Jackie Greene’s “I’m So Gone” opens with a tribal rhythm that echoes the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” It quickly moves into slide-guitar-driven Americana blues with soul way beyond the musician’s years.
“I’m holding out for something I can feel,” croons Greene with a slight twang that rings more like Memphis than Northern California.
The “something”—or perhaps someone—Greene was holding out for might have been Phil Lesh. The Grateful Dead bassist had caught Greene’s 2006 Bonnaroo set, a performance that inspired New York Times music critic Jon Pareles to declare Greene “the Prince of Americana.”
A year later, Greene’s phone rang. It was Lesh. He asked Greene if he’d be interested in helping him work on some music. As they say, the rest was history.
“[Lesh] became a mentor figure and brought me into the larger Grateful Dead world,” Greene says.
One of the first times that Lesh and Greene performed together was in a studio setting—and their connection was evident.
“Before you know it, we were playing [the Grateful Dead’s] ‘Scarlet Begonias,’ and a couple weeks after that, I was on the road playing with Phil Lesh and Friends,” Greene says.
The learning curve was steep. Greene knew some of the Dead’s more mainstream tunes like “Truckin’” and “Casey Jones,” but his education didn’t come close to what’s needed to perform a complete set of Grateful Dead mainstays—songs like “Tennessee Jed,” “Ship of Fools” and “China Cat Sunflower” weren’t even on his radar. Before his first show with Phil Lesh and Friends, Greene recalls the gangly, bespeckled legend approaching him backstage and saying that he would be singing “Sugaree” that night.
“I said, ‘Phil, I’ve never even heard that song,’” Greene remembers. “And he goes, ‘You’ll be great!’ Looking back, [Lesh] had some kind of foresight or faith—there was something that he saw [in me] that made him think, ‘It’ll work.’ I’ve been put in those situations constantly—I didn’t know the specifics, like what Jerry did in 1975. I was just learning the spirit, the meat of the songs, because that’s what I do. Maybe it was fresh for [Lesh] or something. God bless him, because it opened up my world.”
After a few months touring with Phil and Friends, they began working some of Greene’s tunes, including “I’m So Gone,” into the sets.
The Dead Zone
When the Grateful Dead embraces a musician, it’s like getting an official endorsement embedded with tens of millions of loyal fans. It’s also an invitation to collaborate with members of the Dead and other musicians who’ve been accepted into the Dead’s extended family throughout the years. Greene remains a part-time member of Phil Lesh and Friends while ping-ponging from one fantastic opportunity to the other: In 2010, he joined Trigger Hippy, a supergroup that featured the Black Crowes’ Steve Gorman, and Joan Osborne. Greene also set out on tour with the Dead’s Bob Weir and the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson. The acoustic trio was dubbed WRG for Weir, Robinson, Greene. In 2013, Greene joined the Black Crowes as their lead guitarist until they broke up in 2015.
“It boils down to musical instincts,” Greene says. “I think I’ve honed my musical instincts throughout the years to where I can fit in a lot of these situations—I don’t have to stick out. It’s comfortable for other musicians, which is why I think I get invited to do a lot of these things.”
On top of the ease in which Greene moves back and forth, from frontman to Wrecking Crew-like session player, he’s also a fast study.
“I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I learn things quickly, and I can sing and play keyboard, if necessary,” he says. “But it’s all about musical instincts. I know a lot of cats with great musical instincts, and they’re fun to play with because you don’t have to talk; you just launch into something, and everyone knows. You can all launch into a language—not actual words, a musical language—and you all know what to do. From there, you hone your skills as far as improvising and being in different situations. The sky’s the limit.”
Musical instinct and speaking the language of music without saying a word is a definitive trademark of the Grateful Dead, which may be how Lesh could sniff Greene out.
The Forced Hiatus
The recent onslaught of stormy weather brought down a large tree, blocking Greene’s driveway. He and a neighbor spent most of the previous day cutting the tree up and hauling it away.
Greene settled in the outskirts of Sacramento in Orangevale, near the foot of the Sierras. Since the start of the pandemic, he’s found new uses for his musical instincts.
Shortly after it hit, Greene started “Live from Backstage,” free concerts streamed on Facebook from his living room, where he has his home studio. He’s averaged about two streaming shows per month since it began.
“I would announce it, and people wrote comments on social media about what they wanted to hear,” he explains. “I’d pick out 20 songs that I thought were suitable, and I’d put them on a list and play those songs. So fans made the setlists, basically. It’s fun because people come up with weird covers that I could try to do—something I normally wouldn’t think of doing.”
Each unique “Live from Backstage” set showcases a versatile array of music; from Townes Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver to Harry Nilsson and the Who, Greene has consistently kept it fresh. He’s also featured specially curated sets: “Dylan and Dead: A Tribute to Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead,” “Blues and Soul: Classic Songs from Another Era” and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers performed in its entirety with a full band.
While the livestreams from home have helped Greene maintain live performance shape, most of his time away from touring has been focused on his son, born during the pandemic. The time at home has also allowed the singer-songwriter to concentrate on writing. It helps being surrounded by all the tools he needs to create.
“Between the livestreams and family, I had a lot of time for working on an album, which I began a while ago, and recording—I’m coming close to finishing up a lot of that stuff. Maybe the forced hiatus is more like a make-you-go-to-work-on-something.”
Meanwhile, after 45 weeks in a row, the Backstage shows have evolved into a four-camera, fully-switched HD video stream with studio-quality audio.
“The livestreaming takes up a lot of time, but it’s what I do,” Greene says. “I need to be doing it, and it helps in many ways.”
Kyle Stefano, who Greene married in 2017, is the designated “switcher,” moving from one camera to another during the streams.
“Eventually, we gave her a mic, which we call the ‘wife mic,’” Greene says with a laugh. “We’ve become like a duo—she’ll chime in and talk. It’s a fun thing to do on a Sunday evening. It’s organic. We’re not trying to make a living doing it; we’re doing it for the fans because they’re awesome!”
Greene’s whole family has become part of his creative process. Along with Stefano helping with the livestreams, their 3-year-old daughter Luca and their son Ozzie—who recently celebrated his first birthday—are helping drive the inspiration behind his next record.
Technically, Greene can read music; however, he isn’t quick to admit it.
“I don’t read [music] well enough to where it would be useful,” he admits. “It takes me forever—I might as well not be able to read it. I’m 100% ear-trained, I would say.”
When asked how he approaches songwriting, Greene talks about his affinity for gardening.
“I plant a lot of fruit trees and other stuff,” he says. “I built a greenhouse—I find myself working on a lot of projects.”
It’s while tackling all these projects at home that lyrics begin to manifest. Songs seem to come when he’s not thinking about them or trying to write.
“I start thinking about the songs I’m working on and kind of have a melody in my head,” he explains. “It’s like I’m in a zone while my body is doing something else, like digging holes for fruit trees. Then I go [into my studio] and fiddle around on guitar or piano.”
When Greene has a new song, he deconstructs it, records several variations of the same song and sees what sticks.
“I’ve always played guitar, and I’ve always played piano, but I don’t consider myself a guitar wiz or a tremendous piano player,” he says. “I am able to get an idea across, and I am able to play well enough to get by in most situations. By the time I show a new song to the band, they’re pretty much full-fledged demos.”
At that point, Greene’s band joins him in the studio to work on hashing out the particulars. More than two decades earlier, his songwriting process and musical execution, which led to some of his first EPs and tunes like “Crazy Comes Easy,” was much different. Greene performed all the instruments on the songs himself and recorded, edited and produced everything in his basement, back when he lived in Brooklyn.
“I don’t know if my approach to songwriting is different, but my influences have grown wider,” Greene says. “Playing with Phil [Lesh], Bob [Weir] and those guys rubs off on you. I got introduced to [the Grateful Dead] world, and here I am. It’s been a long strange trip, man!”
That trip has guided Greene to a content life surrounded by family and, of course, music. He had thought his new record, aptly titled Family, would be ready by Christmas, but that’s not going to happen. He’s halfway there. The tentative release date is now summer 2022.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the record of my career,” Greene says. “We really love what we have so far. We’re putting it out ourselves, so we’re taking all the time we need. It’s kind of hard to explain what it sounds like, because we’ve been sitting on it for a while.”
Greene tries to describe the record—the first-ever that he’s made with his touring band: It’s R&B-packed with a lot of blues influence. He doesn’t want to give too much away, but the theme is family.
“The thing I cared most about during 2021 was family,” Greene says. “I think a lot of people feel that way.”
Jackie Greene performs at 9pm (8pm doors) on Friday, Dec. 31 at Felton Music Hall, 6275 Highway 9, Felton, $69 plus fees/$74 day of show (limited number of tickets available). Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test (with matching ID); mask required indoors. 704-7113. feltonmusichall.com.