Jackie Greene Restores Southern Harmony
Photo by Stuart Levine
Jackie Greene was already an accomplished solo artist when Phil Lesh asked him to join Phil & Friends in 2006. Since that time, the singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist has drifted toward the center of the Grateful Dead universe, and he currently is one of the few musicians involved in projects with both Lesh and Bob Weir. His solo work has also opened up sonically to reflect the conscious, psychedelic American visions so core to the Grateful Dead’s ethos. This year Greene added another feather to his cap when he joined The Black Crowes as their new touring guitarist. During the Crowes’ spring run, Greene spoke with us about his new gig, connection to the Grateful Dead family and upcoming solo plans.
Let’s start by talking about your next solo album. I know that a couple of months ago you posted something on your website that you were doing your last solo shows at Sweetwater but that you’re also working on your next studio project, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where that is in the process?
Sure, well I actually started recording it last summer – just at my home studio. We ended up going on the road for quite a bit and I didn’t get as much done on at as I would have liked.
The reality of it was that I wasn’t really totally pleased with the result that I was getting on the stuff, so I put it on the backburner for a bit and went on the road. And between that time and now, I got the call to join The Black Crowes, which I did, and now I don’t really anticipate coming back to working on that record probably until the end of this summer. Which means it’s probably not going to be available until next year at this point.
It’s just a matter of, like, you know, going out and working on the road and having to pay the bills and all that stuff.
In terms of the songs that are on this album, have you been playing those live or are you keeping it as a studio project for now?
Well, a couple of them—I’m trying to think of what’s new—it’s hard to keep balls straight. Yeah, definitely a couple of the songs that I was planning to put on the record we’ve played live, but there’s a great deal of them—at least over half of them—that I was anticipating on putting on the record that are brand new and no one’s ever heard. And that’s what I say now. I mean, there might be, you know, when I get down to recording, there might be half-a-dozen or a dozen new songs between now and then, as well. I always keep myself open to the idea that there might be more songs coming in. You know, some songs are written at the very last minute, right before recording. It’s hard to say.
My initial thought was that back last summer when I started recording, a couple of the songs weren’t songs that I’d take live. Or I’ve got a YouTube version or something like that. But they didn’t come out exactly the way I wanted them to. I got real anal about the whole thing, and you know, I’m not on a label – I’m not under any pressure to put a record out right away, so I’m gonna try to take my time and not force anything at this point.
I know for your past couple albums, you’ve worked with a range of different producers, some of whom have been your musical collaborators, and some are just veteran producers – are you planning to work with any name producers on this project or do it yourself with your own production team?
No, I think I’d like to work with a producer this time. I’m not really sure who, but I definitely think I want to try to get out of my own space to do it.
As you said, you have a lot of projects going on. The other thread that’s been going through your career in the last few years is your work with Phil Lesh and now Bob Weir. Can you talk a little about your relationship with them at this point? Phil was the first member of the Grateful Dead that you worked with on a regular basis, and now you’ve been touring with Bob Weir, as well. I was wondering if you could talk about the dynamic of playing with the two of them and how that’s influenced you as a songwriter and as a musician. I know you were somewhat familiar with The Dead’s canon when you joined Phil & Friends, but now I feel like you’ve been such a part of that family that I’m sure things have rubbed off on you, musically.
When I first started playing with Phil, I actually didn’t know many Grateful Dead songs at all. I knew maybe half a dozen of them? Like “Casey Jones” or “Friend of the Devil” – you know, stuff like that. But after playing with Phil for all those years, I learned so much music. And I mean not even just Grateful Dead music – just a lot of music that he played. It can’t help but make you a better musician. If you come out of that not being any better than you were, then there’s something really wrong. It’s almost impossible to play with those players at that level and not have it rub off. And me, I’m like a little sponge, so I’m always learning from everybody that I play with. And definitely song-wise – you know, it took me a couple years but I turned into a Dead Head. What gets me more than anything is the songs. That’s what sets the Dead apart from any other quote-unquote jamband to me: The Dead have fucking amazing songs. And those songs can be played by any band, anywhere, and they’re still great. And that’s just what gets me.
And Phil – Phil is, like, one of the most generous, loving…he’s just a wonderful dude. You can’t say enough good things about him. And Bob is the exact same way. Although they’re very different guys. You know what I mean? Bob kind of likes to watch football and hang out with the boys. But they’re both such great musicians. I just feel real lucky to even be involved in that scene – even on a small level – and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved on a big level for many years. So, it’s just a real blessing.
In terms of your own songwriting, not only has playing with members of The Dead taught you that canon of music, but it brought all this other great American music into your repertoire. Would you say that there are specific examples of your own solo material in the last few years that have been influenced by that time?
Yeah, definitely the very last record that I made, called Till the Light Comes – that was, I mean that came right after a heavy Phil and Friends – you know, several tours, so there’s a lot of things, musically, on that record that are seriously Grateful Dead-influenced. Sonically and lyrically. Just, you know, like, for example, there’s a song called “A Moment of Temporary Color.” In my mind, I was doing a nod to “Bird Song” because thematically, it was sort of the same. And I always loved “Bird Song.” You know, after learning it and playing, it was, like – ‘God I fucking love this song!
So you wrote your own tribute to it in a sense…
Yeah, I made my own. And there are a lot of songs on that record that have these codas, these alternate musical endings. I mean, that’s a thing I learned from playing with Phil: A lot of their songs have these drastically different parts. And that’s something that never really even occurred to me that it was okay. And it turns out that it is okay and, in fact, some people really like it. And me being one of those people…
The tension with that is that a lot of my core fans didn’t really get that. They didn’t see it. They thought it was weird or maybe it was a little too heavy. I don’t know. Some of them didn’t really like that record, I don’t think.