Keller Williams. Photo: Bob Adamek

Interview: The Dead Re-imagined Through Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass

There’s no rest for the weary—nor, for the supremely talented and creatively restless, in Keller Williams’ case. While in the midst of his own solo tour playing his own beloved songs, Williams will carve out time to perform beloved songs from another creative force, the Grateful Dead. Williams’ Grateful Grass project is a bit of an ad hoc endeavor, reworking tunes from the vast Dead catalog in a bluegrass style with a revolving cast of band members—a pick-up band of pickers. Grateful Grass trucks into New Orleans on Oct. 26, with a stop at the Joy Theater on Canal Street.

Williams’ idea for Grateful Grass started more than ten years ago at The Fillmore in Denver, with Jeff Austin, mandolinist for Yonder Mountain String Band, and Keith Moseley, bassist for String Cheese Incident. “We wanted to do something different with folks from that area,” Williams said. “I sent them my version of these tunes and we put it together that afternoon, and thus Grateful Grass was created.”

Grateful Grass has become more of a regular part of Williams’ variety of projects. On this October run, Austin will once again join the group, along with Danton Boller on bass, Jeff Austin on mandolin, and Jay Starling on dobro. Williams has interspersed Dead covers in his own sets for years, but a project dedicated to a total reinterpretation of the canon seemed like a natural next step.

“The Grateful Dead would take old folk songs and make them their own,” Williams said. “It seems logical to do the same thing with the Grateful Dead material. I think Jerry would dig this project.”

Grateful Grass has about 20 Dead tunes in its repertoire, no small feat considering there isn’t a set band. The setlists include a variety of Dead songs to suit most ‘heads: the familiar, the deep cuts, “and the jammers that could just go on forever,” Williams says.

Improvisation, of course, factors in significantly to a Grateful Grass set. Even though the band doesn’t consist of musicians who play together often or regularly, their knowledge of the material, skill sets, and the nature of the Dead’s music allows them to get into that headspace.

“The beautiful thing about Grateful Dead music is it lends itself to improvisation,” Williams explains. “For folks that don’t know, you can just say, ‘Let’s just open it up here and see what happens.’ And for folks that do understand it, there are no real words that need to be conveyed. It just happens, which is a beautiful thing.

“You try not to get to the point where you’re jamming so much, you forget what song you’re playing—which has happened. I’m sure it happened to the Grateful Dead, as well, and I’m sure it’s happened to the thousands of Deadheads at shows. But then, you start teasing the music to come back into it, and when it finally all comes together, even the folks who have never improvised are pretty elated.”

Taking a cue from the Dead, albeit a little bit further, audiences will also be treated to some creative reworkings of familiar Dead tunes that unexpectedly work well when played within and around each other. Whereas the Dead might segue from one tune into another and then back out to the initial song, Grateful Grass will do more of a mashup of songs.

“In the bluegrass world, they’re really not used to mashups,” Williams said. He offers an example: “I start out with the music to ‘They Love Each Other,’ but I come in with [the lyrics to] ‘Cumberland Blues.’ Then, when Cumberland Blues starts to get fast, I do a couple verses of ‘They Love Each Other’ and then it’ll end in a fit of ‘Cumberland Blues’ glory with a tag of ‘They Love Each’ other at the end.

It throws people off, but then of course, it’s all about entertaining myself, which is the most important thing in my career.”

Grateful Grass’ audience is a varied one, often bringing out older folks than may come out to a Keller Williams show. “A lot more older heads come out when there’s Grateful Dead involved in the advertising,” Williams jokes. “It’s a nice mix. It’s a really fun project.”

Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass will be joined by supporting acts Billy Iuso and Restless Natives at the Joy. Tickets range from $32.50-$49.50 and are available here.