Jerry Garcia was always way more than the Captain Trips of the music scene. Sure, his drug habits were legendary (and ultimately, lethal), but when he wasn’t bending his own reality with hallucinogens, he was bending ours with his music. Over 35 years, he wrote and recorded some of the most iconic and enduring songs of the 20h century. His work with the Grateful Dead needs no introduction (and if it does, go listen to American Beauty before you read another word). His solo output, on the other hand, might. Sometimes overlooked in favor of his collaborations with the Dead, his own recordings showcase his incredibly far-reaching musical ambitions. There’s rock and roll, country, bluegrass, folk, psychedelia, reggae… all of it extraordinary, and all of it underpinned by his rare ability to transform personal pain into something joyful. Here, we doff our hat to the master as we countdown the top 10 Jerry Garcia songs of all time.
# 10 – Comes a Time
From the end of 1974 to late 1975, the Grateful Dead took a well-earned break from their non-stop touring schedule. Rather than do the sensible thing and put his feet up for a while, Garcia hit the studio to record his third solo album. Like his previous non-Dead recordings, Reflections features a blend of cover tunes and originals, with Dead lyrist Robert Hunter drawn in to lend his talents to five of the eight tracks. The result is an easy-going, jazzy affair that barely puts a foot wrong. “Comes a Time” is one of the standouts. A beautiful, emotive ballad with some sublime finger-picking from Garcia and some equally sublime (although typically obtuse) lyrics from Hunter, it closes out the album in style.
# 9 – Might as Well
If “Comes a Time” is a stunning finish to Reflections, “Might as Well” is an equally sensational opening. The first track to Garcia’s third solo outing takes a nostalgic look back at the Dead’s time on the Festival Express Tour, that infamous rail trip that took some of the most prominent artists of the ’60s on a raucous, whisky-fueled journey across America. By 1976, the hippie dream had shriveled up and died, but Garcia breathes fresh life into its memory with this energetic romp.
# 8 – They Love Each Other
When it came time to record Reflections, Garcia had the chance to recruit some new faces. He didn’t, preferring to stick to what he knew by enlisting members of the Jerry Garcia Band for half the album, and the Dead for the rest. On “They Love Each Other,” the Dead are out in force, delivering one of the slickest, sweetest performances of their career to create a shimmering piece of pop gold. It may be gentler than the ballsy, bluesy numbers we were used to, but it’s none the worse for it.
# 7 – Loser
It was a Dead concert staple before Garcia cut “Loser” for his eponymous 1972 solo debut. Left to his own devices, Garcia transformed it into something far more melancholy than the band had ever managed on stage. A tale of a deadbeat gambler who’s just “10 gold dollars” away from desperation, it’s a vocal and musical triumph, with Garcia supplying all the instrumentation aside from percussion, which Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann ably supplies.
# 6 – Rubin and Cherise
Recorded for the 1978 album Cats Under the Stars, “Rubin and Cherise” took Hunter and Garcia three long years to write. Was it worth the effort? Hell yes. Inspired by the film ” Black Orpheus,” this bittersweet tale of a New Orleans love triangle ranks as one of the pair’s most poignant and affecting collaborations. Who else but Hunter would think of using a mandolin melody as a metaphor for a lover’s voice? And who else but Garcia could deliver it so flawlessly? A joy.
# 5 – Run For The Roses
The 1980s weren’t a good time for Jerry Garcia. His addictions had grown to epic proportions, leading to conflicts with the band and increasingly shambolic live performances. It didn’t stop him from making some incredible music, though. On the titular track to the 1982 album Run For the Roses, he proved he could still deliver a sweet melody when the occasion called. Hunter’s lyrics take a sideways blow at his bandmate’s woes (“Reach for the sun, catch hold of the moon/They’re both too heavy, but what can you do?”) but Garcia’s honeyed vocals and dreamy guitar transforms the pain into a thing of beauty.
# 4 – Deal
Hunter could never resist a tale about a no-good card play. Jerry Garcia, however, could, and he initially met “Deal” with some reluctance- although in fairness, it was very early in the morning when Hunter burst into his apartment with it and he was reading the paper at the time. After a lot of convincing, he agreed to put the paper down and add the melody. Lucky for us he did. Originally played as a straight-up boogie at the Dead’s live shows, Garcia beefed it up with a killer riff and a raspy vocal for his definitive 1972 solo version.
# 3 – Bird Song
Following the tragic death of Janis Joplin at the age of just 27 years old, Garcia and Hunter paid tribute to their friend with the magnificent “Bird Song.” A sumptuous, wonderfully tender number that drips with emotion without ever crossing the line into sentimentality, it’s one of the highlights of Garcia’s first solo album.
# 2 – The Wheel
Some songs take weeks, months, or even years to get right. Some take minutes. The deliciously hooky “The Wheel” is a prime example of the second kind. In the middle of recording his first solo album, Garcia started bashing away at the piano. Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann joined in, and they managed to concoct a rip-roaring piece of classic rock between them. Hunter later chimed in with some weird but beautiful lyrics about the circle of life. Garcia added some harmonies and guitar, and the result ended up becoming one of his signature tunes.
# 1- Sugaree
Finally, we come to “Sugaree,” the highlight of Garcia’s debut album and, all these years later, still his finest piece of work. On the surface, it’s a sunny ode to a dancing hippie chick. But this is a song written by Robert Hunter – surface readings don’t cut it. Dig beneath the laid-back, breezy chug and you’ll find a song dripping with menace. Richly textured, executed with precision, and accompanied by an astonishingly raw bassline from Phil Lesh, it’s Garcia’s magnum opus
Top 10 Jerry Garcia Songs List article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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Updated November 17, 2023