Robert Hunter “Jack O’ Roses” (1980)

Robert Hunter, the songwriter best known as the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, passed away in September 2019 at the age of 78. Hunter, who was a longtime friend of the Dead’s Jerry Garcia, never became a member of the San Francisco jam band, understandably not wanting to be a constant part of their touring rock band lifestyle. However, Hunter wrote the lyrics for most of the Dead’s well-known songs. Hunter was deservedly inducted with the band into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994, and with Garcia into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2015.

Although Hunter saw himself more as a writer than as a musician, he released 11 albums of his own between 1974 and 1993. Among these were a compilation album (Promontory Rider), two live albums (Live 85 and A Box Of Rain), and two spoken word poetry albums, one of which (Flight Of The Marie Helena) featured musical accompaniment while the other (Sentinel) did not.

As of this writing, all of Hunter’s albums have been out of print for some time. But his third album, Jack O’ Roses, may be even harder to obtain than most. After its initial release in 1980, the album’s master tape was lost, and Jack O’ Roses was never reissued on CD or digitally. Naturally, this long-lost album is considered by many Deadheads to be Hunter’s best.

Unlike Hunter’s two earlier singer-songwriter albums released in the mid-‘70’s, Jack O’ Roses was recorded by Hunter alone and acoustic. Structured much like his live performances, the album finds Hunter singing in a more mature and resonant voice than before, and playing guitar on an intimate scale quite unlike the Grateful Dead’s jam-band aesthetic. Many of the songs Hunter played on this album were made famous by the Dead. On the first side, he performs two songs from the Dead’s landmark 1970 album American Beauty: “Box Of Rain” and “Friend Of The Devil” both receive gentle, folky treatment from their author, and the latter is paired with a Johnny Cash-like country ditty called “Talkin’ Money Tree”. In between those songs, Hunter sings his Dylanesque epic “Reuben And Cérise”, which was previously recorded by the Jerry Garcia Band as “Rubin and Cherise” in 1978. Hunter’s version is superior to Garcia’s, which was built mainly on a keyboard sound. Hunter’s acoustic guitar and harmonica treatment brings out more of the song’s poetry, and Hunter sings two essential tragic verses at the end which were missing from Garcia’s version.

Next, Hunter sings his variation of the traditional American folk song “Stagger Lee”, followed by an interpretation of the traditional English folk song “Lady Carlisle”. In the latter song, he inserts the name “Jack O’ Roses” into the lyrics. This sets the stage for the 16-minute, multi-part “Terrapin” suite on the album’s second side, which is filled with lyrical imagery inspired by those two old folk songs. Hunter wrote many songs for the “Terrapin” suite, many of which were never recorded by either Hunter or the Dead. For his version of the suite on this album, Hunter sings two songs – “Ivory Wheels / Rosewood Track” and the title song “Jack O’ Roses” – which the Dead did not include in their sweeping Terrapin Station version. Neither Hunter’s version nor the Dead’s is likely to resemble any definitive version that Hunter may have envisioned, but Hunter’s version feels more lyrically complete, though it has none of the orchestral passages found in the Dead’s version.

Although Hunter will always be remembered for other artists’ recordings of his songs, Jack O’Roses qualifies him as a respectable recording artist in his own right.

However, I tend to disagree with those who say that Jack O’Roses is Hunter’s best album. In my view, a stronger contender for that title is his more fully developed 1987 album Liberty. Unlike many of Hunter’s other albums, Liberty sounds more like a work by a musician than a work by a poet or storyteller with music made to match his verses. Not that his lyrics are any less admirable, but the songs seem designed to stand alone, instead of being connected parts of a larger work, and the musical arrangements are more accessible than usual. Liberty belongs to a certain class of recordings made by mature middle-aged songwriters in the mid-to-late-‘80’s, with Hunter showing nearly as much confidence as his better-known peers. If the album had been given major-label production and marketing, it may have found some degree of mainstream success. Jerry Garcia was one of the four musicians who backed Hunter on this album, and the music sometimes resembles that of In The Dark-era Grateful Dead. The title track, “Black Shamrock” and “Do Deny” each have the type of pop arrangement that made Hunter and Garcia’s “Touch Of Grey” the biggest hit song for the Dead. “Bone Alley” and “Come And Get It” come across like potential Dead songs that Bob Weir might have sung. (None of the songs on this album were ever recorded by the Dead, but they were known to perform the title song live during their final years). The country-flavored “The Song Goes On” and “Worried Song” have the apparent Johnny Cash influence that occasionally showed in Hunter’s work. The closing track “When A Man Loves A Woman” is unrelated to the Percy Sledge classic; instead, it is a touching Dylanesque ballad penned by Hunter. Despite the encouraging development he was showing as a recording artist, Liberty turned out to be Hunter’s last musical studio album.

Robert Hunter - Jack O' Roses

Robert Hunter “Jack O’ Roses” (Relix RRLP 2001) 1980

Track Listing:

1. Box Of Rain
2. Reuben and Cérise
3. Talkin’ Money Tree
4. Friend Of The Devil
5. Delia DeLyon And Stagger Lee
6. Lady Of Carlisle
7. Book Of Daniel
8. Terrapin
-- a. Lady With A Fan
-- b. Terrapin Station
-- c. Ivory Wheels / Rosewood Track
-- d. Jack O’ Roses
9. Prodigal Town

Robert Hunter - Liberty

Robert Hunter “Liberty” (Relix RRCD 2029) 1987

Track Listing:

1. Liberty
2. Cry Down The Years
3. Bone Alley
4. Black Shamrock
5. The Song Goes On
6. Do Deny
7. Worried Song
8. Come And Get It
9. When A Man Loves A Woman