988 album Down in the Groove, and he later shared authorship of most of the songs on Together Through Life (2009) and collaborated on Duquesne Whistle from the album Tempest (2012).
He also worked with Bruce Hornsby (who played keyboards with the Dead late in their career) and Los Lobos. As Hornsby put it, after Hunter had written his song Cyclone (2009), “I’ve loved so many of the Garcia/Hunter songs. They’re just timeless-sounding to me, could have been written hundreds of years ago.”
Robert Hunter in the Grateful Dead’s rehearsal studio in San Rafael, California, 1977.
Hunter was born Robert Burns in Arroyo Grande, California, and later adopted his stepfather’s surname. “When I was nine my family split up,” he revealed, claiming that his father “was an electrician, an itinerant kind of a goldminer, something like that … I’ve only heard from him once in 20 or 30 years.” One of his earliest memories was his mother singing along to pop songs on the radio while she bathed him. He spent several years in foster homes before returning to live with his mother, who later married Norman Hunter, a publishing executive at McGraw-Hill, when Robert was 11.
He had a band called the Presidents in Palo Alto high school, a Dixieland outfit in which he played trumpet. After a six-month stint in the army in 1959 (“It was an experience a lot of kids could probably benefit from,” he said), he spent a year at the University of Connecticut where he played in a folk trio, then moved back to California. He first met Garcia through a mutual girlfriend, and in 1961 they briefly formed the duo Bob and Jerry as well as playing in several bluegrass bands together. They parted company as Garcia pursued his musical ambitions while Hunter concentrated on writing.
In 1962 he volunteered to participate in a Stanford University programme testing psychedelic drugs (not realising this was run by the CIA), and was given LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. He considered that these experiences greatly boosted his writing skills, and he displayed a knack for expressing his altered state of mind. “By my faith, if this be insanity, then for the love of God permit me to be insane,” he wrote on one occasion.
However, a subsequent over-fondness for amphetamines prompted him to leave California for New Mexico, where he began writing song lyrics, including St Stephen, Alligator and China Cat Sunflower. He sent these to Garcia, who was sufficiently impressed to urge Hunter to come to San Francisco and become the lyricist for the fledgling Grateful Dead.
Alligator appeared on the band’s second album, Anthem of the Sun (1968), while the follow-up, Aoxomoxoa (1969), was almost totally written by Hunter and Garcia. Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (both 1970) found the group moving away from trippy experimentalism towards a more traditional, country-flavoured, Americana style, and between them added up to a trove of the Dead’s finest songs, Cumberland Blues, Uncle John’s Band, Casey Jones, Box of Rain, Friend of the Devil and Sugar Magnolia among them. American Beauty’s Ripple was solely composed by Hunter, and contained what he claimed to Rolling Stone magazine to be his favourite of his own lines: “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of man.”
Their working methods were elastic. Sometimes Hunter would listen to the band working on a new song and devise lyrics on the spot; sometimes he would listen to tapes of musical ideas and write lyrics to fit; or he would give the group lyrics that they would then build music around. “What we were doing was almost sacred,” he said in 2015. “I didn’t feel we were a pop music band. I wanted to write a whole different sort of music.”
His partnership with Garcia lasted right through to the Dead’s final studio album, Built to Last (1989). Garcia died in 1995. “I didn’t get the feeling he intended to live very long,” Hunter told Rolling Stone. “There are things about Jerry I just don’t understand. Or maybe am not capable of knowing.”
Hunter also undertook collaborations with the songwriter Jim Lauderdale, with whom he wrote the album Patchwork River (2010), and the Dead’s drummer Mickey Hart, contributing lyrics to the albums Mysterium Tremendum (2012) and Superorganism (2013). He co-wrote four songs with Bill Payne on Little Feat’s album Rooster Rag (2012).
Hunter performed in his own right occasionally, undertaking his final solo tour in 2013 in part to raise money to pay medical bills incurred during treatment for a spinal abscess. He recorded several solo albums, including Tales of the Great Rum Runners (1974), Tiger Rose (1975), Flight of the Marie Helena (a poem read against a musical backing, 1985) and Rock Columbia (1986). He also published several volumes of poetry, as well as two volumes of translations of the poems of Rilke. In 2013 he was given the lifetime achievement award of the Americana Music Association, and in 2015 Hunter and Garcia were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife, Maureen, whom he married in 1982, and his children, Kate, Charlotte and Jess. (theguardian.com)
And here´s his debut album:
On his debut album, supported by several members of the Grateful Dead and other Bay Area musicians, Robert Hunter demonstrated the musical and lyrical approach that had made his co-compositions with Jerry Garcia the best of the Dead’s original material. Hunter’s poetic language was redolent with a rustic Americana of roads, rivers, roses, and rain, and if his melodies lacked Garcia’s grace and the backup lacked the Dead’s cohesion, nevertheless this was identifiably music in the Dead vein. Hunter was an uncertain singer, alternately straining for a higher register reminiscent of Garcia and half-talking in a deeper voice that seemed more natural and advantageous to his lyrics. The album was overly ambitious musically, ranging from folk ballads to rockers and horn-filled raveups, along with barroom choruses and Scottish airs. But Hunter demonstrated he was more than just a lyricist. (by William Ruhlmann)
Robert Hunter’s first solo album was released in June 1974 on Round Records. The album features Robert Hunter backed by all star guest cast of musicians including Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, John Cipollina, David Grisman, Barry Melton, Keith and Donna among quite a few others. The album was engineered and produced by everyone involved which also created a bit of a problem when the master tape was being prepared for cd. Jerry suggested to Hunter that he might want to use a cleaned up and digitized copy from the vinyl album rather than the master tape due to parts having fallen off the master. This was caused by somewhat improper engineering but Hunter wanted to use the master tape. As a result, there are places were certain overdubs are missing such as Jerry’s beautiful guitar fills on Standing At Your Door. The songs are all generally 5 stars while It Must Have Been The Roses would become something of a staple in Grateful Dead shows and I Heard You Singing would be recorded for Quicksilver’s Solid Silver. (by Grateful Jerry)
Alternate labels (German edition)
Peter Albin (bass)
Rodney Albin (fiddle, background vocals)
Maureen Aylett (spoons)
Chrisie Bourne (castanets)
Buddy Cage (pedal steel-guitar)
T. Will Claire (background vocals)
Snookey Flowers (saxophone)
David Frieberg (bass)
Keith Godchaux (keyboards)
Mickey Hart (drums)
Robert Hunter (vocals, guitar, organ)
Steve Schuster (saxophone)
Markee Shubb (banjo, mandolin)
Rick Shubb (banjo, mandolin)
Mario Cipolina* (bass on 04.)
Jerry Garcia (guitar on 11., 13.)
Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals on 02., 09.)
Barry Melton (guitar on 02., 03., 04.)
Jamie Paris (guitar, harmonica on 12.)
Hadi El Sadoon (trumpet on 13.)
Robbie Stokes (guitar, harmonica on 12.)
01. Lady Simplicity 0.20
02. That Train 4.26
03. Dry Dusty Road 2.16
04. I Heard You Singing 3.34
05. Rum Runners 3.00
06. Children’s Lament 4.06
07 Maybe She’s A Bluebird 1:57
08 Boys In The Barroom 1:09
09 It Must Have Been The Roses
10. Arizona Lightning 3:32
11. Standing At Your Door 4.28
12. Mad 4.00
13. Keys To The Rain 4.13
All songs written by Robert Hunter
Robert C. Hunter (June 23, 1941 – September 23, 2019)