ElvisCostello.com, September 27, 2019

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The words and worlds created by
the verses of Robert Hunter

Elvis Costello

The words and worlds created by the verses of Robert Hunter were like a map to America in my imagination, long before I had visited the country. At that time, America was just a place assembled in my mind by cowboy films, detective fiction and in the leaves of the American songbook, whether by Hank Williams, Howlin' Wolf or Hoagy Carmichael.

While I loved "St. Stephen" and Robert Hunter's lyrics for some of the Grateful Dead's furthest ventures, I was most enthralled by the period of songwriting from Workingman's Dead to From The Mars Hotel and most especially, the incredible songs on the live triple album, Europe '72, some of which I witnessed firsthand and which were never captured within the walls of a studio.

Most of these wonderful lyrics were set to music by Jerry Garcia; tragic beauties like "China Doll" and "Stella Blue," tall tales and documents such as "Dire Wolf" and "Cumberland Blues," although it is impossible to overlook both the words and melody of "Box Of Rain," the song Hunter wrote with Phil Lesh for the album, American Beauty.

The lyrics were often in the voice of the wise or fated narrator, traveling paths in an uncertain time, whether through history, myth and strange locations, in the way that the early records of The Band suggested how rock 'n' roll might have sounded before the development of electrical power, even though they employed amplification.

I tried my best to learn and imitate Hunter's turns of phrase, conundrums, paradoxes and occasional aphorisms. Of course, at seventeen, I hadn't earned that kind of world-weariness and fatalism, so I put those songs away in a drawer until I knew better.

Having made my way around the real and imaginary America for almost thirty years, I found myself touring with a wonderful acoustic group called The Sugarcanes between 2008 and 2010. We performed the Hunter/Garcia song, "Friend Of The Devil," alongside the Keith Richards song, "Happy" and George Jones' "The Race Is On," as well as many of the country-soul songs that I'd attempted to write over the years.

That band included my friend Jim Lauderdale, who composed many wonderful tunes with Robert Hunter, "Black Roses" and "High Timberline" being among my favourites. It was Jim who put me in touch with Robert with a view to us writing a song together.

We never actually met in person but our song, "Tomorrow's Blues" was the vivid result of letters and telephone conversations, calculations and negotiations.

As yet, the song remains unrecorded but I debuted it at Preservation Hall West, San Francisco for the Richard de Lone Special Housing Fund in a show with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller and Austin de Lone with special guest, Bill Kirchen.

The same weekend, Bill Kirchen joined members of The Imposters under the guise of "The Hammer Of The Honky Tonk Gods" for a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass set that included the great Hunter/Garcia song, "Loser."

By this time, the S.F. audiences had got used to hearing requests for "Ship Of Fools" — a song that I recorded in Barbados for the Deadicated collection and on other occasions, "It Must Have Been The Roses," a song that I had cherished since buying an elusive import copy of Robert Hunter's album, Tales Of The Great Rum Runners.

Renowned Deadhead and Boston Celtics legend Bill Walton had requested our version of "Ramble On Rose" on a couple of memorable nights and "Tennessee Jed" — yet another of the great Hunter/Garcia songs from Europe '72 — was played on the television show, Spectacle in a salute to Levon Helm, who cut a great version of the song on his album, Electric Dirt.

Many of these songs ended up on the setlist of a Furthur concert at Radio City Music Hall in 2011. My wife Diana and I had gone along to see the show at the invitation of Phil Lesh and we ended up guesting on twenty-five minutes of the first set.

Gathering the band around a little backstage upright piano, we all started calling tunes; both the heart-breaking ballads and the mischief that Robert Hunter's words offered us.

I think it was Bobby Weir who first suggested that Diana lead the band on "Ripple" and if we'd had a few more minutes to prepare we could have probably got to "Brokedown Palace," "Dire Wolf" or numerous others.

It was a night I'll never forget as these are songs that we should always remember.

I want to send my fondest and deepest condolences to all of Robert Hunter's family and his closest friends in the certain comfort that his verses will live in heart and memory as long as such songs are sung.

— Elvis Costello

Tags: Robert HunterGrateful DeadTomorrow's BluesJim LauderdaleHank WilliamsHowlin' WolfHoagy CarmichaelWorkingman's DeadEurope '72Jerry GarciaAmerican BeautyThe BandThe SugarcanesFriend Of The DevilKeith RichardsHappyGeorge JonesThe Race Is OnPreservation Hall WestSan FranciscoRichard de Lone Special Housing FundPreservation Hall Jazz BandBuddy MillerBill KirchenAustin de LoneThe ImpostersThe Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk GodsHardly Strictly BluegrassShip Of FoolsIt Must Have Been The RosesLoserDeadicatedBill WaltonRamble On RoseTennessee JedSpectacleLevon HelmFurthurRadio City Music HallRipplePhil LeshBob WeirDiana KrallFurthur: Live From Radio City Music Hall

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ElvisCostello.com, September 27, 2019

Elvis writes about Robert Hunter.


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