There’s much to be said and many opinions about not only the music of The Grateful Dead, but also the cult-like following they’ve spawned in their 55-year history.
Regardless of opinions, one fact stands firm: the sense of community.
Fans of all ages and walks of life get together and bond over something that has profoundly changed their lives. Words and music that they hold dear, and a feeling of togetherness and belonging they quite possibly feel nowhere else.
With this community also comes the onslaught of cover bands: some copying the music note for note, others re-imagining the songs in a new light while holding true to the roots of the song. One such act that expresses the latter, and has developed a devout following for their unique approach and original sensibility, is Florida-based bluegrass outfit, The Grass Is Dead.
Founded by guitar and banjo maestro Billy Gilmore, the group has seen various lineups come and go over the years, with Billy being the primary pillar. They’re veterans of the festival scene and spend many days out of the year touring, bringing much joy to Dead Heads far and wide.
In seeing them perform this past weekend at The Basement here in Nashville, it’s no surprise they are one of the best to carry on the beloved tradition of live Grateful Dead music. Along with fellow band members David Freeman, (mandolin/vocals) Ed Richardson, (bass) and Brian Drysdale, (drums/percussion/vocals) accompanied with acclaimed Nashville fiddler Nate Leath, the guys delivered a special energy that some may say can only be found in Dead songs. The guys also often travel with 2014 Rockygrass Dobro Champion Jared Womack, who’s based out of Atlanta, and Asheville mandolin and guitar player Drew Matulich, who’s spent time touring with Billy Strings.
We had the chance to chat with Drysdale before the show to gain some insight on the band, and what it’s like to be a part of this special culture and community.
Music Mecca: Do you recall your introduction to The Grateful Dead, and did you realize then that the trajectory of your life had basically changed forever?
Brian Drysdale: Oh man. I remember my introduction to the Grateful Dead, and I was with my older sister in 1993 when we saw them in Charlotte. That would be the only time I saw them with Jerry. And I didn’t realize at the time that it would change the trajectory of my life, but they’ve always been a huge influence on me. Billy [Gilmore] has always been a bigger Dead Head I guess you could say than me- I actually only saw The Grateful Dead with Jerry once. Billy’s story is probably a lot more interesting than mine. (laughs) I can kind of share some stories I’ve heard him tell. So in Florida, there are a lot of bluegrass festivals, and Billy started playing banjo when he was like 10 years old. So guys like Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and all the greats of that genre influenced him, and then in his teenage years was when he got exposed to The Grateful Dead. That mixture of those two styles was a huge influence on him. Now let me see…
At this point Brian is looking for a note he has about Billy first listening to a Pickin’ on the Dead album.
BD: Okay here it is. So back in 1998, he [Billy] was listening to a Pickin’ on the Grateful Dead album, but there were no lyrics. So Billy thought to himself, “Hey I think it’d be really cool to try this, but put the voices in there.” Then he heard Tim O’ Brien’s album “Red on Blonde,” where Tim does bluegrass versions of Dylan tunes. So he said that really clicked, and in his mind, he could hear the slower Dead songs sped up in a bluegrass tempo and instrumentation. That really began The Grass is Dead as a project.
MM: How many live shows do you guys usually perform a year?
BD: It’s hard to say a specific number, because things kind of change. We all have schedules and things going on, but we did I think 150 shows back in 2016, which was one of the most we’ve done. But we usually go back and forth between like 100 and 140, maybe a little more or little less. It can get tough ya know- like I’ve got three kids. It’s tough to be away from home. Anybody who works and travels understands that it’s always a balancing act keeping everything going at home and making a living on the road.
MM: Do you guys ever sprinkle in original material at shows, or is it strictly Dead songs?
BD: Oh yeah, yeah. Billy has several originals, and we also do a lot of older roots tunes we’ll play that The Dead were probably influenced by. Talking about guys like Doc Watson and these older bluegrass artists and their tunes. We’ll bust out originals and we’re always working on new material too.
MM: Are there any Dead songs you consciously avoid playing, and are there any that you almost always play?
BD: I don’t know if there’s anything that we consciously avoid playing, but there’s probably stuff on our bucket list that we haven’t had a chance to tackle yet. There are a lot of tunes we want to do that we haven’t had a chance to do yet, because the volume of material is so vast of course. And we definitely have favorites that we love doing arrangement wise like, “Alabama Getaway” is one of my favorites. It translates to bluegrass so well, and that comes to mind as a favorite. And you know, we never run out of material to work with.
MM: Do you guys typically bust out the obvious classics like “Ripple” or “Touch of Gray” for the encores?
BD: So last night we did. We totally did. We had this really, really wonderful crowd, and of course the Grateful Dead family and community- it’s amazing how they respond to the music. So we did an encore for them and they wanted another one, so we said, “Why don’t we come down there and sing ‘Ripple’ with you guys.” So we unplugged everything, Billy grabbed his guitar, and went into the crowd and everyone sang with us. Those are the moments. The audience is such a big part of the show, and we had people crying and singing along with us, and it’s this emotional and cathartic feeling. It’s a beautiful thing to have an audience feel so connected to these tunes, and be a part of this journey with you.
MM: And where did you play last night?
BD: It’s this wonderful little town on the west coast of Florida, south of Tampa. It’s called St. James City on Pine Island. It’s almost like you’re in the Florida Keys.
MM: What would you say are the pros and cons of playing your own individual shows versus playing festivals like DelFest and Suwannee and that kind of thing?
BD: Oh man, yeah they’re so different. Festivals are incredible. They’re so awesome, and you have all the avid music lovers. The pros are that you have a collection of like-minded individuals right there together, which is great. I can’t really think of any cons other than getting really tired after working so hard, but that’s just part of it. The venues and stuff they’re great too, ya know? Festivals are such a wonderful experience because you get to experience music outside in typically beautiful settings. The tough thing about venues sometimes is just traveling through cities and the traffic. Fighting traffic up and down the coast is probably the toughest part, but that just goes with the territory.
MM: Do you have a favorite show or memory of a show involving any iteration of The Grateful Dead that immediately comes to mind?
BD: Oh man yeah- so I have this one memory that’s really great. I was at Bonnaroo the third year, and they were traveling as The Dead, and they had Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring sit in with them, and they played “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” That blew me away. Years later, a buddy of mine had a recording of the show and I got to hear it again. But that’s one of my favorite Pink Floyd tunes, and to have Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring do it with The Dead- are you freaking kidding me?! It just blew me away man. It was definitely one of those moments where I was just kind of above the world.
MM: What does The Grass is Dead have in store for 2020?
BD: I wish I could say I know all the plans, other than we are just trying to stay healthy and keep playing. We want to do this as often as we can. We just try to make sure plans align with everyone’s schedules and such. Keeping the van maintained, too, so we can get where we have to go. I think really we’re basically happy to just be able to play when we can. Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep playing. It’s a lot of miles you rack up. And we’ve got this Chevy 350 Express, this big white van we call Vanna White. So I try to keep Vanna White healthy, and my mechanic buddy keeps her going, too. And what really keeps us going is the fans. We’re just really *grateful* to have the opportunity to play for people that love hearing it.
Photos by Jenna Doolittle