Rhoney Stanley (partner of the late Owsley Stanley) could get some credit for Brown Eyed Women getting together. I met David Gans at Rhoney’s house, which led to me playing with him, which was a delight. David dropped my name on “Tales From the Golden Road” the same day he dropped Joni’s name. I reached out and friended Joni on Facebook because I was like, wait a minute, there’s another woman who plays Dead?! All of that happened because of my dear friendship with Rhoney.

I’m from Levittown, Long Island.

McNally: Thank God. Anything to do with the Grateful Dead has to have somebody from Long Island.

I am representing! I lived on Long Island until my 20’s and then I moved up to New Paltz to finish my college degree. I was a college student and a full-time musician, and I worked a full-time job.

My music started early with the guitar. My sister, Diane, played in a folk choir. She gave me a small sized guitar. I was about six years old, and she started showing me the chords. It was then I started playing, and I loved it. My mom was always singing, and she performed in some local shows. I think she may have rubbed off on me. I started singing in school talent shows, and I was in the choir. Of course I was always banging things and tapping chopsticks all over the place. I think I was probably like thirteen or fourteen when I took pens and started hitting some pots and pans I had taken out of my mom‘s cabinet. I set them all up on the bed and I was tapping them all, not realizing that the ballpoint had come out of the pen, and I was streaming ink all over the bedspread and the room, which didn’t go over well with my mom. So for Christmas when I was sixteen my brother, David, got me a snare drum and cymbal. I was sick with the chickenpox on my seventeenth birthday and I said to my parents, in a sweet sad little girl voice, “I’d really love a real drum set,“ and so there you go.

My father always wanted to play drums and so he was happy that I started to play. My parents bought me a beautiful blue sparkle Pearl kit, and I just started playing. It was the ‘80s and I learned how to play drums to a cassette tape with Van Halen’s “Diver Down” on one side, and Phil Collins’ “Hello I Must Be Going” on the other. Both of those albums have killer drums. With MTV being such a big deal I would play along with the music video on the television, and learn a whole bunch. I was also playing The Carpenters and Carole King, and I’d only just begun. I learned from Ringo, because I listened to the Beatles all the time. So that was a great start for me.

I had been learning to play drums in my room and I heard about some guys who needed a drummer for a local jam. I was 17 and they were in their early 30’s. I don’t think they knew what to expect, and quite frankly I didn’t know either. We played a Beatles song to start, and it was magic! We were all pleasantly surprised. We jammed for a few hours together that night, playing a bunch of songs I hadn’t played before, but I grew up listening to.

A year or so later I started playing with some really talented guys. We played Motley Crue, Whitesnake, and Van Halen. It was the 80’s and I had big hair. The lead singer sang really well but there was no harmony or anything so I just started adding some back up harmonies. I grew up singing harmony and it came very naturally to me. That first group only lasted so long, and soon after I joined my first real band, Good Question. We had original songs and we played shows. I sang loads of harmony and sung my first lead vocal. That lasted a few months and then I bought a nine piece drum set and started playing heavier drums in Classified. We played a lot of originals and some Ozzy, Guns and Roses and a song or two by Rush. I was very lucky to see Neil Peart and Rush a few times in concert, so I had to play some of their songs.  I added harmonies and back up vocals, but I knew I wanted to sing lead vocals. My good friend Dino Perrucci introduced me to the Dead’s music in the late 80’s. Dino is a fantastic photographer who has a wonderful eye and who has captured some incredible musical moments in his life. He would always play audience recordings of the Dead on his boom box. We would just finish listening to some awesome CSNY or Allman Brothers, with pristine quality recordings, and then Dino would pop in a Dead show that was recorded from the audience. It would be hissing and screaming and most of it inaudible and I could not even hear the band playing. I’d be like, “Turn that off!”

Photograph Dino Perrucci

Dino was always saying, “No, Dee, you have to give it a chance.” I would always answer that I didn’t need to listen to such poor-quality recordings, with a chuckle in my voice. This went on for some time. He was convinced I would like it and he knew he needed to introduce it in a better light. Eventually he got a better sounding tape and I was intrigued. He knew I was becoming interested and at that point he decided to take me out to see the Volunteers (early Zen Tricksters) to see if I would like the music. I went into the club and I was like, holy shit! This is great! I took my sister Donna to a few of the shows with me after that. She had not ever heard the Dead, and she loved them, too! 

Soon after Dino and I bought tickets to see the Dead in Pittsburgh. It was 1989. As we drove the seven hours to get there, we listened to some better quality recordings. Then I saw the show. Wow! I got it. I’m actually getting goosebumps just thinking about that. It was magical for me and I remember being extremely fascinated by it all. The scene was cool but I was there for the music. I had this infatuation, not any sort of sexual thing, although maybe a little with Bobby; but Jerry was like, Holy God, this man is incredible. I watched him intently. I was so lucky to see Jerry about 100 times before he died, between the Grateful Dead shows and his JGB. My life would never be the same. 

Around 1990 I helped start a band call The Hamptons. We had five-part harmonies, with three women and two men. We played a lot of Rolling Stones and The Who. We also sang songs with great harmonies from the Eagles, The Kinks and The Beatles, and I got a chance to put my harmonies to good use! Since now I had started getting into the Dead, we played a couple songs like “Man Smart, Women Smarter,” and “Mr. Charlie.” Over time we added more songs like “Not Fade Away” and “Going Down The Road.” I sang “Hard to Handle,” which I directly took from the Zen Tricksters because Jennifer used to sing that.

In 1992, while the Hamptons were on a temporary hiatus, I decided I wanted to go back and finish college and get my degree. I moved up to New Paltz and started classes at SUNY. When the Dead came through NY at MSG in ‘93 and I could not go to all of the shows because I had classes, I went out to see a brand new band called The Deadbeats. Before you know it, they needed a drummer and I joined the band. I started singing more and more Dead songs, and we added songs by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Aretha Franklin. I also love singing and playing Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, and so I put my own spin on those as well. It’s almost thirty years later and I still play in The Deadbeats. It has been a terrific ride with all of my brothers in the Deadbeats, and with all the friends, fans and music lovers I have met along the way. 

Dennis: Who do you pay most attention to, Billy or Mickey?

Well it depends. I remember a time somewhat recently when I got to see Billy’s band, Seven Walkers, at Bearsville Theater in my hometown of Woodstock. I was lucky to stand with my elbows on the stage and watch. There is Billy right in front of me. There’s something about watching him up close so I can watch the left hand. He’s got a traditional grip. I stared at Billy to learn. The basic structure of the beats is Billy. When I think about the color in the GD songs, that’s Mickey! In songs like “Samson and Delilah,” I watched Mickey for years at shows to learn some parts. I can remember watching Billy play “Loser” and taking mental notes. I’m not sure I could pick my favorite out of the two, because they both add so much. They create a solid rhythm, along with Phil. In my opinion it is what drives the Grateful Dead. I am drawn to those powerful beats and rhythms. It makes me dance and I cannot sit still when I hear it. I will say I love to watch Mickey and Billy play, and I still learn from them both.

How Brown Eyed Women started is one of those meant-to-be stories. As I mentioned earlier, someone called in to “Tales From The Golden Road” and asked David and Gary if there were any women who played Grateful Dead. Since David and I knew each other, he named me and he also named Joni, our lead guitar player. Joni and I connected immediately. It was so appealing to find another woman who played Grateful Dead. I have been playing for many years with the Deadbeats, and I am a girl in the boy’s club. 

Photograph Liz Unterman

Dennis: Especially drums.

Well yeah, right. Exactly. I can tell you many stories about that, but that could be another time. After Joni and I connected she asked me to go to Florida and play with her band, Spiral Light. For some reason that fell through, but I kept ruminating on the idea of an all-female band playing the Dead. A few years earlier I had seen my friend, Noelle Doughty, in her band at the time, Zepparella. That night I wondered why there was no all-female Dead band. I guess it was then that the seed was planted.

I asked Joni if she would be interested in us putting together an all female GD band.  Joni admitted that she loved the idea but she didn’t really know enough players. I suppose we both had been keeping our eyes out over the years for other women who played the Dead. Joni was fortunate enough to meet and play with Caroline and Jill a few years earlier and so that was a plus. Joni had heard about Dana. I reached out to Dana and Caroline. Soon after Joni reached out to Jill, and we found Katie through a mutual friend. It was all pretty awesome and came together very nicely.

We are six women who love the Grateful Dead’s music. We all have experience playing the Dead. Since we live in six different states we had to prepare for shows a little differently. We got started by picking versions of songs that we wanted to play. We chose the Spectrum ‘86 version for this song and the New York City ‘89 version for that song. We made a spreadsheet and we reviewed it all the time to make sure we were all on the same page. Rehearsal is not the easiest thing to do since we don’t live close to each other. Fortunately we all have a wealth of experience playing the music, and we have so many years of Grateful Dead recordings to rely on. (Thank you to all the Tapers!)

When we finally met in June 2019 we had a 10 or 12 hour rehearsal on our first day together. It was magical! I am so very grateful that we are all together. Pun Intended.

Pandemic Update

When Covid first shut things down I picked up my guitar and played a couple songs on an impromptu live stream. I just wanted to put out good energy and share some positivity because it was very scary. I mean, it still is; but we’ve grown used to doing whatever we need to get through. Right? I knew I wanted to put out a little bit of me and my energy to the universe. Within a week The Deadbeats and Brown Eyed Women had all of our gigs canceled. Both bands had so many big shows planned, and then nothing. 

After a couple months I was able to book small, outdoor shows for The Deadbeats, and for The Deadbeats Duo, where I play guitar. I was lucky that I could play a couple shows a week. People were hungry for live music so I booked some small private parties for the band and for the duo. I kept playing small, outdoor shows at clubs for many months. It was a special time to play for our friends, and we all weathered the storm together.

Of course, I really began to understand how weird things were in January 2021 when I got Covid. At that point I had already come through summer and fall, playing two or three shows a week. I was wearing a mask and I was safe. When winter came, the numbers in NY crept back up. Then I got it, and I was pretty sick. Fortunately I lived to tell. It was awful and I was down for the count for two solid weeks. I had all the symptoms and it was a huge drag. I’ll say that.    

Dennis: Were you ever afraid for your life?

Yeah. I got a pulse oximeter.  I was extremely lethargic and I could barely walk across the room. Friends were dropping food at my door. I was thinking, “I hope this works out well.” It was day five, day six, day seven, day eight, and probably day ten before I felt any relief at all. It was hard on me mentally, because I didn’t know what to expect and people were dying from it. When my pulse ox numbers were okay, I felt better overall. 

When Covid came back hard in New York, it was clear that it was not going away. I knew people who died from Covid, and I have friends who lost family members to it. I started to change the way I looked at things. I began realizing that life is so very precious, and I do not want to take my time here for granted. I got in touch with what was important to me. I reconnected with old friends and strengthened our relationships. I had more phone calls with my family, and more lengthy calls with my mom. Since I had always wanted to record some of my own songs, I set out to make that happen. My bandmate in The Deadbeats, Dan Gerken, is also a fabulous engineer and so I asked him if we could record a few songs together. We got started immediately. It was very exciting to record my songs. The two of us played all the instruments. We spent six or seven months in the studio, and then a few months of production after that. Nine months later I had me a CD, and my babies were born! The Songs In My Heart was released on all major streaming services in September 2021. I feel happy to be able to share my own music with people. 

For the past 13 years I had been working as an office coordinator at Family Services. During the pandemic, I began to see that I wanted to be more a part of my immediate community, in Woodstock, NY. Kenny Schneidman, my friend who is a wonderful artist, helped me realize I wanted to live a more creative life. So I left the day job and began to work in property management. I had the support of my friend, Martin (Mills), and he was instrumental in helping me make my job change.  I started working with Mike Dubois, a fantastic artist who works with the Grateful Dead Family. I bet you own one of his posters or one of his shirts. I manage one of Mike’s properties in the nearby mountains. It’s a little slice of Heaven! I also started to manage Big Pink (the house where The Band and Bob Dylan recorded together). That sure was pretty cool.  I changed my life up in 2021. I’m playing more of my own music. I’m writing more songs. I’ve strengthened my friendships and I have a new love in my life.  As weird as it sounds, Covid had a positive effect on me.

Even though The Deadbeats didn’t play from March to May 2020, after that we picked up regular shows and parties, and we played our way through Covid. I was out playing and counting my blessings. So many people were not playing. I knew I was fortunate. It was pretty incredible until the end of the year, when I got sick. I was sick for a couple weeks and then I got right back to it. I took it nice and easy, and it was okay. 

I love playing and singing. A couple years ago I stopped drinking alcohol, and playing has been even more amazing for me. Sometimes I do like to eat some ganja edibles when I play. Legal weed in NY is fantastic! Not drinking has given me a new love of life. I’m excited to get to the gig and play. I arrive and say, “Let me set that drum kit up!” I have matured a bit as a singer. I recognize that I’m not screaming to hear myself anymore. That was my experience for a very long time in The Deadbeats, and it was awful. Most of the time these days I work with fantastic sound engineers and I can get an audio mix that works. I’m a little bit more grounded and focus on my head voice when I can’t hear myself. Of course there are still times on stage where I cannot hear a smidge of anything I am singing, and so I do my best to get through it.

In June 2021, Brown Eyed Women got together again. It was so awesome. We played in Maryland and New Jersey. It was the first tour I could drive and have my own gear, because flying, well I can’t bring any of my own equipment. 

So we were all just so excited to get back together. We all met at Dana’s in Jersey and rehearsed there. It was great to be surrounded by that—there’s a real level of skill in that band that I’m so happy to be a part of. I missed my sisters in song.  Everyone brings her own feminine energy to the mix. It is so very powerful! I love it so much. And there’s Joni on that guitar. Wow, she’s got that Jerry thing. So that just sets a nice tone for us all to jam to.

BEW played some more shows through 2021 and in October we made our way to the Northeast. We were finally able to play for my local friends and family, in my neck of the woods! That was a real treat. Brown Eyed Women has played some very nice stages together. We are growing as a band and as bandmates. We are all so very excited to play Skull and Roses in 2022! I am grateful and counting my blessings.