HOW DOES THE SONG GO?

By Nate Lapointe

Country Duos

Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. Today we look into two trends in Grateful Dead setlists, the country duos. 

In the late 1970s, the Grateful Dead began to solidify their modern approach to writing setlists. (See January 2023’s article How To Write A Setlist by this author for more insight into this topic.) We of course are seeing two set shows routinely and very few support acts or festivals. In addition, songs like “Morning Dew” are consistently appearing late in the second set instead of as openers. Fun fact, the LAST time “Dew” was a first set opener was 11/30/73 in Boston. The late seventies also showed us “Drums>Space” midway through the second set. In addition, the two-beat country songs in the catalog now begin to appear with each other, acting as suites. The most common was of course the “Me & My Uncle>Big River” duo which happened 176 times in total. The first time this pair met was 11/2/77 in Toronto, Canada, but they didn’t stick together initially, “Me & My Uncle” was played another nine times without its future mate, but on 4/6/78, the two shacked up again in Tampa, FL and stayed tight all the way until their final pairing on 7/6/95. The late eighties and early nineties saw some infidelity amongst the couple, but they worked through their issues and spent much of 1994 and 1995 together. NOTE: Other Dead incarnations have certainly performed the songs back-to-back but I’m only concerned with the Jerry years for these articles.

The second most common marriage was between “Mama Tried” and “Mexicali Blues,” which happened 134 times in total. Their first encounter was on 4/7/78 in Florida, the night after “Uncle” and “River” solemnly swore their vows to one another. There must have been something in the Florida water that spring. “Mama Tried>Mexicali Blues” were much more consistent with one another. In fact, from 6/13/80 to 3/30/83, every time “Mama Tried” was performed, it was followed by “Mexicali Blues.” But “Mexicali” liked to have their own fun, appearing with “Me & My Uncle” a handful of times during that same period. Scandal! Their final pairing was on 6/25/95.

This love square, as mentioned before, had their swinging days during the late eighties and early nineties. Perhaps they felt stale at the ten-year mark. This period also saw pairings with “Maggie’s Farm” and “Cumberland Blues.” So the question to be asked is, why did these two couples and these six songs exist in such an incestuous manner? The answer: RHYTHM.

We’ve talked about it many times over the three seasons I’ve been numbing your brain. Tempo, rhythm, groove, and time signatures are all ways of interpreting rhythm and all at the core of the Dead’s sound. If it wasn’t, the band would never have been considered a dance band and arguably would never have gained popularity. “Uncle” and “Mama” were leftovers from the late sixties. Cash’s “River” and Weir’s “Mexicali” showed up in 1971. All these songs share the same drum pattern and feel. An exception, which we’ve already covered, was “Uncle” getting a half-time treatment in the later seventies, possibly a byproduct of the disco years. (See: That Dusty Dirt from December 2022 for deeper analysis on this topic.) Here, have a listen to this “Mama>Mexicali” from 7/16/90 in Buffalo.

At 2:38 as “Mama” ends, you can hear the drummers continue to play until Weir plays his opening riff to “Mexicali.” The tempo and feel are identical and interchangeable. Listen again, tap your leg as they end the former and begin the latter.

A week prior, 7/10/90 in Raleigh, our first couple share the same segue. Take a listen, please.

At 3:13, the same exchange happens as the drummers maintain the beat allowing the others to jump right into the “River,” as they say. Try it, tap that leg as the transition occurs and notice the seamlessness between the pieces, resulting in an eight-and-a -half minute dance suite. 

With rhythm at the forefront of these combos, we can’t neglect their harmonic connections. “Mama Tried” and “Mexicali Blues” are both in the key of D Major, making them feel congruent when placed into a segue. “Me & My Uncle” is in the key of E minor while “Big River” is in the key of A Major. Different, yes, but there’s an A chord in “Uncle” and the two keys are related, sharing the F sharp. So adding the C sharp to the tonality is an easy pivot. “Maggie’s Farm” and “Cumberland Blues” are both in the key of G Major, so again, easy pivots. It’s also worth mentioning that a large majority of country and bluegrass songs are in the keys of G, D, A, and E minor.

Nate LaPointe is a member of Cubensis, SoCal’s premier Grateful Dead music experience. In addition, Nate has worked with many artists including Bobby Womack, Vince Welnick, and Selena Gomez. Nate currently resides in Redondo Beach, CA where he performs, teaches, and records music.