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

When the Grateful Dead took time off from recording in 1974, lyricist Robert Hunter used the opportunity to release a solo album, Tales of The Great Rum Runners. Hunter sings, plays guitar and pipes, writing almost all of the material and acquitting himself with a vocal style that suggests a limited amalgam of Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Johnny Cash. Given that Dead fans had few expectations for Hunter beyond clever lyrics, his first solo album is better than expected. An eclectic, folksy collection of songs reminiscent of Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes, Tales of The Great Rum Runners manages to stand up on its own musical merits, and not merely as Dead-related minutiae. Sly, lively songs like “That Train” and “Arizona Lightning” invite comparison to Dylan’s Planet Waves; “Rum Runners” suggests what the Moodies might have sounded like with Johnny Cash. Throw in the popular “It Must Have Been The Roses” (since appropriated by the Dead in a dirge-like reading) and the legend-stoking “Boys In The Barroom,” and Hunter’s first album proves to be an interesting ride. The backing arrangements are sometimes spare, occasionally rich, relying on a bevy of Bay Area backing musicians and some help from his bandmates (Garcia, Hart, Donna and Keith Godchaux). Musically, Hunter leans on stock solutions like the obligatory bagpipe number (“Children’s Lament”) or the rollicking piano tune (“Mad”), but to his credit they never feel disingenuous. True, Hunter is at best a middling warbler, but I’ve heard a lot worse (and, frankly, expected it). If the lyrical imagery isn’t up to the level I imagined, the final product is respectable (which is itself remarkable). Tales of The Great Rum Runners may not rise to the level of the Dead, Dylan or The Band, but it’s in the same ballpark. Apparently, some minor differences exist between the original 1974 Round release and the 1990 Rykodisc reissue (e.g., “That Train” seems to run a little longer on the reissue).

Original LP Version
A1. Lady Simplicity (0:20)
A2. That Train (4:33)
A3. Dry Dusty Road (2:18)
A4. I Heard You Singing (Robert Hunter/David Frieberg) (3:36)
A5. Rum Runners (3:01)
A6. Children’s Lament (4:15)
A7. Maybe She’s A Bluebird (1:57)
B1. Boys In The Barroom (1:09)
B2. It Must have Been The Roses (3:30)
B3. Arizona Lightning (3:32)
B4. Standing At Your Door (4:31)
B5. Mad (4:12)
B6. Keys To The Rain (4:15)

All tracks written by Robert Hunter unless noted.

The Players
Robert Hunter (vocals, guitars & pipes), Mickey Hart (drums, changes) with Peter Albin (bass), Rodney Albin (a capella vocals, fiddle), Maureen Aylett (spoons), Christie Bourne (castanets), Buddy Cage (pedal steel), Maria Cippolina, T. Will Claire (a acapella vocals), Hadi El Sadoon (trumpet on B6), John Farey, Milt Farrow, David Freiberg (bass, changes), Snookey Flowers (saxophone), Bruce Gapinski, Jerry Garcia (solo guitar), Donna Jean Godchaux (lady), Keith Godchaux (keyboard), David Kessner, Barry Melton (solo guitar), Jamie Paris (harp on B5), Steven Schuster (saxophone), Ray Scott, Rick & Markee Shubb (banjo & mandolin), Jeff Slattery, Randall Smith, Bill Steele, Robbie Stokes (guitar on B5). Directed by Robert Hunter; engineered by Steve Brandon, Dan Healy, Bob Matthews; mix by Jerry Garcia; technical & production assistance by Mickey Hart and Barry Melton.

The Pictures
Art by Rick Griffin.

The Plastic
Released on elpee and 8-track in 1974 in the US (Round, RX/RXT-101). Re-issued on elpee and CD in 1989 in the UK (Grateful Dead, GDV/GDCD-4013). Re-released on edited CD and cassette on March 30, 1990 in the US (Rykodisc, RCD 10158/RACS 0158).

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