By 1970, The Grateful Dead were beginning to eschew their prior association with the wild psychedelia of San Francisco. The group had moved out of Haight-Ashbury and into Marin and Novato. The group spent time at Mickey Hart’s ranch hanging out with the group Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Their 1970 release, Workingman’s Dead would echo these experiences. The group fully embraced a new sound blending Country, Folk, Bluegrass, and Rock influences. The band’s return to roots, in conjunction with Robert Hunter’s Americana lyricism, would build a record that would come to define the Grateful Dead sound.
Side One of the record kicks off with the highly recognizable tune, “Uncle John’s Band.” The acoustic twanging that builds into vocal harmony is such a surprise after listening to their prior record. In such a short time, since the previous album, this song is the perfect jumping-off point to show their new harmonizing chops. The vocals on this song are truly where it shines, being able to make out both Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in the back. The percussion, though muted, is rhythmically complex and moving. At this point, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart play together seamlessly.
The next track, “High Time,” once again shines with vocal harmonies that were clearly picked up from Crosby, Stills, and Nash. However, this track also includes beautifully soft pedal steel guitar. This subtle introduction to a new sound transitions perfectly into “Dire Wolf.” As with the other songs on the album, it echoes lyrics that invoke Western-Americana and is lyrically more accessible for listeners. The pedal steel-led melody has moments that sound exactly like Garcia’s playing on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Teach Your Children.” (Note: Though “Dire Wolf” did pre-date the CSNY tune, Garcia didn’t add the pedal steel guitar to the track until after he had already recorded his part in “Teach Your Children.”) Side one finishes on the country-rock track “New Speedway Boogie.” The Garcia-led vocals are twinged with Western-Americana lyrics, though the song serves as an ode to the tragic murder at Altamont music festival.
Side two kicks off with Phil Lesh’s clean bassline on the song, “Cumberland Blues.” The bluegrass inspired track sputters along, feeling like taking a train across the middle of America. Spitting lyrics that invoke the albums title, Weir and Garcia trade off singing about the life of the blue collar working man over the harmonies. Garcia’s subtle banjo never steals the show, but when it comes in after the guitar solo, it’s a welcomed sound into the greater Dead catalogue. The next track, “Black Peter,” is a somber acoustic folk song, with a subpar Garcia vocal performance that doesn’t really shine until the bridge when the organs come to the forefront and the rest of the group comes in at perfect harmony. Afterward, Pigpen expertly fades in with a run of lines on harmonica that add the perfect punctuation to the song. “Easy Wind” comes in as a refreshing transition to the end of the album. Pigpen’s gruff vocal performance is like a shot a whiskey after a long day’s work. It’s a great blues-rock track that is wonderfully unique in its instrumentation, breaking down into a harmonica and percussion lead melody. Garcia’s excellent soloing bursts through the track, as well as Weir’s perfect rhythm playing which only furthers Garcia’s sound. Fittingly, “Casey Jones” begins the end of the record with the sound of someone snorting a line of cocaine. It is one of the most recognizable tracks in the Grateful Dead discography and for good reason. The lyrics tell the story of Casey Jones, a railroad engineer high on cocaine. Ironically, the whole song is a warning about the dangers of getting too involved in coke which the group itself would not heed in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The song is perfect to sing along to, has a solo just long enough to rock out, not too long to get bored, and a melody that kicks into gear right when the song begins to feel repetitive. It all builds up to that penultimate lyric, “and you know that notion just crossed my mind,” which crescendos the record to end in perfect harmony.
Workingman’s Dead is an important album that does a great job of fully stripping off psychedelia and embracing Americana. Hunter’s lyricism became fully realized and his travels across America with the band are reflected in his writing. Whereas his lyrics used to feel complex and like poetry, they are now simpler and easier to sing along to, while still telling the stories and invoke the times that Hunter wishes to share. The musicianship across the board is impressive, with Garcia standing out on banjo and pedal steel guitar. The eight tracks are all near perfect and reflect well of a band that carved out their niche in popular music. The CSN-influenced focus on harmonies are impressive, however they still were in need of more practice, sounding rough at moments.
With all this, the Grateful Dead managed to release their best album to date in 1970. This record was the first to stand out and really show the world how great the Grateful Dead were as musicians, lyricists, and producers. However, this monumental release wouldn’t be the only one for the band in the year 1970.