Category Archives: Robert Hunter

Robert Hunter Discography

Before the rise of the Dead, Hunter and Jerry Garcia played together in a band in the 60s. For the Dead’s third studio album, Aoxomoxoa, Hunter was tapped to provide the lyrics, and the rest is musical history. Hunter continued to collaborate as a songwriter with the Dead (primarily Garcia) for the rest of the way, and is rightly regarded as a member of the band. His lyrics, rich with epigrammatic wisdom, have few equals in the American songbook; a folksy Bob Dylan might be the closest comparison.

During the Dead’s mid 70s hiatus, Hunter released his first solo album, Tales of the Great Rum Runners. It featured members of the Dead, with Hunter playing guitar and singing in a serviceable voice that suggested a cross between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. He followed it up with Tiger Rose, again featuring members of the Dead. “It Must Have Been The Roses,” from his first album, has since become a staple in the Deadshow.

Hunter continued to release new albums throughout the 80s to a loyal cadre of fans, most of them Deadheads. In the late 80s, he collaborated with Bob Dylan on two songs for Down In The Groove. In 1994, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the other members of the Grateful Dead.

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Jerry Garcia (1972)

Kronomyth 1.0: AMERICAN BEAUTEROLL. If you enjoy the Garcia/Hunter compositions from this period, you’re in for a wheel treat. His first album (casually called The Wheel to distinguish it from his other eponymous album) features a handful of classic songs that have comfortably insinuated themselves into the Deadshow over the years: “Deal,” “Loser,” “Sugaree,” “To Lay Me Down,” “Bird Song.” Together with the complete contents of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, they rank with some of the best songs to come from the Dead. Despite its strong resemblance to the Dead, this is a true solo project: Garcia plays everything but drums (provided by the brilliant, underrated Billy Kreutzmann). The Wheel is also notable for the extended sound collage on side two, which suggests a psychedelic amalgam of The Beatles (“Revolution No. 9”), Hooteroll? and Pink Floyd. The brief instrumental, “An Odd Little Place,” is just a postlude to the previous song, while the mellow, tuneful title track showcases Jerry’s pedal steel to good effect. Fans of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (which I’m pretty sure is everyone) will find plenty of the same magic here. As songwriting partners, Garcia and Hunter had few peers. “Deal” and “Loser” use cards as a metaphor for life, “Bird Song” finds Hunter again beguiled by beauty, “To Lay Me Down” is a worthy candidate for the last-song-before-I-die list. Playing everything himself, Garcia doesn’t strike upon the same clever interplay as his bandmates (e.g., the bass guitar is pretty basic), but he does a remarkable job of approximating the feel of the Dead on his lonesome. In fact, The Wheel makes a compelling case that Garcia’s most sympathetic collaborator is himself.

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New Riders of the Purple Sage: The Adventures of Panama Red (1973)

Kronomyth 4.0: COLUMBIAN GOLD. The high point of the band’s fourth album is “Panama Red,” an open ode to that potent strain of pot written by Peter Rowan (of Old And In The Way) and sung by David Nelson. The rest of the record contains country songs and a few country-rock songs that invite comparison to the Grateful Dead (including “Kick In The Head,” which was written by Robert Hunter). Produced by Nashville veteran Norbert Putnam, The Adventures of Panama Red often feels like a country album on speed. Buddy Cage’s pedal steel flies by like a fleeting pleasure, and the band moves briskly from song to song; only one track (Rowan’s “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”) is longer than three minutes. John Dawson contributes just two tracks this time, both of them forgettable (he also sings lead on “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”). Dave Torbert writes three songs (one of them with Tim Hovey, a former child actor who would go on to become the road manager for the Grateful Dead in the late 70s), including the Weir/Barlow-soundalike “Thank The Day.” The album closes with an original from Spencer Dryden and David Nelson, “Cement, Clay And Glass,” which feels like something that didn’t make it out of Bob Dylan and The Band’s basement. Songs about marijuana and cocaine notwithstanding, The Adventures of Panama Red is their least psychedelic record to date. Putnam’s fast, sweet and shuffling pace is the antithesis of the eight-minute “Death And Destruction” or elegiac “Gypsy Cowboy.” The Riders get in, get out and get back in the saddle for the next song. Increasingly, the band’s future looks to be as cosmic country comedians with some amazing pedal steel playing thrown in plus the occasional cameo by the Grateful Dead family to keep Deadheads engaged. The disappearance of John Dawson as a songwriter and the imminent defection of Dave Torbert hardly boded well for that future, however, and listeners should proceed with caution from here on.

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Robert Hunter: Tales of the Great Rum Runners (1974)

Kronomyth 1.0: THE ADVENTURES OF PANAMA RUM. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter took advantage of the band’s mid-70s hiatus to launch his own solo career with the release of Tales of the Great Rum Runners. With a few of the Dead (Mickey Hart, Jerry Garcia, the Godchauxes) and some ancillary figures (Buddy Cage, David Freiberg) along for the ride, Hunter does a passable Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan impression for forty minutes while playing guitar and pipes in a style that leans decidedly more toward pirate than cowboy. Highlights include “It Must Have Been The Roses” (which the Dead quickly shanghaied in a dirge-like reading for their own shows) and the legend-stoking “Boys In The Barroom.” The remaining material is interesting, although not up to the standards of Hunter’s work with the Dead, let alone Dylan or Cash. Honestly, I expected better lyrics, worse singing and more songwriting support from outside collaborators, so Tales is both a surprise and a disappointment. It’s not an album you’ll play once and put away; you’ll come back periodically to hear songs like “That Train” and “Arizona Lightning” again. But there’s little on here that will get under your skin the way those Garcia/Hunter songs do. Despite the Dead connections, this sounds more like the New Sailors of the Purple Waves. Tales is interesting enough to warrant further discoveries in the fields of Hunter, since he’s built up the same cachet that makes me buy Bob Weir albums. In isn’t a lost Beauty, though, just a box of rain unlocked in the middle of a Dead dry spell.

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Jefferson Starship: Dragon Fly (1974)

Starlog 1.0: MEET THE JEFFERSONS. As the Airplane was winding down, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick went off to record solo albums that loosely collected a lot of the same players, so that you could reasonably argue their solo records were really just extensions of the Airplane’s journey. In 1974, the pair decided to create a new vehicle using the available Airplane parts–John Barbata, Papa John Creach, David Freiberg–and round it out with then 20-year-old guitarist Craig Chaquico and multi-instrumental Englishman Pete Sears, both of whom had appeared on Slick’s most recent solo album, the unfortunately titled Manhole. Co-credited to Kantner and Slick, Dragon Fly featured eight tracks of partly mystical and partly mainstream rock. The album went gold on the strength of songs like “Ride The Tiger” and “Caroline,” the latter featuring a briefly returning Marty Balin on vocals. A reader of Progrography once asked me if I thought Jefferson Starship was a progressive rock band, and I would nix the notion here. A lot of classic rock bands, many of them formed in the psychedelic ‘60s, were pushing artistic envelopes that sometimes got mailed to strange and exotic destinations: Santana, Grateful Dead, CSN, The Doors. San Francisco, nexus of the hippie stoner bands, nurtured an experimental environment where music was written to transcend the real. As Paul Kantner sings on the opening ride, “We got something to learn from the other side.” And while Dragon Fly does feature some musical flights of fancy (“Hyperdrive,” “Devils Den”), it’s felicity not alice aforethought. Put enough talented musicians together, some of whom have an artistic or mystical bent (Kantner, Slick), and you’re bound to detect the scent of prog in the air from time to time. But Jefferson Starship is just a part of the California Dream that embraced drugs, spirituality, youth, love and music. As with a lot of 70s rock bands (Santana, Eagles, Blue Oyster Cult), endless songwriting permutations exist, including collaborators outside the proper band (Robert Hunter, Tom Pacheco), which makes Dragon Fly a hard album to pin down stylistically. A magnum opus it isn’t, but so long as you don’t come after this expecting any Miracles, Dragon Fly is worth netting.

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Robert Hunter: Tiger Rose (1975)

If you’re only going to buy one Robert Hunter album, you’re looking at it. Hunter never seemed to get his sea legs on his first, and wisely chooses a Western setting for some of the best songs on his second album, including “Wild Bill” (a fine riding companion to “Panama Red”) and “Cruel White Water.” The lyrics are up to Hunter’s high standards this time, really some of the best stuff this side of Bob Dylan, and the arrangements from Jerry Garcia are lively and muscular. The album’s only weakness is Hunter’s voice, which remains a pale imitation of Dylan and Johnny Cash. (Tellingly, Hunter re-recorded the vocals for the 1988 re-release.) The presence of Dead and Starship members notwithstanding, Tiger Rose aligns more closely with the music of New Riders, whose David Torbert appears on a few tracks. It doesn’t appear that any of the songs from Tiger Rose slipped into the Deadshow, so if you’re looking for another “It Must Have Been The Roses,” you won’t find it here. That’s a shame, since the Dead could have done wonderful things with “Ariel” and I would have loved to hear Jerry Garcia sing “Wild Bill.” Although Hunter’s albums inhabit the same world as the Dead, they’re not imitative of the Dead. Hunter is more overtly influenced by Dylan (“Rose of Sharon,” “Dance A Hole”) and drawn to the traditional songs of sea and land, not psychedelia. He does branch into rock and roll on this album as well (“Over The Hills,” “Last Flash of Rock’N’Roll”), but doesn’t have the voice to support it. Look, neither did Ringo Starr, and some of those albums were a lot of fun. Tiger Rose is a lot of fun to listen to, and once you remember that Hunter is a writer not a singer, you’ll appreciate the effort and might actually find yourself enjoying this album from beginning to end.

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Robert Hunter: Jack O’ Roses (1980)

Kronomyth 3.0: THE LONE HUNTER. This is a true solo album: Robert Hunter singing and strumming on his lonesome in a London studio. Jack O’ Roses didn’t get a wide release and will cost you some coin today to acquire, which is a shame, since it’s an album that more people should hear. I’ll admit to being less than jazzed about the idea of Hunter without any help, but it turns out that he’s been honing his craft over the years. His vocals have rarely sounded so smooth (the Johnny Cash comparisons actually hold water this time) and he strums that guitar just fine. It’s interesting to hear Hunter’s interpretations of Dead classics such as “Box of Rain,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Reuben And Cérise,” but the real revelation occurs on the “Terrapin” suite. Here, Hunter has restored some lyrics that link it back to the “Lady of Carlisle” (via the Jack O’Roses) and presents the entire piece as a cleverly stitched story that bears a striking resemblance to Jethro Tull’s “Baker St. Muse” in spots. Truth be told, I expected this album to be a vanity project. Instead, it makes a compelling case for Robert Hunter as a solo artist; I’d pay to hear him after hearing this. Given simple adornment, the lyrics shine. More importantly, Hunter finally gets his say as to how these songs should be presented. It’s strange that Jack O’Roses hasn’t been re-issued on compact disc yet, especially in lieu of the endless archival releases that have been preserved in the digital domain. Once you’ve heard it, you won’t hear Hunter or these songs in the same light again.

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Robert Hunter: Amagamalin Street (1984)

“I do believe the album is a failure. I don’t think I interpreted some of the songs right. I think the songs are pretty good. My voice gives me a lot of trouble.” – Robert Hunter, in an interview from 1985.

Kronomyth 5.0: AMAGAMALIN MAN. Robert Hunter’s first album of new music in nearly a decade was a double-album song cycle about down-and-out losers living on the city streets. Inspired by a visit to NYC, Hunter’s story follows the intertwined lives of Chet, his friend Murphy and their (shared) girlfriends Roseanne and Maggie. Although the Dead/Dylan parallels hold, the album’s defeated characters and Hunter’s clever wordplay keep bringing me back to Lou Reed, an association I hadn’t made before. In some ways, this feels like a country-rock version of Reed’s New York, with the caveat that Reed could sing rings around Hunter. I’d have to agree with Hunter’s own harsh assessment of Amagamalin Street, since it does fail to capitalize on a great idea. Hunter tries to do too much on the opening “Roseanne,” singing the parts of both Chet and Roseanne in rapid-fire fashion, resulting in a sometimes confusing dialogue. The language is interesting, authentic, rich in nuance (when you stop to think about it), but about midway through I found myself wanting Hunter to both slow things down (so I could hear everything) and speed things up (because I was getting tired of the music). The second side continues the depressing tale of Chet’s manipulation of Roseanne, resulting in her descent into prostitution. The second side picks up the story of Chet, Maggie and Murphy. Chet is eventually dispensed with on “Rambling Ghost,” Maggie and Murphy escape on “Out of the City,” but Maggie dissappears on “Where Did You Go?” At the end of Amagamalin Street, Murphy connects with Roseanne, and a slightly brighter future for the surviving pair is implied. Yes, it’s as depressing as it sounds, the hopeful ending feels tacked on, and Hunter’s voice effectively undermines the first half of the story (he sings in a lower register for Murphy, with better results). That said, Amagamalin Street is appreciably ambitious, well played in places (the backing band does a solid job with Hunter’s sometimes spare melodies) and lyrically astute. I’d say it’s only a partial failure and a partial triumph, since completing something of this magnitude isn’t easy. Hunter’s fans presumably come to hear what the man has to say, not to hear him sing, and he says a mouthful here. At some point, it would be great to hear this staged with different singers and richer arrangements, since the idea and the lyrics merit the effort.

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Reason And Rhyme (2011)

Kronomyth x.x: THE HUNTER AND THE HAUNTED. I don’t give a hang for country/bluegrass music. It’s not meant as a judgment, but my musical experiences belong at the other spectrum: punk, classical, prog. The few country albums I have encountered exist at the crossroads of rock and country, through Dylan or the Dead or (I kid you not) Elvis Costello. So my opinion on the matter of Jim Lauderdale’s music has marginal value at best. I borrowed a copy of Reason and Rhyme solely for the Dead affiliation, expecting something along the lines of latter-day New Riders. It’s better than that. Lauderdale has a good voice, an ear for minor-key melodies and harmonies, a top-notch cast of players behind him and, of course, a wordsmith of no little weight on his side. Robert Hunter and Lauderdale have collaborated on a handful of albums over the years, with Reason and Rhyme falling somewhere in the middle in terms of time. Whether it’s the best of those pairings, I couldn’t say. I can tell you that it exceeded my expectations, although I expected more from Hunter and less from Lauderdale, so take that as you will. Highlights to my mind include “Jack Dempsey’s Crown,” “Cruel Wind and Rain,” “Don’t Tempt The Devil (With Your Love)” and “Janis Jones.” I don’t know enough about modern bluegrass music to tell you where this fits in the family of blue, whether it’s navy or teal, azure or indigo. I do know that it moves at a brisk pace, the picking and playing are superb, and I like Jim Lauderdale’s voice. Missing from this are the compelling narratives of Hunter; “Love’s Voice” is a missed opportunity, “Not Let You Go” has shadows that might have been more deeply explored, “Don’t Give A Hang” is as curmudgeonly as it is clever. In other words, if you’re coming here to explore the lyrical riches of Robert Hunter’s mind, they’ve been better mined elsewhere. If you are thinking of deeply exploring the New Riders or other avenues of the ancillary dead, however, I would suggest at least a brief stop in the dells of Lauderdale, with the caveat that you might be tempted to linger there longer than you expected.

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