In Memoriam: Robert Hunter (1941–2019)

September 24, 2019
In Memoriam: Robert Hunter (1941–2019)

photo by Jay Blakesberg

Robert Hunter, the iconic poet who penned some of the Grateful Dead’s most enduring lyrics, has died at the age of 78. Rolling Stone confirmed the news via a statement from Hunter’s family, though no cause of death was given.

“It is with great sadness we confirm our beloved Robert passed away yesterday night,” the statement reads. “He died peacefully at home in his bed, surrounded by love. His wife Maureen was by his side holding his hand. For his fans that have loved and supported him all these years, take comfort in knowing that his words are all around us, and in that way his is never truly gone. In this time of grief please celebrate him the way you all know how, by being together and listening to the music. Let there be songs to fill the air.”

Born in 1941 in California, Hunter formed an early relationship with Jerry Garcia before the Grateful Dead formed, collaborating even before the two musicians were a part of early-’60s bluegrass group Hart Valley Drifters (recordings of that band and other early Garcia/Hunter cuts were included in last year’s box-set compilation Before the Dead). Around the same time, Hunter took part in government-sponsored LSD tests at Stanford University, with cultural icon Ken Kesey.

Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter in the Hart Valley Drifters

For the Dead, Garcia and Hunter teamed up for many of the band’s most popular compositions, like “Uncle John’s Band,” “Touch of Grey,” “Casey Jones,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Truckin’,” “Franklin’s Tower,” “Eyes of the World,” “Sugaree” and “Scarlet Begonias,” among many others. Hunter also worked with Bob Dylan on multiple songs from the late-’80s onward and more recently has collaborated with songwriters like Bruce Hornsby, Steve Kimock, Jim Lauderdale and David Nelson.

Hunter received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, followed by an induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (with Garcia) in 2015.

In a 2013 conversation with Relix, Hunter reflected on his relative lack of visibility in the public-facing aspects of the Grateful Dead: “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.”

Robert Hunter on the March/April 1978 cover of Relix