and the Cowboy Life
Perhaps because he worked with so many people new to him – the producer, the lyricist, many of the players -- Bob Weir took Blue Mountain deep into his life. In form and sound, the title song seems as though he could have played it as a teenaged folkie at Palo Alto’s legendary folk club, the Tangent, just before he dropped out of high school to help start the Grateful Dead. No, he says, “It goes even further back than that. I think I heard (the song) for the first time when I was 15, in the bunkhouse at [his long-time writing partner John Barlow’s ranch] the Bar Cross. I’m not sure it rang a bell, but later, some folk singer came through the Tangent and I heard it again and that time it did ring a bell. I never did learn it, it’s an obscure tune, but it stuck with me all these years. I never could find the lyrics or anybody who knew it, although I could hear it in the back of my head for like five decades plus.
Finally, when we started doing this project, I realized that I’ve got to dig this tune up. I did a search and finally did, I finally found an old recording of it, I don’t remember by who. Then we punched it around a little bit – I changed a little of the music, and Ritter and I changed a little of the lyrical content, gave the story a slightly different drift, and it hung together. It helped us shape the whole concept of the record when we finally started nailing that one together. From there, the rest of the songs started to pop up and be there for us, because that song was the lynch pin.”
Bob Weir may have grown up on the Peninsula south of San Francisco, but horses and cowboys have been part of his life from early on. “When I was a little kid, maybe eight or nine, my folks would rent a cabin up in Squaw Valley. In the winter it was a ski resort, but in the summer it was a cattle ranch. I spent a lot of time as a kid hanging at the riding stable there. It was manned by these old cowpokes, and they kind of took a shine to me. There was this one guy, with a glass eye, named Bud, and he taught me how to cut cattle, all that stuff.”
Bright, but dyslexic, and more than a little stubborn, he had a fairly tumultuous school career. At the age of 15, he was sent to Fountain Valley in Colorado, a school that specialized in such students. There he partnered up with one John Perry Barlow, who’d turn out to be his lifelong friend. At the end of the year, the school decided that only one of them could stay, and that turned out to be Barlow. But before Weir returned to the Peninsula, he enjoyed a summer at Barlow’s home, the Bar Cross Ranch of Cora, Wyoming. He liked it, and he’d return many times over the years.
After Fountain Valley, he returned to the Palo Alto area south of San Francisco, and soon enough found himself in the low company of musicians like a ruffian named Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and a smiling hipster guitarist named Jerry Garcia. Soon they became the Grateful Dead. After a few years of psychedelia, they expanded their musical horizons, and Weir happily contributed such cowboy gems as “Me and My Uncle,” “El Paso,” and his own (with Barlow) “Mexicali Blues.” And from time to time, those around him would hear the remark, “God, I’d really love to do a cowboy album.”
Fast forward to 2012, when he staged a celebration of what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday, “Move Me Brightly,” at TRI, his studio in Marin County, which included members of the National, including Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, and Scott Devendorf. As the night passed, he began to notice – and be impressed by – the adroit way in which musical director Josh Kaufman kept things flowing. “There were a lot of musicians playing, and Josh was the guy who made sure that people weren’t overplaying. Some of those guys ended up on this record, because I enjoyed playing with them, because they listened to what the song was about and they played appropriately, rather than overplaying. I guess it was Josh who was talking with those guys. The notion of making a record with me doing these kinds of tunes came up and so he brought that to me, and I said let me sleep on it. Then it occurred to me that it sounded like too much fun to walk away from or hide under my pillow. Let’s do this, let’s get it done.”
Josh K. introduced him to Josh R., Josh Ritter, a singer-songwriter from Idaho who plays with Hilary Hahn and has had his song “Wings” recorded by Joan Baez. They began an intense if virtual email and telephone relationship, with Josh contributing the kernel and story of the songs, and Bob working hard to digest them sufficiently to sing them well. “There was one song that I took too far away from what he had originally intended and he couldn’t get with it, so that song never happened. There was a lot of back and forth.”
Bob reflected that he was anything but a session vocalist. “For instance, there’s a guitar I play pretty much on every cut. It’s an old Martin I got a number of years ago that seemed to be the right instrument for the first two songs that Josh and I were working on – I just had it in hand. It was a beat up old Martin, but it’s not real big. It’s what they’d call a saddle guitar. If you see Gene Autry riding a horse with a guitar, it was one of those, it’s a smaller one. He didn’t play a Dreadnought or something like that, because you can’t do that on a horse. It’s a cowboy guitar. It was one of my favorite guitars anyway, and I had it when we started writing and it became obvious that this is the instrument for this record. I played it on every track, and worked up the melodies and vocals with it…it was not like Sinatra walking into the studio. It fell together a lot more organically than anything than that.”
Speaking of Blue Mountain, Weir chuckled, “I’m not sure it’s what people were expecting, including me. I’m not sure what I had in mind walking into the project, but the project itself, as it unfolded, we hit – in the writing, in the composition of the music and lyrics – a stride that was kind of unexpected for me. When I was a little kid, I heard cowboy tunes. As I got older, there was Marty Robbins on the radio, the gunfighter ballads and all that, and I sort of imagined that was the direction it was going to go. But it didn’t. It was way more blue collar, way more down to earth. So that was a bit of a surprise to me.
Recently, my friend Wade Davis has been researching a book on the American West. He’s an anthropologist, he does his homework, and he pointed out to me that this whole business about the gunplay in the American West was a complete myth. Cowboys didn’t have guns – they didn’t need them, that wasn’t what the old West was about. The project took us in the right direction – we weren’t pressing an old myth that was played out, we were getting a little closer to the way it really was and is.”
Something About the Songs
In fact, instead of guns there are mostly cows, scenery, and a whole lot of lonesome. By the time you get to “Storm County,” there aren’t even people, just a pure landscape. “Scenery. The colors…there’s no place I know that looks much like that. I guess there are plenty of places on the earth that are big in their own regards, but not many quite so storied.”
The natural landscape is a prime focal point, of course – how could it be otherwise? Of course, it’s a little more complex than a simple landscape, as when a river and a woman seem to share identities in “Only a River.” “If you look at what a river does, it finds the lowest possible place and flows to that. It’s the most accepting of the natural phenomena. But at the same time, there’s tremendous energy occurring when a river is flowing. To the point that if you put a dam there you can convert the energy to electricity to run multiple cities. You don’t even see it, and you don’t even think about it, but it’s there in a river. I guess that a river is more or less an allusion to the feminine principle, but people think of the feminine principle as yielding and giving. They don’t realize the amount of energy and strength there is.”
Many of the songs – “Gallop on the Run,” “One More River to Cross” -- reference death, although not morbidly. Asked if it was on his mind, Weir replied, “No, but I’m getting older, so a lot of the stuff that I’m going to come up with is going to be generated by the fact that I’ve got a lot to look back on at this point. When I started writing I didn’t have all that much to look back on.”
“Dig a Hole” touches the subject in the most painful of ways, the death of a child, and Weir sings it as though one of his daughters had been lost, while retaining his lifelong stubborn, as he hopes that the child will “learn to laugh at hell.”
There’s plenty of lost love, not always sweet, as with “When the Dream Ends,” where he grouses, “I’m a little bit sad as I drift off to sleep/cause I know you’ll be here when my dream ends.” “Obviously, it’s a song about love gone south. Fairly tawdry. It’s just a little vignette, just one guy who popped up, basically, that character – He had a story that he wanted to get on the record, and there it is.”
“Ghost Towns” treats lost love with a bit more detachment. “I know what the ghost towns know: Love comes…and goes.” “I don’t know where that came from,” Weir said, “and I’m sure that Josh doesn’t know, but often times writers don’t know. I don’t know how that occurred to him, but it did. And it worked.” It’s a profound song about loss, and little is more lost than a ghost town. “If you’re trying to paint a picture of the American Western ethos, one of the colors on your palette has to be lonesome. And so we, in several of the songs, tried to define the different shades of lonesome that we were going to combine to overlay on this album -- there’s a healthy dose of the looking back aesthetic in that one.
Blue Mountain ends with one of the more remarkable Weir songs yet, “Ki-Yi Bossie.” It’s just Weir, and it’s heartfelt. “I don’t know exactly where that tune came from. I had originally conscripted young Lukas Nelson to come and help me and Barlow write a cowboy tune. And we went over to visit Barlow, but he wasn’t up to it, health-wise. I started hammering away and started playing the guitar, and it seemed like key of A, a slow shuffle. And then Lukas kicked in, and we batted back and forth a couple of musical ideas, worked out a very simple verse form. I tried to flesh it out with Barlow but it wasn’t working that day and I was always going to go back to him, and then the deadline came and I had to have a song.
So I just sat down and wrote a chorus and then started working on verses – I was still hoping to get Barlow involved and I was trying to write something that was going to be in his wheelhouse. The picture we painted, the little movie that we “filmed” for that song – it ends up, this guy’s out punching cows. How did he get there, who is he? All that kind of stuff, I had to fill it in. Lukas was back on tour and Barlow was laid up. So I had to just fill it in. I don’t know where it all came from, but I wanted it to start bleak, and then take the guy through a number of changes, and they all arrived pretty naturally. The character there emerged fairly quickly.
I had where he ended up – he’s on a cattle drive – and I wanted to start somewhere bleak, and then start changing colors, and the bleakest thing I could think of was a 12-step meeting in a church basement, and the rest of it just filled itself in very quickly. In a couple of hours I was done with the song. I’ve been there. A lot of people have been there. I’m not going to talk about it unless I at least think I know what I’m talking about.”
Love, loss, and the American West. Those cowboy songs can take you places.
For more information, please contact Nick Mallchok, Samantha Tillman or Carla Sacks at Sacks & Co., 212.741.1000.