Hell, I Just Hang on for Dear Life: Jackie Greene on music, spirit, kindness and Top Ramen
By Casey Lowdermilk
Rising star Jackie Greene was a real crowd-pleaser at “Sweet Music Everywhere,” the Rex Foundation’s 25th anniversary celebration in December. We sent Casey Lowdermilk to have a few words with the hardworking artist.
Blending authentic, unmistakably American simplicity, a traveler’s bluesy woes, and the voice and insights of a folk veteran, Jackie Greene forges his own musical path. Along the way, he’s gained some Deadhead fans — and the appreciation is mutual.
It all started in 2007 when Dead bassist Phil Lesh put Greene front and center in his lineup of “Friends,” supplying lead vocals and guitar for the group. Surprisingly, Greene had managed to grow up outside of Sacramento, California without becoming familiar with the Grateful Dead, but he quickly absorbed and mastered the daunting songbook. The occasional Jackie Greene original soon started finding its way its way into Phil’s sets.
In a recent post in his blog, Greene describes a moment of revelation on tour with Phil and Friends. A storm had come out of nowhere, drenching the band’s equipment, driving musicians from the stage and fans from the venue. “We didn’t know if we were going to go on that night,” he wrote. “It looked as if the crowd went home. I thought for sure they went home.”
Well, we ended up going on several hours later. And to my surprise, every single person came back and the venue was again filled. They had all been waiting around the corner or across the street. I was so amazed. It literally brought a tear to my eye. It was this moment when I realized how monumentally powerful music can be.
I mean, here’s a band (the grateful dead) who’s body of work is SO important, SO revered that fans are willing to wait for hours in the rain to go to the show!!! And there wasn’t any definitive call on weather or not there would be a show that night! They waited just for the CHANCE of a show….
…it was as if the storm NEVER happened.
…Honestly, I’ve never seen such dedication before in my life. Most bands are lucky if they have fans that will go to two shows a year. The deadheads are unprecedented in their passion and unmatched in their appreciation and kindness.
Halfway through the first tune, it all clicked: “The love you take is equal to the love you make”. Of COURSE we had to go on. How could I have doubted it? These fans have been coming to shows for decades. Probably not the first storm they waited through either!!
I know so many bands that would have said: “fuck it, lets call it. Crowd’s going home anyways”. And they would have been right. Their fans probably would have gone home. But not these fans. Not deadheads.
In addition to his own five solo albums. Jackie has released a playful side project with The Mother Hips’ Tim Bluhm called The Skinny Singers. After nearly two years on stage with Phil Lesh & Friends, Jackie admits he’s been heavily influenced by “the Grateful Dead school of morphing songs onstage.” As he prepares another solo studio album, it seems as though he is just beginning to dip into his well of songwriting creativity.
At the “Sweet Music Everywhere” concert, Jackie joined legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in a folksy cowboy duet, treating the audience to an opening set of acoustic gems. Shortly after the concert, he called Elliott a “pure American treasure.”
Rex Foundation: In a recent blogpost, you described a moment of revelation at a festival that “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” How has your experience with the Grateful Dead community over the recent years contributed to this revelation?
Jackie Greene: I have met some of the most wonderful music fans through my experience with Phil and Friends–music fans that care so deeply about their favorite band and go to extreme lengths to satisfy their obsession. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the most amazing thing. It’s a shining testament to the music of the Dead. Each night we play, I’m reminded of the power of these songs.
The band is fantastic and everybody brings a unique element to the music–Steve (Molitz) has a way of filling space with space; he can create a unique bed of texture that the rest of us lay on top of. (John) Molo is the King of the Beat. He’s like a wild animal that will lock into a groove, and can morph the whole song with such precision and elegance that you don’t even realize it until your feet and fingers are telling you so.
Larry (Campbell) may be God’s gift to the stringed instrument. He merges tradition with modern and always plays in a way all his own. He’s like a combination of Chet Atkins, BB King, and Sneaky Pete (Kleinow) with Spanish hair. Teresa (Williams) sings like an angel; that glorious voice from the room down the hall, it calls you and haunts you.
Barry (Sless) brings the “Dead” element back into play with his curious fingers. He knows the songs so well that he can transcend them. Phil (Lesh), of course, plays like nobody else in the world. It’s just Phil. He explores the far reaches of his instrument and always comes out on top. It’s remarkable.
And me? Hell, I just hang on for dear life.
Rex: Has the Grateful Dead songbook taught you anything, or influenced your own songwriting style?
Greene: Without a doubt. For a while I really tried to dissect some of the songs, but came to no rational conclusion on how or why they are so powerful. It’s like that with any type of music that moves you. Who knows why? I sure don’t.
I realized what’s important is the spirit in those songs. The spirit is what I try to capture–she is a fleeting ghost that slips through the crack in the doorway, but if you welcome her, she will lie down with you.
Rex: Do you feel that a particular song of yours captures the “fleeting ghost that slips through a crack in the doorway” — and if so, why is that particular song so effective?
Greene: Well, nobody has put it like that before, but I get the feeling I might have a couple that I feel that way about. Sometimes it depends more on the situation, really. The context in which the number is written or even performed is what can give it that special quality.
Rex: I saw that you’ll be working on a new album soon–what can we expect from that?
Greene: I have a bunch of songs I’ve been making demos for. Just trying to whittle it down to what I really think the album is. There is definitely a more curious element to the songwriting.
To some degree, I am influenced heavily by the Grateful Dead school of morphing songs onstage and have been trying to make that work in a studio album context. I feel like the idea of “songs with separate parts” is something that isn’t being done as often these days, and I want to try my hand at it. As far as what my next album will sound like–it’s too early to tell. I always liked that poem about the painter who didn’t know what he was painting until he was finished.
Which of course, raises the question: “How do you know when you are finished?” For some reason, you just do.
Rex: At the Rex Foundation Benefit in December, you collaborated with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. What was that experience like?
Greene: I’ve encountered Jack a few times. Each time is a little different. He’s at the stage where there really are no rules, musically. Us young’uns like to think we can do it, but he really does it. He lives it. Jack Elliot is a pure American treasure and has more stories than you could imagine. He’s like the used bookstore where you can spend hours flipping through the pages and end up missing dinner. He’s a riot!
Rex: Living or dead, what other “pure American treasures” would you like to work with?
Greene: Tom Waits is one of my heroes. He is the reason I wanted to write songs. Although I really would have liked to been able to witness firsthand the greatness of Leadbelly, Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, Rev. Gary Davis and the like. I seem to have a reoccurring dream where I’m watching Otis Redding sing on a small club stage. The Whisky or something.
Rex: Benefit concerts allow the Rex Foundation to donate to charities and causes that are making a positive impact in local communities. What causes or issues are important to you and your local community?
Greene: I always seem to be more interested in community issues, because I feel that the effects are immediate and there’s sort of an “instant gratification” factor of doing things locally. Which is not to say that I don’t care about larger national and international issues, but it just seems that starting small and going big is a more logical way to go. It’s like the announcement on the airplane when they say: “Place your mask over your nose and mouth before assisting others.”
OK–bad analogy, but you get the point.
As far as issues, I have a soft spot for helping runaways and families affected by disaster. I remember being deeply affected by the displaced families of Katrina. I ended up sending crates of food and water to the outposts and refugee facilities. They probably would have rather had money, but I didn’t know any better. I remember being broke and everyone thought I was buying drugs, but really I was buying Top Ramen. Lots of it. I mean, who doesn’t love noodles!?