Nearly a dozen years have passed since Jerry Garcia last sang about "Ripple," but the Grateful Dead visionary's spirit remains vibrant and nearly ubiquitous in today's jam-band scene.
While surviving members keep the music alive in various incarnations (The Other Ones, Bob Weir & Ratdog, Phil Lesh & Friends), there are scores of acts traversing the country singing various styles from the "Book of Jerry."
One of the more interesting performers is solo bluegrass artist Keller Williams. While other artists and groups may feign complete originality, Williams knows his apple didn't fall too far from the Haight-Ashbury tree.
"I'm more than grateful to be attached to that family in any way, shape or form," says Williams. "It's where I came into music, with this whole Grateful Dead scene, just a crazy little kid running around the country, seeing shows. It's kind of an umbrella, as much as people want to admit to it."
Posed with the question WWJT, or What Would Jerry Think?, about this movement, Williams indulges.
"From what I heard, Jerry really didn't like people trying to mock his tones or imitate where he was coming from," Williams says. "I don't think he really appreciated that, and that's a shame."
As a one-man bluegrass jam band, Williams knows how to push buttons. Not only does he think his idol would, well, slap him silly, but he also knows some bluegrass purists view as heretical his upbeat, fun, quirky and oftentimes irreverent picking.
This is undoubtedly the case with his latest album, Grass, which features his longtime friend and flatpicker Larry Keel on guitar and Larry's wife, Jenny Keel, on bass. The 10-track album includes a few originals and some hodge-podge covers. ("Mary Jane's Last Breakdown" fuses Tom Petty songs "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "Breakdown," while his version of the Dead's "Loser" includes a few lines from Beck's Gen-X anthem.)
However, it's his take of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" that will invariably get him on a Bill Monroe zealot's hit list.
"Of course, it's the same with the real jazz musicians and reggae musicians," Williams says. "And the real down-to-Earth, nitty-gritty Polish polka players, if it's not Polish polka, then it's a novelty. But the thing is, we're all having fun and we don't really care what people think. It's all very self-indulgent."
His next album, Dream, is due out next year. He says the project is 99 percent finished and features all original material, with guest appearances by Bob Weir, Charlie Hunter, Michael Franti and more.
"Mysteriously, I've been in a huge writer's block since I've been working on this record," he says. "Each song that I've laid down, I feel like I'm finally coming back to writing songs again. It's a process for me, like I have to get rid of these songs."
For now, Williams will concentrate on touring behind Grass. He says fans should expect to hear a solid mixture of old and new material.
Laughing, he adds, "They can also probably expect some young and hungry, hairy people smiling and bumping into them."
Keller Williams with The String Cheese Incident and Bob Weir & Ratdog
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 W. Alameda Pkwy., Morrison
Saturday, July 1, 5 p.m.
Tickets: $43.50 to $47.50; visit ticketmaster.com.