Set the way-back machine for 1962 and tune in to Stanford University radio station KZSU’s “Folk Time” program to hear a young Jerry Garcia and a four of his bluegrass buddies run through a set of self-described old-timey and new-timey tracks.
Better and easier still, cue up the Hart Valley Drifters’ new LP, Folk Time. The album is made from tapes long thought to be lost and discovered in a closet in 2008; it represents the earliest-known recordings from Garcia, then 20, and three years removed from founding the Grateful Dead.
Where there are vocals, they come from Garcia. But Folk Time also includes instrumentals such as Earl Scruggs’ “Flint Hill Special” and “Ground Speed” and Ralph Stanley’s “Clinch Mountain Backstep.”
The Drifters are led by a barely identifiable Garcia, who plays acoustic guitar and banjo and sings in a deeper and richer voice than he would in the Dead. The band, formerly known as the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers, also includes future Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter – known here as Bob – on banjo; longtime Garcia collaborator David Nelson (New Riders of the Purple Sage/Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band) on guitar; Ken Frankel on banjo, fiddle and guitar; and Norm Van Maastricht on Dobro.
The album starts with band introductions which reveals the quintet already well-versed in the Prankster mindset that would pervade the early Dead experience. This brief snippet also shows Garcia’s self-deprecating streak as he proclaims himself “not proud” of his singing.
Over 16 tracks, the Drifters tackle traditional numbers such as “Roving Gambler,” “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” “All the Good Times Have Past and Gone” and “Pig in a Pen,” which Garcia would cover 10 years later in his bluegrass outfit, Old and in the Way. Among the highlights are the Stanley Brothers’ “Think of What You’ve Gone” and an acoustic rendition of a future Dead song, the 1930s number “Sitting on Top of the World,” delivered here as a dirge with only Garcia’s vocals and Frankel’s finger-picked guitar.
Keeping in mind that this set was never intended as anything other than a one-off college radio broadcast and certainly never envisioned as a commercial release – particularly 54 years after the fact – Folk Time is remarkably solid. And given that it provides Deadheads a chance to hear Garcia as he’s never been heard before and regular music lovers a glimpse of the Grateful Dead’s roots, it stands as a critically important missing link to the vaunted San Francisco sound, folk, bluegrass and the catchall known as Americana.