Dedication and depth are cornerstones of a respected rock and roller’s success.
By Steve Houk
On one hand, Jackie Greene is clearly one of rock and roll’s most sought-after players, having done stints with many rock greats. The list is impressive: he was a temporary member of the Black Crowes, an occasional part of Bob Weir’s and Phil Lesh’s post-Dead machinations, a full-on member of ex-Crowe Steve Gorman’s supergroup Trigger Hippy, and others. Heck, he’s even jammed with the late Levon Helm at several of his Midnight Rambles and did a whole Halloween gig playing all Rolling Stones music with Government Mule.
Why do people seek him out? Well for one, he’s regarded as a cool guy who is super talented on a number of fronts: he has a great voice, can play a mean guitar, as well as banjo, harmonica, mandolin, even some drums, and he also shines on keys. Greene can easily lend himself to most any environment, and just by his presence, raise the bar.
But for the majority of Greene’s fans, sure, they appreciate the high-profile guest slots, the heavy skills and the nice demeanor. But what really keeps them coming back is Greene’s truly excellent solo work, which is chock full of beautifully written, heartfelt lyrics, as well as the overall integrity with which Greene presents his music. And that honesty and truth, and not just going through the motions, means the world to Jackie Greene.
“From where I sit, the kind of performances and the kind of songs that I put out, the ones that tend to affect our fan base, are the ones that just feel honest,” Greene told me from California before he hits the road on his current tour. “It’s sort of like that old quote, ‘Trust the song not the singer.’ I just feel like no matter what kind of music I’m doing, what kind of performance I’m doing, if I’m not 100% engaged with it, I think our audience can tell. They can tell when I’m phoning it in or if I’m not completely involved emotionally in every project I’m doing. No matter what I’ve done, I’ve made it a point to try and be 100% involved with it. Because I know that I am very transparent that way, people can see that. I’m not the kinda guy who’s really good at faking it.”
Jackie Greene is well known to his loyal fans and the community of musicians he plays alongside, but remains just under the radar enough to still be considered by some as a hidden treasure. Born in California 35 years ago, Greene picked up music early on and never looked back, writing songs as a teenager and self-releasing his first album. Since then, he’s put out a half dozen or so strong records of his own while lending his superior talents to some of rock’s best. Greene brings his stellar local band to The Birchmere on February 16th, where he’ll be playing songs from his whole catalog, including his most recent release Back To Birth, as well some new covers.
A clear charm of Greene’s that seems to endear him to his fan base is his serious dedication to the depth of his songs. He demands that they have meaning and insight, and aren’t just laden with meandering lyrics, wailing guitar solos and empty fills.
“I like guitar solos as much as the next person,” Greene said. “But if we’re putting together a song, the first thing on my mind is not is this gonna be a guitar solo, what guitar is it, what amp am I gonna use. I never think about that ever. Actually the first question is does it need to have a guitar solo (laughs). But I’m always trying to find a way to just have the song be the most potent part of the recording, rather than any particular element, like a drum sound or a guitar solo. That’s not where I put all my stock. So much of the music that I like and that influences me really has nothing to do with guitar solos. It’s really more trying to get the song to convey the right temperament, the right temperature. It’s a vague concept, but I think people get it. When a song is transportive, like it can take somebody to a place emotionally, then you’re doing your job. It doesn’t really matter if there’s a guitar solo or not.”
Greene’s intense dedication to the project at hand is yet another reason he is revered by colleagues and fans alike. Whether it’s playing alongside rock legends or on his own records, Greene dives head first into a project every time, and it shows.
“I put 100% of my emotional being into whatever project that I’m doing, if it’s something that I want to do,” Greene said determinedly. “Playing with the Black Crowes for example, I dove in 100%. It wasn’t necessarily just a gig playing guitar, of course that’s what I did, but I really got involved with listening to alot of the old recordings, some live recordings, sort of immersing myself in the songs, trying to allow myself to be touched by the songs. I think that’s what people grab onto. If you’re really getting into the song, rather than worrying about what distortion pedal you’re gonna use, then it makes for better experience overall. I’m not the best guitar player on the block, I never will be, and I don’t care. But I’m good at working in a group in that capacity because I put alot of myself into the project, I become immersed in it. I don’t look at it as just another day job.”
In 2011, Greene put his solo career on hold and joined Gorman’s band Trigger Hippy, and even though the group achieved success in the studio and on the road, it was Greene’s fervent need to be laser focused that caused him to leave the band, even when they were on a roll.
“In Trigger Hippy’s case, I found that I was spreading myself too thin, between all kinds of these projects,” Greene confided, “and I had my own record coming out, and that’s where my emotional world was. I just felt like it would be a disservice to everybody for me to hang on, so I thought it would be a better thing to just bow out. Having said that, the few years that we had were tremendous, and obviously we’re all still good friends. But for myself, I just couldn’t give it my all, it became more that I didn’t want to burden anybody. I needed to give it my best shot with my own record, and sort of put my focus there. If I’m spread too thin, I have to take note of that.”
Greene’s fertile time with Grateful Dead legends Weir and Lesh has undoubtedly been a high point for him, and for reasons more nostalgic than just playing alongside rock royalty. A memory from an early concert helps put his career trajectory in perspective.
“I remember being like 19, I was out of high school, I was a huge Bob Dylan fan and I went and saw Dylan at the big amphitheater near Sacramento, and it was when Phil Lesh and Friends and Dylan were touring together. I really didn’t know Phil Lesh and Friends, but that night, Larry Campbell was in Dylan’s band, and it’s just so funny because then years later, I ended up playing with Larry in Phil’s band, and I just have this memory of watching that show — I think I had just started smoking pot — and I’m like, ‘Hey, wow, these guys are good, man!” And then eight years later, I’m playing in a band with fucking Larry Campbell. It was kinda surreal to me.”
And as far as playing with Lesh or Weir again in the future, Greene says it’s a no brainer, he’d surely do it if asked. And other than standing onstage alongside rock icons, there’s one very simple reason he loves playing their music.
“Oh man, the songs. All damn day, it’s the songs. The fact that they sort of transcend genre, and they transcend players. I didn’t really sort of start diving deep into the Grateful Dead stuff until I started playing with Phil, and it was this constant process of discovery for me which was remarkable. There are a few times in your life when you discover a band and then you go into their catalog and you start liking everything. It doesn’t happen all the time, but this was one of those times for me. I’m like holy shit, I love all this stuff.”
Jackie Greene and his band perform Tuesday February 16th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt Vernon Ave, Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here.