Released: November 13, 2015
There is no question that bluegrass was a significant part of the Grateful Dead’s DNA, so doing bluegrass covers of a couple of songs that frequented the Dead’s repertoire makes great sense. However, the initial mistake that I made was to listen to Town Mountain’s versions side by side with the Dead versions. Where bluegrass is but a part of the Dead, it is Town Mountain’s bread and butter. Expecting that great magic of the full breadth American music as embodied by the Dead is setting the experience up for failure.
Town Mountain’s take on “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” lacks that darkness that the Dead can achieve through their genre-mixing tension, but instead is a bit earthier, allowing for more focus on Robert Hunter’s poetry and storytelling. “Big River,” a Johnny Cash tune that became a long-time Dead live fixture, is also stripped down to a single genre, resulting in a great version in its own right. Neither song becomes the definitive version, yet both find a life of their own that is worth hearing for Dead fans and bluegrass fans alike.
There is no question that Town Mountain’s musicianship is fantastic. More importantly, it is also clear that they love the Grateful Dead enough to do them homage on their 50th anniversary, not by trying to be them, but by succeeding in reworking their Dead favorites as their own.