“Like a Lighthouse in an Ocean Storm”: Billy Strings on Jerry Garcia
photo by John Patrick Gatta
The latest installment in the GarciaLive series is an acoustic performance by Jerry Garcia and John Kahn, recorded at New York’s The Ritz on Jan. 27, 1986. During this rare duo offering, released as GarciaLive 14, the two musicians blend Grateful Dead staples such as “Friend of the Devil,” “Dire Wolf” and “Ripple” with versions of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues,” Elizabeth Cotton’s “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” and even Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a tune that Bob Weir would sing with the Dead.
Acoustic guitarist and bluegrass phenom Billy Strings contributed the liner notes. In one poignant passage, he discusses not only the show itself but also the broader impact that Garcia and the Grateful Dead had on his own work, noting, “Finding Jerry’s music opened up so many doors for me as a musician. It taught me that music is boundary-less. Instead of just playing a quick 30-second solo, I started to take songs for a ride. I began understanding that it keeps going deeper and deeper. Once you start taking chances musically and allowing raw vulnerability and musical conversation into the live performance, you realize that the fans are right there with you. There’s energy coming from the crowd that gives you the energy to find your way through this musical maze—to the breakthrough moment that everyone is waiting for!
“I realized that the Grateful Dead is quite possibly the world’s best live music band. I’m so glad I saw the light. I’m so glad that I acquired the taste. I can hear Jerry’s guitar ringing out like a lighthouse in an ocean storm, leading us home to safety.”
How did you first hear the music of Jerry Garcia?
I discovered Jerry through Dawg [David Grisman]. I was about 7 years old when my dad called me into the room and said, “Boomer, this is David Grisman—you need to know this.” Then he put on Doc and Dawg. I had already been listening to Doc [Watson], but this was the first time I heard Dawg. My thought at the time was: “If David Grisman is playing with Doc Watson, then he must be important.”
Later on, I had the same realization about Jerry Garcia. If Jerry was playing with David Grisman, then he must be important. I first discovered Jerry through the film Grateful Dawg. That led me to check out some of the other stuff they did together. I really enjoyed Old & In The Way with the great Vassar Clements.
From there, I decided to check out the Grateful Dead. I started with “Casey Jones” because Doc sang a song about that same guy. I really loved it. I put the song on my iPod so that I could listen to it when I was going to school or skateboarding.
Then, I decided to check out some live Grateful Dead because I’d heard so much about it. I’ll admit that I didn’t get it at first. It sounded, to me, like five guys simultaneously playing five different songs. I couldn’t appreciate a sick “Dark Star” or “Estimated.” I was stuck in the mindset of a bluegrass musician. I was locked into the world of only playing the melody.
But then, a few years ago, something just clicked, and I finally realized the importance of taking chances in the moment, while the audience is there with you. That is the very essence of what I’m doing with my band. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Jerry and the Dead.
In listening to this Ritz show, how would you describe John Kahn’s contributions to the music?
The thing about John Kahn that I really appreciate is the way that he was able to navigate around Jerry, around the chords. He’s almost like a boxer—bobbing and weaving and getting out of the way of Jerry’s punches and ducking them, but still standing up and fighting. There’s something very special about a bass player that can do that—someone who bounces around and has fun but doesn’t keep landing on the same notes as the lead.
It’s a very hard thing to do. You have to be a good listener and he was. I think that’s why people enjoyed playing with him so much. He was such a great rhythm musician, supporting the lead instrument, supporting Jerry. He made Jerry feel more comfortable musically and gave him a foundation to stand on so that he could take his solos. Obviously, I never played with him but he just seemed to make everyone who played with him feel better about their own playing and that’s huge.
What are some of your favorite moments from the Ritz show?
I’ve always enjoyed “Dire Wolf” but, for some reason, this version hit me like a fucking train. I listened to it 10 times in a row. I heard the lyrics in a totally different way this time. When I heard him describe the wolf grinning outside that window, I said to myself, “What is this song really about? Is the guy now a member of the wolf pack? Are you letting in your fears by letting in the wolf?” I heard that song in such a different way, maybe because it was so stripped down.
I also just really enjoyed Jerry’s playing. As soon as it starts, he plays a Doc Watson lick right off the bat and I’m like, “Yes! Jerry’s playing bluegrass!” He plays some straight-up Doc Watson licks and I really enjoy that.
There’s also that old Elizabeth Cotten song, “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie.” Man, that’s some of the sweetest shit on there. Hearing Jerry fingerpick like that is just so cool, man.
The version of “Bird Song” is pretty cool, too. They’re kind of burning it up.
But man, that “Dire Wolf!” I really dug into that song after doing this project, and it’s become one of my favorites. I’m totally head over heels about it. I just could not stop listening to it, and that inspired me to learn it.
Beyond the songs themselves, did immersing yourself in this show lead you to think about Jerry in a new way?
Man, every time I listen to Jerry, I hear something new in his language and the phrases that he uses.
When I first heard Jerry, I was used to hearing whoever was playing with Ricky Skaggs or another one of the most precise flatpickers in the world. So when I first heard him, I’d think, “It sounds like he’s fumbling a lot.” Now, of course, that’s not the case; that’s just how I used to hear it. My ears were messed up.
Jerry’s speaking with his guitar; he’s making conversation. One of my favorite Jerry solos is the one that he played on “Arabia.” When I close my eyes and listen to it, I hear somebody on their knees just begging and clawing and pleading. Jerry can play guitar like that. He can play guitar like somebody who just lost their son or daughter. He can play guitar like somebody who just fell in love for the first time or like somebody who just won the lottery or like somebody who just ran over their dog.
The ability to just pull that emotion out of the ether and regurgitate it through your guitar is magic in itself. That’s one of the things I’ve really taken away from Jerry’s playing—it’s not always about what’s written down or simply playing scales. It’s about figuring out the music in real-time, making up musical ideas and talking with your guitar. What I learned from Jerry was the freedom of filling the empty space.
He also taught me about boundaries and that music has none. You can play jazz, rock-and-roll, acoustic music, bluegrass, whatever you want. It’s just all there. It’s all music and you can play it on any instrument.
There is no law, there are no rules. It’s music, man, so just have fun.