It’s fair to say that The Grateful Dead’s very own leader, the singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia, was a serious music fan. Garcia was a dedicated listener and lover of all the weird and wonderful music out there. The musician made his career by evolving and mutating his sound both on record and on stage, seemingly at the drop of a hat. The sonic structures Garcia created alongside his band isn’t only inspiring but absolutely captivating.
It’s a feat of musical engineering that would be impossible without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the airwaves, without knowing the pitfalls of pop and the rugged heights of rock ‘n’ roll. Garcia certainly had that.
Famed for his incredibly robust record stash—literally, thousands upon thousands of discs—the guitarist made it a habit to broaden his horizons whenever he could, consistently pushing himself to listen to old and new records and take from them the lessons that he could extract. From this extensive list, we’ve managed to narrow it down to ten of the guitarist’s favourite albums of all time, and it comes with a perfect playlist of those records.
We must mention, before we begin, that there is no way we could provide a definitive list of Garcia’s favourite albums. Like any real music fan, his choices likely changed from day to day, if not hour to hour. After all, when he was once asked what kind of music he listens to, the Dead guitarist simply said with a knowing smile that confirmed he was a muso just like us: “Everything. Anything. If it’s good, I’ll listen to it, or if it’s around, I’ll listen to it. I listen to anything that turns me on. Or that somebody turns me on to.”
For Garcia, it was far more about how the music was played rather than sticking to any genre or wheelhouse where he or any audience felt comfortable: “If it’s well-played music — I mean if you’re a musician, you know when somebody’s really playing and when they’re not really playing. If it’s well-played music, I like it.” It was a sentiment that would shape his career.
So here we’ve compiled a list of ten of his favourite records as part of a perfect playlist. The source of this list comes from those perfectly weird and wonderful diligent Deadheads namely a fan by the username of Light Into Ashes who composed a fascinating essay on the range of Garcia’s musical influences. It’s a serious piece of work that only a Deadhead could complete.
Noting, of course, Garcia’s three main influences growing up before rock and roll as bluegrass, jazz and folk music, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of mentions of musicians that inspired Garcia. But as we pick specifically albums that Garcia has mentioned as his favourite many of them miss out. That said, it doesn’t make for any less of an incredible record.
One such genre to define Garcia was folk music. As the sixties began to bubble away, the gravity of folk music caught the attention of the young and the restless. For Garcia, it was Joan Baez and her first record Folksingers ‘Round Harvard Square that really grabbed him: “When the whole folk-music thing started happening, I got caught up into that… When Joan Baez’s first record came out I heard it, and I heard her finger-picking the guitar,” he once said. “I’d never heard anything like it before, so I got into that.”
Another folkie wordsmith around at that time, Bob Dylan, was also of natural interest to Garcia. However, it wasn’t until he plugged in that the musician paid attention: “I never used to like Bob Dylan until he came out with electric music,” he once explained about the freewheelin’ troubadour. “And I’m not sure why I like that more. I sure liked it a lot more. Boy, when Bringing It All Back Home came out. Yeah, lovely. Very fine guitar player. [Bruce Langhorne] It just all of a sudden had something going for it.” The guitarist continued, “Beautiful mad stuff. And that turned us all on, we couldn’t believe it.”
A similar artist that Garcia had affection for was The Band. Though professing to like a lot of their work it was 1971’s Cahoots that really grabbed him: “I love ‘Life is a Carnival’ – that’s beautiful. Shit, that’s great. All the stuff in there, all those great parts. The Dylan song is great, too. I love that song.
“I’ll probably sing that with the barroom band. I like to do those kinda tunes.”
In the seventies, Garcia continued to connect with his contemporaries. As well as once proclaiming The Beach Boys divisive record Smiley Smile his favourite ever, he also had a lot of love for John Lennon. “I like Lennon’s new album, the solo album. [Plastic Ono Band],” said Garcia in 1971. “But you see, I’ve never met any of these guys, I don’t know them. I can only talk about their music, and I think Lennon’s music is really beautiful. I really like listening to it in spite of its hard thing.
“There’s a lot of beauty — incredible, delicate music.” Another seventies stalwart Garcia had affection for was Fleetwood Mac, and their self-titled record sent Garcia wild and prompted him and the rest of the Dead to hire Keith Olsen for their record Terrapin Station.
As the years went by and Garcia’s status began to rise from mercurial musical madman to the elder statesmen of music, his passion for new records began to dwindle. He stopped listening to new music and was more akin to revisiting his jazz records, though, in 1981, he did mention his love for Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Aside from that, Garcia had, seemingly, had his fill.
Below, we’ve put together ten of Jerry Garcia’s favourite albums into one perfect playlist and a reminder of the guitarist wide-ranging influences and the wide-ranging talent he drew from them.
Let us know in the comments if we missed any glaring records.
Jerry Garcia’s favourite albums:
- Folksingers ‘Round Harvard Square – Joan Baez
- Smiley Smile – The Beach Boys
- Anthology of Folk Music – Harry Smith
- Between the Buttons – The Rolling Stones
- Hoodoo Man Blues – Junior Wells
- Bringing It All Back Home – Bob Dylan
- Cahoots – The Band
- John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – John Lennon
- Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac
- The Wall – Pink Floyd