Grateful Dead

Talkin' With Donna Jean Godchaux

From the FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios to the San Francisco Sound, Donna Jean Godchaux blends her two realities seamlessly on Back Around, her latest release with the Donna Jean Godchaux Band and Jeff Mattson. We snagged 15 minutes with Donna Jean to talk about her Alabama roots, touring with the Dead, and teaming up with Dark Star Orchestra's Mattson, husband David MacKay, a smoking' rhythm section, and "The More the Merrier Players" for this record. Read all about it here.

Thank you Donna Jean for taking the time to talk about the recording and completion of your new album Back Around by the Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about a recording that I am very proud of and I think represents the “two arms” of who I am musically: Muscle Shoals and San Francisco. The blending actually works in an album context and shows that neither are, musically exclusive of one another.

Keith Godchaux joined the Grateful Dead in 1971, and before you joined the Grateful Dead in 1972 you were singing professionally in Muscle Shoals at FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios as so beautifully documented in the movie Muscle Shoals in which you appear. You worked with artists such as Elvis Presley, Percy Sledge, Boz Scaggs, Cher and Producers like Jerry Wexler. Did that experience influence your singing in the Grateful Dead?

Absolutely. The time I spent as a session vocalist in Muscle Shoals was invaluable in preparing me for the next adventure in my musical life. Harmony was essential, even crucial, in the Grateful Dead. I remember being amazed at the unique approach to harmony they had as I listened to Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. For the most part, it was not "background" singing, but "ensemble" singing. The parts moved around in such a way that sometimes it was hard to tell where the melody was. In a way, they were all singing“ lead.” That concept was a challenge to me, but through the years of training I had in Muscle Shoals, my ear caught on to it and I found my place in that mix. I loved it!

The album is called Back Around after one of the tracks on the album. Why did you decide to call the album Back Around?

Well, Jeff Mattson (my partner in ‘not crime’) sent me some beautiful chord changes to see if I wanted to collaborate in writing the song. As I ruminated on what this music was saying to me, the melody and lyrics poured out as “Back Around.” The pathos is obvious; a rekindling of times past and a direct connection to what is happening now.The song is a literal expression of how I feel about these realities. Coupled with that, I was born in Muscle Shoals, spent twenty-five years in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now I’m back in Muscle Shoals. I’m back around in so many ways.

What made you decide to record a new album?

Jeff and I had written a few songs together and wanted to document our collaborations in the studio. He was (and is) on the road so much with the Dark Star Orchestra, that we knew our time and resources would be better spent in that direction.

What happened as you started the process of creating the recordings and laying down the tracks? Did it go as planned or did it evolve?

My husband, David MacKay, and I are very close friends with Jimmy and Angi Nutt, who are the owners of The NuttHouse Recording Studio here in the Shoals. It is the premier, most up-to-date studio in the area. We had the luxury of completing the recording at our own pace without time constraints. The band came to record basic tracks and then we started to think about how to proceed from there. It was a very exciting time with “the sky is the limit” as to what we could actually do! Since over half the band was in the Northeast, David, Jimmy Nutt, and myself were the locals who parked ourselves in the studio over an extended period of time and brainstormed. When Jeff was available, he came down to play more guitar and add his take to the glee and madness we were enjoying! “Evolved” is the operative word regarding the progression of this recording. It was fun, and scratched many creative itches!

Tell us about the band and the additional personnel that contributed to this recording. The horn players, the backup singers are wonderful.

The DJGB is Jeff Mattson, guitar/vocalist, David MacKay, bass, Joe Chirco, drums, Freeman White, keys/vocalist, and moi. Mark Adler, who was an original member of the band also played some cool Wurly and piano. We had the pleasure of having Pete Lavezzoli join us on drums for many of the tracks. Between Pete, Joe, and David on bass, the rhythm section smokes. All the guys were pristine in their performance.

The next layer includes whom I have dubbed “The More the Merrier Players.” It really came down to that. The Muscle Shoals area is so rich with talented professionals, we just HAD to bring in the cream of the crop.

We recruited Will McFarlane (former guitarist with Bonnie Raitt and Muscle Shoals/Nashville session player) to compliment Jeff’s lead guitar. The world famous Muscle Shoals Horns, was led and arranged by Charles Rose, (trombone), and included Jim Horn (baritone sax, flute), Harvey Thompson (sax), and Steve Herman (trumpet). Clint Bailey added clavinet and organ, Richard Bailey plucked some banjo, and Jimmy Nutt was on the ready with percussion whenever the unction struck us.

I never write the melody of a song without hearing the harmonies, so my demos always include additional female vocals by me. Trouble is, they all sound like me. Halfway through the recording of this CD, after I had done a ton of background vocals, I realized how lame that was and just because I could sing all the parts didn’t mean it was the best way to showcase the song. I contacted Cindy Walker and Marie Lewey. They are two of the session background singers in the Shoals who were the following generation after Jeanie Greene, Mary Holladay, Susan Pilkington, and myself. Needless to say, they sound great on the songs! Will McFarlane and Gary Nichols also added strategic male vocals on some tracks and made me very happy.

Tell us about working with Jeff Mattson. He is presently the lead guitar player in Dark Star Orchestra. How long have you been collaborating?

In 2005 I met Jeff Mattson and all of the Zen Tricksters at Gathering of the Vibes in the Northeast. I sang with them that day and we quickly hit it off. Sterling human beings, they are! Eventually, Donna Jean & the Tricksters became a band and we traveled extensively for a while. Jeff and I became best friends immediately and, of course, considered writing songs together. We wrote two songs for the DJ&tT CD, “Shelter,” and “He Said, She Said,” which we recorded in NY. That band morphed into the Donna Jean Godchaux Band w/Jeff Mattson, and that’s where we are today. Jeff is the right guy to play guitar in the Dark Star Orchestra and with me. He totally fills that spot in DSO brilliantly and naturally. He also has such a love for good music that he listens to, and wants to play, other styles and musical situations. (Reminds me of somebody else I knew well.) Jeff listens to so much music that he and his wife, Randi, rent a storage space for the hundreds (maybe thousands) of his CDs. No kidding.

Jeff and I have written two songs on the CD Back Around: the title song, of course, and "Delta Jubilee." I wrote "Don’t Ask Me Why," and collaborated with Dave Diamond on "Stranger Things."

Now this began in June of 2012. Is that correct? Wasn’t that a very busy summer to commence recording an album?

That summer you toured with Mark Karan as Jeff Mattson was on tour with Dark Star Orchestra, and you also performed with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh at TRI Studios for the Jerry Garcia 70th Birthday show now on DVD called "Move Me Brightly" by Justin Kreutzmann, and made an appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for their "Hall of Fame Series" where they interview past inductees (which, of course, you are inducted with the Grateful Dead). In April 2012 The Rock Hall had opened an exhibit called: Grateful Dead "The Long Strange Trip."

Tell us about that summer and how you managed to keep the recording process going in the midst of this busy schedule.

No complaints here! Yes, it was June of 2012. It’s funny, but I don’t remember all those events happening over the course of a summer. Like I said, we took our sweet time with the recording, so there was no pressure. Touring with Mark Karan in the DJGB was a pleasure. I had only been around him briefly backstage at Ratdog shows, so this was an opportunity to get to know him. So glad! We are good friends and will remain so.

Garcia’s 70th birthday show at TRI was a tremendous tribute to him with big shouts of love, and was celebrated with great enthusiasm by all who were there. I was honored to be a part of that celebration! “Move Me Brightly,” indeed. He certainly did (and still does).

The R&R HOF Grateful Dead exhibit was fantastic. I saw memorabilia (original, written lyrics, etc.) that choked me up. To be interviewed as part of their "Hall of Fame Series" was an honor and pleasure.

First we want to say this is a beautiful album both artistically and sonically. The recording was done at The NuttHouse in Sheffield, AL. Tell us about that studio.

The NuttHouse is the newest, best equipped studio in the Shoals, handling both digital and analog recording. Sheffield is one of the four towns known as the Muscle Shoals area, and the address of both the original and later Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. (I graduated from Sheffield High School.) Jimmy and Angi Nutt own and operate the beautiful studio, which is home to many of the national acts coming out of this area. Jimmy is a superb engineer, producer, and musician, current with all styles of music, and a joy to work with. For information, go to thenutthouse.com.

We want to dig into the songs. There are 9 songs on the album - 4 are original and 5 are covers.

Why did you choose these songs?

The originals are a no-brainer. To document them in the studio was very important to us. The five covers are ones the band performed live, and ones that resonated with us enough to want to make them our own. I think we did that.

For me personally as a vocalist, these entirely different tunes allow me to explore various sonic spaces, as well as switching genres from song to song. I am comfortable with them all, and it comes natural to me. Maybe it’s from singing background with so many different artists at a very young age. Maybe it’s the influence of Garcia as he taught me to sing whatever was called for, given the love of the song. Maybe I have it all inside me anyway. I think it is all three.

“Darkness, Darkness” is otherworldly and spacey.
“Don’t Fight It” is sassy and groove-driven.
“19th Nervous Breakdown” is down right country rock.
“She Said She Said” is ponderous and provocative.
“Crazy Fingers” is serious yet quirky, and very jazzy.

And… We just love these songs. Period.

The album opens with "Don’t Ask Me Why" which you wrote both the music and lyrics. It has a deep groove and is very soulful. Can we expect to hear more songs like this?

Ha! Don’t ask me! I never know what’s going to bubble up. That one came in an hour or so when we were rehearsing the "Heart of Gold Band" at Greg Anton’s studio/barn a few years ago. The band went out to dinner and I stayed back. I sat down at the keyboard and it just popped out. Who knew? I do love that track. It is one of the strongest on the CD.

Out of all the possible Garcia – Hunter songs to include on the album, why did you record "Crazy Fingers?" We must add that the arrangement and horns are amazing.

Steve Kimock suggested that song for me to sing years ago as we were rehearsing for a gig (also at Greg Anton’s studio/barn). I always loved it, but at that time had not ventured into singing Hunter-Garcia songs as a soloist. However, it clung to me right away and I’ve not turned back from singing it since. We have consistently played it live with DJGB, so it was appropriate and natural to include that treasure on the CD.

The horns took "Crazy Fingers" in a suave and unique direction. Charles Rose (the horn arranger), is a wacky, brilliant musician who, never having heard the Grateful Dead version, pulled it out of his head.

Donna Jean, again we want to thank you for taking the time to talk about your new album Back Around. It is worthy of many listens.

My pleasure! Thank you for the opportunity! Peace, Love, and Music!

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snakesandladders's picture
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Joined: Jul 17 2009
Cool....

Real cool read...and I likd the piccies 2:):)

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Joined: May 24 2014
Wonderful Article

I love the article/interview with Donna Jean and her new album, Back Around, is really fantastic. I particularly love the Muscle Shoals Horns and of course, all the musicians play great! Brava Donna!!

Gr8fulTed's picture
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Joined: Jul 9 2007
Great interview with Donna

Thanks dead.net for the opportunity to catch-up with Donna Jean and Jeff Matson.
I really enjoyed her stage presence while singing up front with the Grateful Dead, especially on Greatest Story at the Indy show in October 1973: I think that's when a big guy crawled up on stage and eventually was harmlessly lead-off after the song ended. Best wishes to Donna now with her new endeavors.

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