How the Dead Taught Me To Treasure Americana in the Polarized Digital Age

Montana 2018 - En Route to Dead and Company at the Gorge 

The ember sky splintered and casted a shroud of magnificent yellows, oranges, and burning reds. If it hadn’t been for the occasional sun-faded Coca-Cola signs and barbed wire fence I would have thought we crossed into a New Frontier.

But we hadn’t. The world was mapped and our iPhones sat charging. The year is 2018 and we were three kids in the middle of the cowboy night underneath all its storied stars. Some of our ancestors could have passed through this land. Mine actually did, I believe. My father had been born in Montana. His mother took the family to Denver, though; where I was born.

My father gave up the illusory sunset of the horizon of our mythical ancestors, though. He became a cop and learned the ways of the supermarket. He still trekked into the wilderness as a mountain man, though. But the disconnect to the ethereal pioneer past had been made. Whenever he’d tell me of his experiences in the wild they were always crowned by a material carcass or a stuffed elk. Although stuffed and mounted on the wall of his house they had little to offer but death and blank stares. It was an extreme contrast to the great stories of Buffalo sunsets, mountain dances, and spiritual hoo-hahs I imagined my “true ancestors” had. The storied stars seemed to pressure us into being something greater than we were.

As we moved further towards our destinies Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings hummed through the speaker.

“Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys”

I can’t speak for Hayden and Olek but I sure felt like a cowboy. The best damn cowboy to ever drive a Subaru at that moment. Country music was another world the Dead opened up for me. As a kid I enjoyed Johnny Cash but the themes of heartbreak, horses, and gunslingers of most country songs was always laughable to me.

The first time I heard, “Dark Star > El Paso > Sing Me Back Home” off of the Dead Veneta 1972 show I remember thinking, “We’ll this is the strangest and most magnificent shift of energy my ears have ever heard”. How could a band pioneer the cosmic frontier of psychedelia and transform towards western Americana so imaginatively? I had to listen again.. once again.. And again.. The psychedelic passage of, “Dark Star”, into the 19th century American frontier-esque cowboy tunes felt like a trip into a strange yet strikingly familiar part of my soul. Eventually all of the lyrical characters along with their adventures would make permanent residence in my heart and mind. Over the course of the next few years, as my love for the Dead’s massive catalog grew, I started listening to Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard; all of the country greats the Dead listened to.

In a similar fashion to an individual dipping their feet into a lake before a gargantuan cannonball the Dead dipped my mind into musical vulnerability. Among other musical genres, that musical vulnerability opened up the western world of country to my ears. In the present moment country was painting the endless Montana landscape with mysterious and comforting meaning.

Weir, Garcia, Merle Haggard and Willie’s stories were connecting myself to the grizzled, horse wrangling, mysterious past of old America. Through musical creation I felt as though I was being introduced to my, “true ancestors”. Regardless, I can’t imagine I would’ve found myself in the middle of Montana listening to country western if it weren’t for the psychedelic misfits from Palo Alto.

All things considered, the Dead subconsciously pushed myself as an individual to look deeper into the world around me. Miscommunication and broken connections in the digital age can make the landscape of America, and the individual, seem bleak. Adventure may seem out of the picture. Without trying to sound like a cliche, it is hard to find true meaning in modern America sometimes. Office jobs and climate change seem less mythical than the stories from folk books. The digital age shapes shortsightedness too easy.

Before the Dead I saw country music, and ballads of American mystery, as a laughable cliche. I don’t know if I wouldn’t found the same poignant meaning in the America I saw on the road without the Dead and their musical influences. The Grateful Dead, along with all of their Americana mystique, taught me to look for the magic in the broken fences and dusty shrubbery of America. Sometimes you need a Dark Star crashing into your brain before you get introduced to something refreshingly new.

Fox News and MSNBC claim America is a torn body of politics. The commercialization of adventures can trick you to think the world’s mystery has been reduced to a giant billboard advertisement. But the Grateful Dead taught me America is a land filled with mystery, noble heros, and unplotted adventure.

Bobby struck the opening chords to “Me and My Uncle” on the speaker. I turned up the volume and drove deeper into the purple Montana night.

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