In a recent article in The New Yorker, writer and cultural critic Adam Gopnik made an unlikely musical analogy. He compared songwriter Cole Porter with both Chuck Berry and the Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter, calling them “the three great lyricists of invented American speech.” He wrote: “Hunter, in songs like ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and ‘Friend of the Devil,’ invented a lost nineteenth-century world of runaway trains and pursuing sheriffs and brass bands playing by the riverside which somehow resonated as an available American reservoir of myth.”
Another song Gopnik could have cited there was “Ramble On Rose.” Written by Hunter and Jerry Garcia, it tells the story of Ramblin’ Rose, a free-spirit who appears regularly across multiple 20th century works, most notably Nat King Cole’s 1962 hit of the same name. Hunter places Rose squarely in the folk tradition, telling us that she is “just like” a number of individuals, both real and fictional, including: Jack the Ripper, Billy Sunday, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Wolfman Jack and Jack and Jill. “This song, if you put images with all of it, would look something like the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” wrote Dead historian David Dodd. The track never made it onto a Dead studio album; instead, it first appeared on the group’s classic live album Europe ‘72
Country music legend Wynonna Judd and her band the Big Noise released a cover of “Ramble On Rose” as their new single. From the opening note of her deep country drawl, this feels like something Wynonna was destined to record. When she hits the lines, “I’m going to sing you a hundred verses in ragtime,” you just want her to make good on that promise. Dead guitarist Bob Weir, who at age 72 shows no signs of slowing down, provides backing vocals and guitar. He gives the cover a decidedly Dead feel, while still planting it comfortably within the country/Americana space.
The two played the track, along with several others from Wynnona’s and the Dead’s catalog, during a recent live performance at The Fillmore in San Francisco. “We already look related,” Judd told the crowd. Let’s hope they make a habit out of this collaboration. Listen to both the studio and the live versions of the song below.
Click here to listen to many more Dead covers