Robert Hunter: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Dean Budnick on September 17, 2013

Robert Hunter pauses for a moment before he discusses the ailment that hospitalized him last year. “I’m of two minds about whether I want to say anything about it because the last thing I want is pity,” he says. “I didn’t let any information out but I was seriously ill with a spinal infection. I don’t know where it came from. I think it was ebola or something like that, and it put me at death’s door.”

Prior to this setback, the longtime Grateful Dead lyricist had been in fine fettle, writing songs with Little Feat, Bruce Hornsby, Jim Lauderdale and old friends David Nelson, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and even Bob Dylan. As Hunter reflects on his career, he is quick to remark, “I’ll just say right out front that I am one lucky lyricist to have had Jerry Garcia to work with. I never get tired of those melodies. The man’s genius is there. He’s with those songs. It’s part of what he’s left.”

Hunter will revisit his expansive catalog of material in late September, when he embarks on his first tour in nearly a decade.

It’s been a while since you last performed live. I’m sure there are plenty of people who assumed that you had retired from the stage. What prompted your decision to return?

In a nutshell, I had the benefit of the experience of being extremely ill. When I got out of the hospital, I began thinking that time was precious and what I really would like to do, God willing and the creek don’t rise, is continue my performing career. I realized that I missed being on the stage. When I gave it up, it wasn’t the performing I was giving up—it was the travel, the hotels, the days between.

Since you hadn’t played guitar in a performance setting for quite some time, was it a challenge to bring your chops up to speed?

Oh, my God, yes. I get up before dawn and, as soon as the sun is up, I go out in the yard with my guitar. I find that’s the nicest place to do it with the birds singing, and I work about four or five hours in the morning. I’ve pretty much got my repertoire back together. My guitar playing is better than it’s ever been, by far, because I never really worked at it before. This time, I decided to sit down and put in the hours instead of just writing songs all the time. I’ve written plenty of songs in the time I’ve been off.

Speaking of which, do you plan on incorporating any of that material from the recent years into your show?

I’m planning to do “Patchwork River” that I wrote with Jim [Lauderdale]. I’ve been working it up and I really like singing it. Just because a song is kind of good doesn’t make me want to sing it. The song has to command me to sing. When I get out there, every song I perform demands to be sung.

I’ve worked out about 40 songs of which I’ll do about 18 when I do two sets. I generally do about six in my first set and a dozen in my second set. So, for example, will I do “Mission in the Rain” or some other one? I won’t know until I make up my setlist right before I go onstage.

I’ll be doing a couple I haven’t done before though. For instance, I’m going to pull out an “Attics of My Life,” which I’ve never dared to do solo before because everybody knows it takes at least three singers. [Laughs.] But I’ve worked my way around it and I’m feeling confident with it. I’ll be doing a couple songs that I’ve written for myself over a few years now, but I know what people come to hear from me and they’re going to get it. They pay their money, they’re entitled to hear what they want to hear and that’s largely Grateful Dead. I understand this.

You mentioned your collaboration with Jim Lauderdale, who is an acclaimed, prolific songwriter in his own right. When you’re working with him, is your approach any different than when you’ve written with others?

Jim is the only songwriter I’ve ever found who can keep up with me as far as speed goes. I work quick; he works quick. He can drop over for a couple days and we have an album written. This is almost unheard of. The man is alive with songs. It continually amazes me the way the man can write, so we’ve written a phenomenal amount of songs. We write them, put them out and I listen to them once, which is generally about as much as I can handle when anything comes out that I have anything to do with.

Why is that?

It’s just the way it is. We’re on to the next thing. My wife will sometimes play some of this stuff when we’re in the car and I’ll say, “Hey, I wrote this song. It’s not bad.” I’ll listen to it and it sounds like a real Nashville song. I don’t listen to my work. I’ve been writing a couple of books over the last couple of years and I don’t read the books either. My motto is move on.

I don’t know that I’ve listened to a Grateful Dead album in many years. I’ve listened to a couple of individual tunes—I buy them from Apple or from Amazon—single tunes when I want my memory refreshed as to how they go because I can’t find anything in my record collection. My CDs are scattered hither and yon and my eyes aren’t good enough to read the tiny print on the CD packages, so I just pay 99 cents and get a fresh copy. [Laughs.]

In addition to Jim Lauderdale, you’re also one of the rare individuals who has written with Bob Dylan. He certainly has his own distinct voice. Did you come at that any differently?

I wrote a bunch of stuff for him to choose from. Although I gave him something that I give nobody else, which is license to change it to suit himself because he is who he is. Let me just say that I would rather hear a Bob Dylan record with lyrics by Bob Dylan than lyrics by me because I’m a fan. I love his stuff and I hate to be able to say that I know what these songs mean, because part of the joy of listening to him is you don’t have the vaguest idea of what he’s talking about—it just sounds good. [Laughs.]

So did that lead you to make those lyrics any more elliptical?

No, I wrote what comes through me, and then, it had to filter through his muse, too. While we were working on it, he would ask me to write a different verse for this or that. It was very exacting. I hope people like it. I don’t know—I never read any reviews.

You appeared on the cover of Workingman’s Dead, but then, to a large degree, you removed yourself from the public eye. Is it fair to describe you as reclusive?

I’m reclusive as far as fame-seeking goes, but that doesn’t mean I’m reclusive as a social human being. It’s just that what rock fame has to offer isn’t really something that anybody in their right mind, with any notion of what they’re getting into, would want. I’ve watched my friends have to go through that and I’ve said, “No thanks.” But I very much want my songwriting out there. I’m not indifferent to that and I’m very pleased and proud and feel very lucky about that aspect. I also like to get up and perform, and there are certain things you do to perform. I’m going to do those things to a degree, although, I’m not going to go overboard.

To what extent do you assume a role or responsibility in protecting the creative legacy of the Grateful Dead?

That’s been my mission in running Ice Nine Publishing. It’s being real careful that the stuff is treated with respect and if someone don’t mean to do it that way, then they can take a hike. It’s egotistical but I think that the Grateful Dead was better than all that. Way back in the day, I allowed “Truckin’” to be used in Canada for a week for a Dodge commercial, but I didn’t feel good about it, and I didn’t do it again.

What can audiences expect when they come see you on tour this fall?

They’re going to see a pretty excited guy. It’s getting closer to the time and I’m waking up nervous already. I’m looking forward to getting on the stage again, and this is a short tour to show me that I’m strong enough to do it. I think I am, but I’m not challenging myself with a huge tour at this point. And if I get through this standing on my head and wanting more, than I’ll book a longer tour for spring.

Click here for a bit more with Hunter from this conversation.