During the course of their lengthy career, the Grateful Dead incorporated the music of many other musicians into live performances. One of the artists they frequently covered was country music legend Merle Haggard who died earlier this week on his 79th birthday. The lone known Dead show to include three covers of Haggard-penned songs is the subject of this installment of Full Show Friday.
Recordings of the Dead covering Haggard’s 1968 single “Mama Tried” date back to 1969, and the group regularly continued to cover the song at various degrees of frequency through 1995 while amassing hundreds of live renditions. Another of Haggard’s popular compositions which he originally issued in 1968, “Sing Me Back Home” was covered by the Grateful Dead between 1971 and 1973 before being shelved for good.
This week, Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir spoke with journalists about Haggard during a conference call regarding his upcoming Dead & Company tour. Weir spoke about Haggard and other country musicians’ influence, reportedly stating:
I listened to a lot of country music when I was a kid. If there was a clunker song on the rock ’n’ roll station, oftentimes the country button was the first one I’d hit, because there wasn’t a huge difference — still isn’t for that matter — between the country presentation and the rock ’n’ roll presentation … I was listening to Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty for that matter, Johnny Cash.
When he came out with “Okie from Muskogee,” I had a pretty strong suspicion that he was laughing all the way to the bank. I had a pretty strong suspicion that he was smoking pot on the back of his tour bus and he came up with a character, and as a writer, as a storyteller — and a singer is storyteller, any artist is a storyteller, first and foremost — he is painting a picture of a character and it resonated with a lot of folks. But that was not a statement of who he was, and I did not suspect it was. And I read in later interviews with him that, like I said, they were laughing all the way to the bank with that one. As a writer you don’t know why this character presents himself to you and lets you color him in, and you don’t even ask why, you just go with it.
I was in my early 20s when the song came out, but I knew instinctively that was what he was doing, and so when I was listening to it on the radio, I was living with that character as he was letting the character express himself on the recording. I wasn’t being judgmental about why is he writing this kind of stuff. I don’t judge other writers by what they write about, what stories they choose to tell, because a writer often doesn’t have that choice. What comes IS what comes.
The lone show to feature both “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” as well as the band’s sole performance of Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” came during the middle show of a five-night stand at the Fillmore East in New York City in April 1971. The well-known April 27 show from that run featured a sit-in by The Beach Boys during which the stage was handed over for takes on “Good Vibrations” and “I Get Around,” as well as the two groups working together on “Searchin’,” “Riot In Ceil Block #9,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Johnny B. Goode” and Merle’s “Okie.” The first set that night saw Weir lead the Dead through “Mama Tried,” and immediately following the sit-in the band launched into the Jerry Garcia-sung “Sing Me Back Home.” A soundboard recording of the show (including a the New Riders Of The Purple Sage opening set) is presented below: