Donna Jean Godchaux Mackay occupies a most unique niche in the history of the Grateful Dead. Joining the group simultaneous with the enlistment of her husband Keith as keyboardist, she supplied lead and background vocals for the band during more than one of the seminal group's fertile periods of writing, recording and performing in the '70s.
Donna Jean was most essential in filling out the Dead's group harmonies, beginning at the very time singing had become of greater importance to the group following the recording of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. Until that point, that component of the band's sound had generally been given short shrift, as the instrumental improvisation of the Dead had taken precedence, but as the group reached a nexus of structure and spontaneity, the human voice became an equally important instrument. Donna Jean provided the strength and sweetness to buttress the voices of Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, not to mention taking a share of lead vocal responsibilities as time went on.
She spent seven years, from 1972 to 1979, singing with the Dead and as backup for the Jerry Garcia Band. Donna and Keith put out a self-titled album in 1975 with Garcia on guitar and several collaboratively written tunes, while their formation of The Heart of Gold Band came to a tragic end when Keith was killed in an auto accident. Donna Jean soldiered on in a most circuitous route, reclaiming her roots in Alabama after remarrying.
Donna Jean honed her skills as a singer in the famed Muscle Shoals studios in the late '60s, and with that once again her home base, she has ventured back into the music scene-as if she ever really left it. Her alliance with the Zen Tricksters has the air of 'you can't make this up' about it, as after a chance collaboration at the Gathering of the Vibes in 2005, a second co-billing at a Rex Foundation benefit convinced the principals to collectively pursue collaboration.
That venture has come to fruition with a mutual commitment to tour together as both Donna Jean and the Tricksters maintain solo careers. The studio portion of their work together reaffirms her R&B soul roots and integrates that with the Tricksters' natural inclination to improvise; this is not just 'a former singer with the Grateful Dead' appears with a Grateful Dead cover band. The sum here is much than the sum of its parts.
Over the years Donna Jean has made similarly impromptu appearances like the one with The Tricksters, accompanying Phil and Friends and Ratdog onstage, reaffirming her generally positive legacy with the Dead and her strong relationship to their community. Judging from our conversation, it's easy to see why. Musical virtues aside, she is gracious as well as intelligent, with both an open heart and an open mind.
Doug Collette: I have to tell you, I've been listening to you new album with the Zen Tricksters, and it's a very impressive piece of work. I think one of the things that I liked about it the most was that the band seems to have a natural inclination to improvise, and I like the way they slip in and out of jamming almost without the listener noticing it. Is that something you heard in them when you started working with them?
Donna Jean: Well, I had heard of the Zen Tricksters, but I had never heard their music, literally, until I walked out onstage with them in 2005 at the Gathering of the Vibes. That's where I first met them and got to hear their musical prowess, and I was very, very impressed, not only with their musicianship, but as well with what good people they are. They're just great folks. And that took on a bigger and deeper meaning when I hooked up with them again in November of the same year, at a Rex Foundation benefit in New York City, and I got to hear their original songs and I got to hear them play my original songs. So after two days of rehearsing and then the benefit itself, we were pretty much agreed that we were going to try to do something together musically and see what happened, and so up pops Donna Jean and the Tricksters [laughs].
DC: Well, you know, here's the funny thing: I got the CD, and I've listened to it, but I hadn't looked at the press material that Dennis sent until today, so it was the other day when I was reading a book that was talking about Boz Scagg's first solo album, and mentioned your name as singing on that album, that I learned that you had worked at Muscle Shoals for a long time.
DJ: Really?
DC: Yeah, and then when I listened to the album today, it made perfect sense in that this album with the Tricksters sounds like a natural extension of your roots in rhythm and blues and soul, and again, that inclination to improvise, something you obviously like working with them and from working with the Grateful Dead from years ago.
DJ: Yeah, well, both of those arms of music… you might call it one arm is the deep pocket, Muscle Shoals groove that I grew up with, and the other arm of who I am musically is the improvisational, experimental, adventuresome Grateful Dead. And so it's two arms of some really cool stuff. [laughs]
DC: It is, and it fits together really well, at least so far as what I can hear on the album, because the band instinctively seems to know when to stretch out, when to pull back and when to sink right into a groove. How much rehearsal did you guys do before going to record this, if you did any at all?