Hart Valley Drifters
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
There’s no doubt that the music on these reels — recorded in 1962 for a radio station and lost in a closet for 46 years until being unearthed in 2008 — would have ever been released if it wasn’t for the participation of a then 20 year old Jerry Garcia. Even with that, it has taken eight additional years for these tracks to see the light of day commercially. But between the recordings being the earliest known studio work of Garcia, and two other band members named Robert Hunter (bass- soon to become Garcia’s lyricist), and David Nelson (guitar-later of the New Riders of the Purple Sage), there was enough interest to make it an official album.
The songs are mostly bluegrass standards from the catalogs of Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and others played with youthful enthusiasm from the quintet. Garcia’s talent on banjo is displayed on “Roving Gambler,” “Think of What You’ve Done,” a caffeinated “Cripple Creek” and “Run Mountain,” among others. He also takes lead vocals on most selections and while his signature approach was a ways off, he acquits himself admirably. There’s plenty of energy on display and the audio has held up remarkably well, especially considering the primitive college studio conditions it was recorded under.
The group runs through 16 tunes in about 40 minutes and while there isn’t much that stands out as remarkable, the music shows obvious talent along with the member’s burgeoning gusto. A closing version of the blues classic “Sitting on Top of the World,” done in full-on folk mode, later turned up in a rollicking electric version on the Dead’s 1967 debut, shows how Garcia filtered his bluegrass roots into the bands more psychedelic and bluesy approach.
Nothing is embarrassing here, which says plenty for a collective of 20 year olds. Yet there is little you wouldn’t want to hear in better versions by those who made these songs famous. Still, the appropriately titled Folk Time (also the name of the radio show this was recorded for) fills a needed early historical gap in Garcia’s already bulging catalog; one that collectors and fans will enjoy exploring for more than historical perspective.