Asheville musicians have been mourning the loss of Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter since he died on Sept. 23.
The author of “Ripple,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Brokedown Palace” and hundreds of other songs is considered to be one of the greatest lyricists of all time. He was the only non-performer to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and wrote many of the tunes that an entire generation of hippies and cowboys alike grew up with. (He also wrote for New Riders of The Purple Sage and other bands.)
While Hunter was impactful globally with his music, he was especially loved by the Asheville community, a community that already was paying homage by consistently playing his songs. Below are some quotes from some local musicians about who he was and how he influenced their lives.
“For 3 or so years I sang Ripple to my son every night at bedtime. When he was between 9ish and 12 sh. I knew the song was magic and I wanted it to cast its spell on him like it had me. He eventually started to ask for it then it was just a given. The last thing he heard every night as he slipped into dream world. I was ecstatic that he felt that magic too. The Dead and especially Robert Hunter’s lyrics opened me up like heart surgeons. They made me think that a better world was possible and that I wasn’t alone or naive in wanting to be alive and in love with the entire world. I will add mine to the long long list of lives made infinitely better by exposure to the Dead and the energy that flowed between the band and the audience and back again. As long as the music plays, a better world is not only possible, it’s realized. Rest In Peace to an American Beauty. Let there be songs to fill the air.” –David Earl Tomlinson
“The very first band I played in was a Dead cover band. Every Wednesday night we would play for tips and beers in the window of a pizza joint in downtown Blacksburg Virginia. I remember as I was learning those songs feeling a timelessness and a familiarity about them. Like those songs almost had personas of their own. Robert Hunter had a distinct way of telling a story, turning a phrase, creating something new with the power of his words. I’m glad and grateful that he and those musicians from the dead found each other. His lyrics elevated that music and those guys knew it. That is a rare gift. Hopefully at this moment, up under some star, Hunter and Garcia are swapping songs, arguing about guitar tone and putting together the great jug band in the sky.” –Laura Blackley
“For some reason Hunter’s passing was such a shock to me, I had to ask why. I think somewhere I felt he was immortal. It really caught me by surprise and it’s a real challenge to find words worthy of conveying his presence and influence in my life. Aside from the Dead material, I’ve played many of the songs from his first solo albums for over 30 years around camp fires and in a coffee house or two. I’ve read so many wonderful words in the last days, I hardly know what to add. He has been so much a part of my life, that like Jerry, his departure leaves a huge empty space that must now be filled with gratitude and love. So I am committed to that love now more than ever.” –Long Branch Bill Evans/Phuncle Sam
“It’s hard to find words about one of the trueist wordsmiths to ever put pen on paper or song behind the wind. R.H. is amongst Yates, Poe, and Blake His prolific works will be celebrated beyond the mind’s soul of literature.” –Taylor Martin
His lyrics changed my world like they resonated from the Big Bang when it spoke light into existence. From the cosmic corners of my mind to the intimate riverside banks of my heart – his words could both comfort me and cry out from the haunted places in my soul. His words coupled with Jerry Garcia’s nurturing artistry were able to put me at ease – as if to lay me down, one last time. Thank you Hunter. –Spirdon Nicolopoulos/The Paper Crowns
“Many of the my favorite poets dressed their poems as songs—-Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Paul Simon…and, of course, Robert Hunter. A lot of people’s gratitude for Hunter stops at the gorgeous lyrics he wrote for the Dead. Who doesn’t love Box of Rain,Ripple, Uncle John’s Band, Franklin’s Tower? If it weren’t for Hunter, perhaps the Dead would only be remembered for their endless jams, and not for their transcendent lyrics. But what many people don’t know about Hunter is that he was also a fiercely dedicated student of poetry as literature. His academic understanding of the craft was as disciplined as a T.S Eliot or a Sylvia Plath. His translations of my favorite poet, Rilke, are among the best around. I carried around his translation of “Sonnets to Orpheus” in my backpack for years. His work and his example did a tremendous amount to bridge the gap for me between rigorous, scholarly poetic work and “pop” music. I wanted to write lyrics that came from the deepest places in me I could access and turn them into songs that anyone could listen to, and he was one of the best examples I ever found of someone already doing that brilliantly. Much gratitude to you, Robert Hunter. May your ripples continue to spread.” –Jeff Thompson
“For me, Robert Hunter had a way of demystifying the purpose of writing songs: to express that all of the pain and sorrow and searching life gives us are also the redeemer, the shared fabric of human experience. My favorite line from Ripple: “Reach out your hand if your cup be empty, If your cup be full let it be again, let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of man.” He had a way of writing that truth with gentleness and joy, as if it’s all part of a story that is going to turn out ok. The first time I read his lyrics, I was handed A Box of Rain (the lyric book) and opened it randomly to “Eyes of the World” having never heard the song and was moved by it. To write lyrics that stand on their own, separately from the music, is a rarity and gift. Robert Hunter…there’s someone I would have loved to meet, but then, how better a way to meet someone than by hearing their music?” –Alexa Rose
“Robert Hunter’s imagery informed the entire world of The Grateful Dead. His lyrics danced alongside Jerry Garcia’s melodies as perfect partners.He really inspired me to explore a whole new world, where there are endless possibilities and never ending golden summers. Pure inspiration.” –Ed Jurdi/Band of Heathens
“I’ll never forget the first time my old band The Mantras played the Terrapin Suite in rehearsal. The combination of the music with Hunter’s lyrics moved me to tears in that moment. Of course I had listened to this piece many times, but hearing it come from our instruments and hearing and singing Hunter’s words, it’s just so vivid and moving, particularly “Lady with a Fan” with it’s invocation of the muse. We debuted it in front of a large crowd during a sunrise set and it is still one of the most memorable musical moments of my career. 2000 people all singing along with every word of a 20 minute piece of music. There’s just no one quite like Robert Hunter. His lyrics transport the listener to an ethereal, timeless place and stay with you long after the song is over. Rest In Peace, and thank you for a real good time.” –Justin Powell/Sanctum Sully
“Hunter was a poet! A huge force behind the lyrical content of the music of the Grateful Dead.” –Robert Greer/Town Mountain
“Robert Hunter was an American treasure. He was the voice of one of the worlds greatest bands, the Grateful Dead. His lyrics were multidimensional and possessed an enormous amount of depth. You could access them on the surface through catchy choruses, or travel back in time with his countless references to ancient, classical, pre-modern, modern and post-modern figures and circumstances. He could turn a simple folk tale into a wild and unexpected journey. He managed to create content that was both extremely relevant and undeniably timeless. He was truly one of the greatest writers of all time.” Jesse Iaquinto/Fireside Collective
“Rest in Peace to one of my all time favorite writers. Robert Hunter’s lucid visions painted a landscape across my most formative years. They have Rippled throughout my own passions, and will continue to effect me and those I engage with from now until the beyond, and for that I am forever Grateful.” –Josh Blake
Caleb Calhoun is a writer, journalist, and poet living in Asheville, NC. He can be reached at Caleb.Calhoun@gmail.com.