5 Songs You Didn’t Know Jerry Garcia Wrote

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Jerry Garcia was a prolific songwriter whose output can be found all through the Grateful Dead’s catalog, as well as on solo albums and side projects. While he wasn’t one to write specifically for other artists, his songs were fodder for many excellent cover interpretations. In fact, if you’re not a big fan of the Dead, you might not even realize that some of the songs listed below were written by Garcia. Here are five occasions when talented artists found inspiration in the music of Jerry Garcia and then made his music their own.

1. “Mountains of the Moon” by Laura Veirs

This somewhat mysterious track first appeared on the Dead’s 1969 album Aoxomoxoa. It was written by Garcia, Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and lyricist Robert Hunter. The arrangement they constructed, complete with Tom Constanten’s harpsichord dominating the proceedings, is very much of that era, which is perhaps why this Dead song didn’t get played much live.

Laura Veirs decided to include it as the one cover song on her 2018 album, The Lookout. Fans of hers might not even realize it as a cover, so seamless is it with the rest of her folk-based material. She gets a boost on the song from Jim James of My Morning Jacket, who adds ethereal backing vocals to embellish the atmosphere. Hunter’s lyrics are exceedingly cryptic, but Veirs manages to humanize them and get the most out of the gentle melody. Garcia expressed fondness for this relatively lost track in interviews; we can only imagine he would have loved what Veirs did with it.

2. “Uncle John’s Band” by Jimmy Buffett

Perhaps even casual fans would recognize “Uncle John’s Band” as one of the Grateful Dead’s most iconic songs. It was as close the Dead ever came to a hit in their early days (No. 69 on Billboard‘s singles chart), and has since become a staple of classic rock formats. Included on their classic 1970 album Workingman’s Dead, the song, written by Garcia and Hunter, features the close harmony singing that the band perfected for that album and its follow-up that same year, the equally classic American Beauty.

[RELATED: The 20 Best Jerry Garcia Quotes]

We have to mention Buffett’s take of the song that appeared on the 1994 album Fruitcakes, though. While there are still some harmonies present, Buffett’s engaging personality takes over and makes the song more of a one-on-one message. The lyrics, with their homespun aphorisms and easy gentility, fit Buffett like a glove. It’s also fun to hear the Dead transported out to the islands.

3. “Ship of Fools” by Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello is known as one of rock’s greatest songwriters, which sometimes hides the fact that he’s also a standout interpreter of the material of others. (Check out albums like Almost Blue and Kojak Variety for evidence of this.) Part of what makes Costello so great with covers is his encyclopedic knowledge of his favorite artists, which results in surprising choices like “Ship of Fools,” the closing track from the somewhat unheralded ’74 Dead album From the Mars Hotel.

The original features one of the saddest melodies Garcia ever penned (Robert Hunter again wrote the lyrics). Costello gives it a tinge of anger on his take, which is found on the excellent 1990 compilation album Deadicated. It helps that he’s surrounded on the track by a who’s who of session legends, including Jerry Scheff, James Burton, Jim Keltner, Marc Ribot, and Larry Knechtel. Whereas the Dead’s original came off as a cautionary tale, Costello turns “Ship of Fools” into a kind of protest song, and makes a case that it was always meant to be that way.

4. “Stella Blue” by Wille Nelson

This track first appeared, in a studio version, on the 1973 album Wake of the Flood, which was noted for being a bit jazzier than previous Dead records. The melody penned by Garcia aches and longs in all the right places before eventually resolving itself into the sad mantra-like refrain. Hunter’s lyrics speak of either a woman or a guitar, we can’t be sure, but the subject seems to be the only thing that makes sense to the world-weary narrator.

Willie Nelson’s 2006 album, Songbird, featured a vibe not unlike Johnny Cash’s late-period albums with Rick Rubin, with Ryan Adams playing the producer role and helping Nelson pick just the right left-of-center cover material. Nelson slides into “Stella Blue” like a Stetson, even as Adams’ arrangement brings a little ruckus to add some punch. No matter what’s around him on a song, Nelson and his just-right phrasing all take center stage. He definitely finds the right notes of defeat and resilience in the melody and lyrics of this beauty.

5. “Tennessee Jed” by Levon Helm

There are strong ties between this song and Levon Helm’s original outfit, The Band. Lyrically, “Tennessee Jed” speaks of a character going through all kinds of travails, which is not unlike The Band’s classic “The Weight.” In addition, the narrator’s longing to get back home to familiar environs carries a whiff of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which was also covered by The Band (with a lead vocal by Helm).

“Tennessee Jed” first appeared on the Dead’s massive live album Europe ’72; it’s one of several Garcia/Hunter compositions that skipped the studio and went right to an in-concert version. That gave Levon a little more leeway when he finally got around to doing a cover version on his 2009 album, Electric Dirt. When you hear Helm sing it, it sounds like Hunter and Garcia wrote it specifically for him. Who else could embody a tale of finding salvation in a location somewhere down South in such authentically unforgettable fashion?

Photo by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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