Donna Jean Finds Shelter With the Tricksters
By the time Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay joined the Grateful Dead, she had already solidified her place in music history. Growing up near the famous studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, she and her fellow singers in Southern Comfort provided background vocals on classic soul numbers for Atlantic Records and even contributed to hits by Elvis Presley.
Joining the Dead shortly after her husband, Keith, she provided background vocals to his keyboards during the group’s fertile creative period from 1972 to 1979. Both also played in the Jerry Garcia Band and released a duo album in 1974. A decision by the Godchauxs and the band led the couple to leave the Dead in 1979. Before they could give the world much more music, Keith died in an auto accident in July of 1980.
Understandably, Donna Jean disappeared from the music scene.
Of course, that’s far from the end of the story.
She raised Zion, the son she had with Keith. Remarried to Bay Area musician David MacKay (Tazmanian Devils), they had a son, Kinsman. Finally, inspiration hit her and she began writing material that would make up her first solo album, 1998’s Donna Jean. Touring and a 2003 Heart of Gold Band album followed.
Then, a series of guest appearances led her to meeting and performing with members of The Zen Tricksters at Rex Foundation benefit “Black Tie-Dye Ball” in New York. With the members of the Tricksters, she discovered a new group of musical brothers. With the addition of keyboardist Mookie Siegel and vocalist Wendy Lanter, the world was introduced to Kettle Joe & the Psychedelic Swamp Revue. That name was soon jettisoned in favor of Donna Jean & the Tricksters, as the band produced a self-titled album of original material, plus a chestnut from the Keith and Donna album. The release is one of 2008’s pleasant surprises an album that works from start to finish with songs that play to its members’ individual and collective strengths.
During the interview we catch up on her life past and present with her warm, giving, easy-to-laugh demeanor making it easy to discuss such matters as working with Elvis, fighting to be heard in the Grateful Dead and finding kindred musical spirits.
John Patrick Gatta: When I was thinking of you and your re-emergence in the late 90s, I came up with the word patience.’ It took nearly two decades before your first solo release. Do you see yourself as a patient person who waits until matters are just right or has it been timing?
Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay: That’s part of the progression here into my later years of my life. (laughs). I think it’s a little of both. Timing is very important because you want to be expressing something that is really coming out of your heart and your life. You can’t just call that up. It’s gotta be really there. At this time in my life — this is really strange but very true I am more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been before whereas in my younger I had all this opportunity, and thank God that I didI was trying to find out who I was, as a vocalist, and even as a solo vocalist. The cool thing is, I’m experienced in that. It’s kind of amazing. I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I know who I am. I know who I’m not. I’m not trying to be anything that I’m not. I’ve had success on a pretty large scale with the Grateful Dead, and so I’m not necessarily looking for that. I’m just looking to make the best music that I can and finish well.
JPG: Let’s go back to you coming back to the music scene. It’s understandable following your departure from the Grateful Dead that you needed to get your life together, and then the sudden loss of Keith. Was it a matter of not wanting to deal with the music business or just that the years happened to pass by quicker than expected?
DGM: I got remarried to David MacKay in 1981, and then we had Kinsman in 1982, and goodly amount of those years just being a mom and a wife again; kind of regrouping spirit, soul and body. Then, in the early 90s the bug started hitting me again and I began to get inspired and write. That’s how we came up with the Donna Jean album in 1998. And I was ready to reinvest at that time into music. Kinsman was old enough to where my attention was diverted. That helps! (laughs)
JPG: You’re already inspired and working towards putting out music, did your appearance at the Philharmonia in 1997 and how the audience embraced you give you that extra feeling that you were on the right path at the right time?
DGM: How would I not respond to that? The crowd reaction when Phil introduced me was phenomenal. I was already there anyway, wanting to complete whatever this life is for me musically and every other way. And, of course, that was a tremendous boost when the crowd responded that way. I was totally amazed. I was brought to tears by it.
So everything adds up to what you’re feeling and what you’re inspired to do when it comes to what happens in your daily life, what happens in your professional life. I have to say that I was very, very inspired by that.
JPG: Did it make you feel good at that time, and at this time, that you were doing things on your terms?
DGM: I can’t say exactly that things were never on my terms. Like I said, I was trying to find out who I was as a soloist, [background] vocalist, songwriter and all that and sometimes you get people like me who are late bloomers.
I loved everything I did with the Grateful Dead . I would not trade one minute of being in that band at that time and that audience. That’s a pretty incredible time. I can’t complain about anything.
JPG: I can see where you call yourself a “late bloomer,” but for someone who was singing at Muscle Shoals when she was a teenager, I don’t know how much of a late bloomer you were…
DGM: (laughs) Well, I knew what I wanted to do. That’s the part that I really, really knew. Of course, I was doing all this background work with all these artists. That’s one thing. But, finding who you are as a solo vocalist is another thing.
JPG: You knew when a song charted, but did you even have a clue back then that you were making history?
DGM: I think eventually we figured out that we were making history. What we intended and set out to do was make music and that was first and foremost. And this area started springing up as a music capital in the world in Billboard magazine, like New York, Nashville, Memphisyou have all these areas that Billboard would call a “music capital” and Muscle Shoals was on that map. This little podunk northwest Alabama area here. It was amazing.
I remember Percy Sledge was in the hospital when the song, “When a Man Loves A Woman” became number one, and my friend Jeannie and I got to take the Billboard magazine in to Percy and say, Look! It’s gone to number one! It’s number one!’
So there’s a lot of history, and you say, Do you know that you’re making history?’ I think most of the time you don’t. If you feel that you are or you have that mindset something’s wrong. There’s a reality factor that’s kind of askew to me. It’s not wrong or weird to know when you got something good going on and you’re excited about it. And we were just all blown away here during that period that so many wonderful things were happening right in our background, literally.
JPG: You sang on the Elvis Presley hits “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto.” Did you actually work with Elvis or just the production team?
DGM: The session had already been recorded and we came in. Elvis was there and put the background parts on it. He had heard the demo of “Suspicious Minds” that our background group had done and said that, I want that song and I want those girls.’ That’s a long story made short. It was wonderful! He was such a gentleman. He looked fantastic! OH MY GOD! I can’t even tell you. He’s the most gorgeous human being I’ve ever seen in my life. And that was 1969, his comeback year. So, he was in fine form in every way. He was so nice to us and so considerate and positive. It was great working with Elvis Presley.
JPG: That’s nice to hear. Usually when people talk about him, I always wonderbecause it’s a sad story of how he was pulled and pushed and tugged by others in a way that just ate him up.
JPG: Can’t help but wonder if his manager Colonel Tom Parker passed away in 1970 rather than years later if Elvis would have stayed around a little longer in that positive frame of mind
DGM: I know that Elvis was miserable with what they were choosing for him in his career and I think that was part of his problem all the way around, that he was manipulated and cajoled into doing things that he didn’t want to do and weren’t bringing forth expression that he saw for himself. I think that was part of his whole drug problem and everything.
JPG: Do you think that transfers in some way to Jerry doing tours or other things that he didn’t want to do or feeling responsible for things?
DGM: I think he did feel responsible for the whole thing and he wasn’t the kind who wanted to be the leader. He just was, but he didn’t want to be it. I don’t think he appreciated a leadership’ role the way people attributed it to him. I don’t want to talk too much about that. Express my feelings about what he would have thought
JPG: We’ve brought up the different periods of your musical life, but I’ve always wondered about this. When I reviewed the first release of the “Pure Jerry” series, and you and Keith were in that bandalthough I have a number of Dead live shows, that release really allowed me to hear the purity in your voice. Is that just my problem or was it because that band was so much smaller that you didn’t have to try harder to be heard over two drum kits and two guitarists?
DGM: Oh my dear, that was definitely in the mix. (laughs) Singing with the Grateful Dead, you’re singing in front of one of the loudest sound systems in the world. Some of that was the Wall of Sound. And you have all of that music coming in back of you and towards you. Then, the vocalists up front were relegated to these little itty-bitty monitors. The competition for the audio space, how much you can even hear, was tremendous. It was a struggle. And being a studio singer where you have the perfect world, you have everything the way that you can hear it. It was a struggle for me. And I can understand why people have issues withI have issues with me and what I did back in those days. (laughs)
Singing in the studio was my home, so that never bothered me but transferring to a live space and, especially, that big of a space to that many people and the whole transitional thing. I had never sung live before. It was all studio work. I was in a lot of transition when I joined the band with how to relate to how I was musically. To be honest with you right now, I wouldn’t change one second with the Grateful Dead. I’m so fortunate. I’m humbled by the fact that I got to do that, and as well I’m very excited and thrilled with what we came up with on this new CD and how our live show represents what we’re doing now as far as new material and some of the choice Grateful Dead songs that are very dear to our hearts. So, we incorporate a little of everything into our live show.
JPG: I read that in life you seek something that’s spiritual, something that’s life change. And that when you first heard the Grateful Dead you didn’t care too much for it, but when you saw your first show you had that spiritual experience from it. Do you get that same sense with the members of the Tricksters or what do you get from it?
DGM: I can’t equate those experiences because I was not, obviously, in the same place. But, absolutely, when I heard the Grateful Dead, it, absolutely, turned my head around, both musically andI have to say, here in Muscle Shoals I was working with [producers] Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd and everything is very orchestrated and arranged. Then, I got to California, when I finally did go to a Grateful Dead concert it just turned me upside down and every which wayand I said, When I sing again, it’s going to be with that band.’
JPG: and as the story goes you just went for it (She introduced herself and Keith to Jerry Garcia during a solo gig at Keystone and told him that they should be the newest members of the band. A rehearsal proved her to be correct.)
DMG: I just knew. I knew that I knew that I knew what was up. With Keith he was playing Bach and Beethoven when he was six and seven years old. He grew up as a classical musician, and then by the time he was 12 or 13 he was playing in jazz clubs. I knew that Keith had the goods. It was not just somebody arbitrarily, just crazily, going up to Garcia and saying, This is your next piano player.’ I had been in the music business all my life and I knew Keith’s playing, and I knew he had the goods.
When I talked to Jerry that night it was with a lot of confidence. Here’s the goods. The amazing thing was Keith and I had no idea that they were looking for a piano player. We had no idea that Pigpen was sick. It was all very cosmic in a way, and yet it really showed what kind of sensitive guy Garcia in that when I grabbed him that night by his little shirt sleeve and said, My husband and I have something to talk to you about,’ he was very sensitive to picking up on it. So, it was not just me being bold, it was him being very sensitive, which he always was.
JPG: In a similar manner of sensing something with another musician, what did you see in the Zen Tricksters that attracted you to want to work with them?
DGM: That we were likeminded and what we appreciated musically. We had some roots that were very similar. Obviously, they were steeped in the Grateful Dead but what really attracted me to them is after I got to play with them after a couple of rehearsals was that they had a really wide range of what they could do musically. I have both arms of my musical personality intact, with the Muscle Shoals deep pocket groove, I grew up with that. Later on in my musical life there was the Grateful Dead. So both of those musical philosophies are very very operative in me, musically. And the Zen Tricksters could do it. They could play anything. And I believe that because they’ve listened to so much music they didn’t just listen to the Grateful Dead and appreciate so much music that it really works out beautifully in this band for me because I have both arms of who I am musically in this band, and they don’t have to work at it, they just do it. And that’s why I was so impressed with them.
JPG: I noticed that when you first got together it was under the name of Kettle Joe Psychedelic Swamp Revue. Who came up with that, and who had the smarts to drop that in favor of Donna Jean & the Tricksters?
DGM: YeahI wrote the song called “Me and Kettle Joe,” which is on the CD, and Jeff Matson, who’s the lead guitar player, he was just kidding around, I think, we decided that we were going to join forces. So we were trying to come up with a name. As kind of a joke Jeff said, What about Kettle Joe Psychedelic Swamp Revue?’ Probably much to my weirdness (slight laugh) I didn’t want the band to have my name in it. So I said, Okay, let’s go with that! That’s fun.’ By the time we got out on the road and we were seeing what people were putting up on billboards and in print, we just went, This is never gonna to work.’ And it finally hit home, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, we were playing in Virginia Beach, I think, and we drove up to the venue and the marquee said, Kettle Joe featuring Psychedelic Swamp Revue.’ And I said, That’s it. I’m done. We’ve got to come up with something that people are gonna to relate to and they’re not gonna be going, “Who in the world is that?” So, we finally just settled with something very obvious, which is Donna Jean & the Tricksters, which I really love.
JPG: How did Mookie and Wendy get involved?
DGM: Now, Mookie is not a member of the Zen Tricksters. So, we recruited Mookie when this project became a reality and we realized that this was something that we were gonna put our energy and our life and heart into. He’s a great player with great credentials.
The cool thing for me was when I hooked up with the Zen Tricksters at the Rex Foundation Benefit we were trading songs to learn for the event. And we were learning each other’s material. When I write songs and I demo them I always put a high harmony part on there. Then I would always feel like we came up short because I could never hear that girl high harmony live or with any band that I was in. So I said, Let’s get Wendy in here.’ She just does beautifully.
JPG: Did Wendy rehearse with you at that time or?
DGM: She has been a friend and sung with the Zen Tricksters on and off for years and years.
And the other thing, which I neglected to mention, is that we are all best friends. It’s a real band of brothers and sisters. It really is. I just have the highest regard for them, personally and musically. At this time in my life I’ve got to have it.JPG: The songs on the album, they’re all originals. Have they been around for awhile or did they come about after you decided to work together?
DGM: I had written “Me and Kettle Joe” and “All I Gotta Say” a few months before I met the Zen Tricksters, and had been singing Will McFarlane’s song “No Better Way.” The other members of the band had written songs. Then, the cool thing was that Jeff Mattson and I wrote two songs that are on the CD together. It was not just us bringing our songs together but starting to collaborate as a band in the songwriting department. So, that has begun. Jeff and I have two songs on the CD. I’m working on one now, another Jeff and Donna song and a Dave Diamond and Donna Jean song. We’re already working on the future. But that’s really cool when you can collaborate because nobody has all of the picture. When you can release something of your creative impetus to somebody else that has the impetus it doubles your pleasure.
JPG: What about “Farewell Jack?”
DGM: Now, “Farewell Jack” was written on the original Keith and Donna album in 1974. Keith Godchaux and BRYAN Godchaux wrote that song and Mookie sings it on the new CD.
JPG: Who brought that song into the proceedings?
DGM: Well, Mookie really liked the song and Jeff has loved it for ages and ages. I can’t remember exactly who brought it up but because it’s such a lilting piano song it, obviously, fell to Mookie. Keith sang it in the Heart of Gold Band. That came quite easily and naturally that Mookie would just sing that song. I always loved that song and it just never came to the forefront until when we made this record then all of a sudden it just jumped there and presented itself.
JPG: One of the collaborations you have with Jeff is the song “Shelter.” I’m looking at the lyrics and what catches me are the final lines, after a number verses of dark happenings in the world, giving this a positive message.
DGM: It’s that quandary of looking at the reality of what is going on in this world and how you’re going to relate to it. You can either just get depressed or you can be optimistic and do your best to make this world a better place and be a bright spot on the planet. I think that’s a place that we all have to come to as human beings.
JPG: I was going to say now I guess I can guess which side you’ve chosen. (slight laugh) if you will.
DGM: I don’t like to be depressed, so I’d rather be optimistic. Much more fun. (slight laugh)
JPG: The guitar part on “Weight of the World” reminds me of Zion’s playing in BoomBox.
DGM: “Weight of the World” has a very ethnic feel to it. It’s kind of a worldbeat thing. Boombox does that as well. Always been very beat oriented. I love that song. Dave Diamond is a really great songwriter. There was no lack of material in recording the record. In fact, we had to cut so many of the songs because we have seven lead singers. We have seven songwriters. And there’s only so much that can go onto a CD. So, we are rich with everything we can do, vocally, and the range that we have and the writing styles, and how everybody comes forth with their own inspiration.
JPG: Then there’s “Me and Kettle Joe,” where it seems as if the reigns are taken off the musicians and it spreads out to 13 minutes.
DGM: That’s the whole point. It gets a little crazy, but it’s alright.
JPG: The sound of the band. You mentioned that you’re from two musical worlds and the Tricksters are from many worlds. Still, there’s a very Southern feel to it. Little Feat comes to mind. Was the sound of the band even remotely discussed or did it just come together?
DGM: Well I guess you’d have to blame that on me. (laughs). Even with the song “Me and Kettle Joe ,” you could almost say because of some of the vocal things that it’s kind of country, but it’s really not. It’s a real enigmatic song. And I wrote it that way on purpose. That’s for everybody to figure out.
JPG: As far as figuring things out, the artwork on the album
DGM: It’s beautiful isn’t it?
JPG: ...Southwestern Native American type of art work. Is there an explanation to its meaning?
DGM: All of the symbols that are on there are Native American inspired. They’re spiritual emblems. For instance, the coyote that’s on the front is the emblem for the Trickster. So you kind of go down the line and everything you see there is representing something that’s not just off the wall. Gary Houston is just a great artist. He’s done a lot of album covers.
JPG: Both of your sons Zion and Kinsman are musicians. Is that something you felt great about or were you a little cautious about the idea?
DGM: Hmm.Well, with Zion, who just turned 34, I was pregnant with him and singing in the loudest rock and roll band in the world for 8 months of his gestation. There’s no way that having music go through his bones as he’s developing inside me, that he is going to escape that music and it didn’t, not for one second. The kid is so musical. He plays every instrument. There’s no way that Zion wasn’t going to be a musician and that he wasn’t going to end up doing this as a vocation. No way. There was no other alternative.
Then Kinsman, my youngest, of course, is by my husband David. With him, I didn’t know that he was gong to be a musician. I didn’t know like I knew with Zion. We were in a total different space when he was being raised than Zion’s formative years. He turned out to be a fabulous singer, songwriter ,engineer, producer, guitar player, bass player. Both of my children are really amazing musicians and I’m very proud of them and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
JPG: Back to the Tricksters, I see that you’re going to be touring in the next couple of months.
DGM: Right. We have a pretty heavy schedule, once February hits the map. Going to be doing a lot of touring. Got a record coming out. We want to be responsible and everything we can to let as many people as hear this music that we’re so proud of.
JPG: There’s also an openness, where if there’s a break in the schedule, the Zen Tricksters can tour without you plus you have some other projects you can do when there’s an opportunity.
DGM: Obviously, Donna Jean & the Tricksters are gonna be a real priority coming up, but as well I sing in the band Zero with Steve Kimock and Gregg Anton, Martine Fierro, you know, all these guys I’ve known for 100 years. And I love singing with them as well. I’ve sung with Steve Kimock and Friends, different from Zero with Jeff Sipe and George Porter Jr. Nice line up! So, Donna Jean & the Tricksters is my first priority right now, but every chance I get, every time it comes up that I can play with those guys I want to because I love it so much. Sometimes I sing with the New Riders of the Purple Sage at different special events and sometimes I sing with the Dark Star Orchestra at special events.
I have my family out there. My life is full, put it that way. Then, I sing on both of my sons’ records and my husband, David plays in two bands. One is called Fiddleworms. One is called ScAtFiSh, which is a jazz band. I just did two days in the studio with the Fiddleworms. My life is full.