The beauty of the roots

By Sergio Ariza

American Beauty is the great album of the Grateful Dead, a perfect record on which can be found some of the best songs of their career such as Box Of Rain by Phil Lesh, Sugar Magnolia by Bob Weir, and three absolute classics by the main two composers in the band (Jerry Garcia putting the music and Robert Hunter the lyrics) such as Friend Of The Devil, Ripple and Candyman, plus the hymn that closes it, Truckin'.  

After the release of Live / Dead, García and the band, the main champions of West Coast psychedelic music, were interested in a return to roots - country and hillbilly music - touched, of course, by their instrumental expertise. By that time Garcia had started playing the pedal steel guitar and had proven to be a prodigy with it; without taking lessons, or reading any books, Garcia had simply grabbed a ZB and had begun to practice for hours with it. In a short time he was playing with his friend John Dawson in gambling dens and having such a good time that they decided to form a band, New Riders Of The Purple Sage. Following in the steps of Dylan and The Band, the icon of psychedelia returned to the roots and sought inspiration in the country and bluegrass of its beginnings. For this reason Garcia contacted Crosby, Stills & Nash to teach the Dead to sing in harmony and, in return, added his Pedal Steel on Teach Your Children.

In the moments in which country rock was being born, Jerry Garcia defined his sound with his Pedal Steel, as before his SG had done with psychedelia. The pair of records that came out of this era can beyond doubt be considered their best studio albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty.

The second, the one that concerns us here, is marginally the best of the pair. It begins with the emotional Box Of Rain, composed by Lesh and Hunter, and is the best contribution by the bass player to the band's repertoire. In an álbum in which Garcia’s acoustic, his Martin D-18, is prominent, the solo is played by David Nelson with his Telecaster providing a strong country flavor. Then comes Friend Of The Devil, another of the great moments of the band, and according to Hunter "the closest we've ever been to writing a classic." His lyrics about an outlaw pursued by the police and finally by the Devil is pure Dead, but the most remembered part remains the acoustic riff played by Garcia.

Then it is the turn of Bob Weir with one of his best songs, also with lyrics by Hunter, Sugar Magnolia; one of the songs most played live in their career. Weir's Gibson ES-335 is passed through a Leslie in one of the most upbeat numbers on the record. Candyman is gorgeous and Garcia's pedal steel is able to give you gooosebumps.

is the song that opens the second side and shows that, for a brief period, the most famous live band in the US found pure magic in the studio. This is one of the most beautiful and sad melodies ever created by Garcia and contains one of the lyrics of which Hunter is most proud. The album closes with Truckin ', composed by the four main members, García, Lesh, Weir and Hunter who hit the nail on the head with this description of life on the road that defined the band perfectly: "what a long, strange trip it's been." For this track Garcia returns to the SG and allows himself one of the few solos on the album.

And so it is that in this period the most famous ‘jam’ band in the US (even the Allman Brothers were influenced by them) found the most perfect songs of their career and decided to pay homage, in the simplest way possible; and achieved their best and most remembered album, although hardly the most representative.