In Praise of the Grateful Dead for Trail Running

In Praise of the Grateful Dead for Trail Running

Don’t say it. I know you’re thinking it.  “What kind of hippie freak are you, Chris?”  Grateful Dead, really?  Hippie.  Seriously, folks, ignore the tie-dye bandanna for now and let me make a case for why you should listen to, or at least revisit, the Grateful Dead.

Most people, especially the current generations, or anyone born since the turn of the 21st century, probably don’t have an informed appreciation for the Grateful Dead.  People around my age might dismiss them as those acid, psychedelic musicians from the 60’s.  Those from more recent generations only know Shakedown Street or Touch of Grey.  Both of those are valid but not great representation of the grateful dead.

Yes, the Dead started as the house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Test in the late 60’s in the summers of love in San Francisco, but they evolved over the next 5 decades of continuous playing.  Many of my generation get stuck in the image of the Dead tripping out of their brains with a bunch of tie-dyed zombies on the magic bus. There is much more to the Dead than that origin story, as interesting as it is.

(By the way, if you are unaware of Ken Kesey you should look him up.  Fascinating guy.  He wrote One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was an accomplished wrestler in college, was one of the main characters in the Acid Test movement and drove that magic bus. 

The CIA invented LSD as a chemical weapon to sprinkle on the Soviet troops, because, obviously a bunch of tripping soldiers don’t make an effective fighting force.  The Acid Test guys got ahold of the recipe and for a few years before it was made illegal did some large scale experimentation on the edge of sanity. 

I would encourage you to read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Coolaid Acid Test for more information.

There are hyperlinks to everything in the last three paragraphs in this post on my website.)

But I digress.  My point is, yes, the Grateful Dead were born in, and maybe of, the Acid Test.  But to define them as this random, trippy, atonal acid band is doing them and yourself a disservice.

Likewise if you are of a younger generation you probably only know the later Dead from the late 70’s through the 80’s where they had their most commercially successful and only platinum selling albums.  Even though this was the Dead’s most commercially successful period most Dead fans don’t consider this their best material.  But, I guess, compared to the wasteland of disco and hair-metal bands, it stood out.

The good stuff.  The peaceful melodic stuff, midway between the discombobulated acid meanderings of the 60’s and the funky-pop stuff of the 80’s is their wonderful music of the 70’s.  This is where they really came into their art.

I had the experience of posting a version of Cumberland Blues on Facebook for a friend and the response was “THIS is Grateful Dead? What have I been missing?”  In the 2 studio albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty they pivot from acid folk rock directly into pure Americana.  There is nothing more American than these sets of songs.

I dare you to go spin up these two studio albums on YouTube right now and not love them.  I dare you.  They are the most beautiful and melodic riffs of pure Americana that you will ever find.  You will find yourself humming melodies from Dire Wolf or Ripple for the next few weeks.

And this is where I make my own artistic pivot and tell you why this is the perfect music for trail running.  This music is part of the landscape.  It meshes in and drips out of the dirt and grass and rocks and trees of America.  It is peaceful and meditative and has actual words that you can sing along to if you’re so disposed.

And it is extremely available.

In addition to 13 studio albums and 10 live albums there are over 100 other published collections of music available before you even get to the really good stuff.

The Grateful Dead played over 2500 shows around the world during the 5 decades of their run.  Since they were at the core anti-commercial hippies they didn’t control the distribution of their music.  It was their existential gift to the communal world.  They would let just about anyone record these concerts straight off the soundboard.

Because of this there is an abundance of high-quality concert recordings available.  Just floating around the internet like so many interesting ghosts.  This has created a cottage industry of amateur, independently produced Dead compilations.  Examples are Dick’s Picks or Dave’s Picks or 30 Days of Dead.  (Links in post) Bottom line, there are thousands of hours of high quality concert audio not only available but curated for your listening pleasure.

There is even at least one podcast that will curate and send a concert every couple weeks.  I subscribe to one called Rob Cork’s Personal Stash. You don’t have to work very hard to find more Grateful Dead audio than you could listen to in a lifetime.  Down load some and take it out on the trails with you.

My recommendation would be to look for concerts in the mid to late 70’s.  These will have lots of that good, solid Americana from when the Dead were at their peak.

Some are better than others.  You can’t be afraid to skip ahead or sample around.  Since the guys who curate these selections are tie-dyed-in-the-wool Dead Heads they can select some strange stuff.  Their favorite thing, apparently, is when the band goes off into a 20+-minute meandering rendition of Dark Star which is basically an improvisational jazz guitar solo.  Which is fine but can become a bit mind numbing.

But that concert experience of the Dead is also what makes them special.  When everything clicks it is a transcendent act of art.

The live recordings of the Grateful Dead from this time are special.  Their early improvisational music gave them the tools to explore around a song.  Their relentless touring crafted the band into a very tight performing group.  You can hear them sense each other and become one unit with the band and the music and the crowd combining into some special kind of musical animal.

That’s why I’m going to recommend that you rip a couple of Dead Concerts onto your listening device and immerse yourself into a trail run.  The experiential nature of a dead concert and the experiential nature of nature blend together quite nicely.

Here are some song recommendations for you to get started, in no particular order, off the top of my trail list:

  1. Cumberland Blues
  2. West Texas Cowboys
  3. Dire Wolf
  4. Franklins Tower
  5. Ripple
  6. Big River
  7. I Know You Rider
  8. Estimated Prophet
  9. Bertha
  10. Mexicali Blues


There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night

And if you go no one may follow

That path is for your steps alone

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