DEAD BEST: 10 Blazing Versions of “Big River”

by Peter Wendel
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StealYourFaceBigRiverDebut: December 31, 1971
Last Time Played: July 6, 1995
Total Times Played: 396
Songwriter(s): Johnny Cash

The Grateful Dead’s full-bore brand of Americana has attracted the largest, most loyal fanbase on the planet in large part due to its big-tent embrace of music’s rich heritage. Blues. Country. Folk. Rock. Reggae. Jazz. Gospel. Jerry and the boys threw it all into the simmering stew – and out popped their legendary, ever-rotating setlist.

The Dead didn’t simply blend a variety of musical genres into their own songs; many bands have done that. They went further, performing an unprecedented number of covers – live renditions of iconic songs from the giants of the genre (like Johnny Cash or Chuck Berry or Willie Dixon).

JohnnyCashBigRiverThe Dead cherrypicked the best songs from the best artists, adapted them and delivered the product to music-hungry fans everywhere.

From Howlin’ Wolf to Bob Dylan from Johnny Cash to The Beatles, The Grateful Dead played the music forward like no other band ever had or has since. Exhibit A? “Big River” – written by country legend Johnny Cash (of course).

The Dead debuted “Big River” on New Year’s Eve at Winterland in 1971 (listen below). It quickly became one of Bob Weir’s go-to “outlaw cowboy songs,” like “Me And My Uncle,” “El Paso” and “Mexicali Blues.” The band would perform “Big River” nearly 400 times, all the way up until the very end in the summer of 1995.

Dead68The Dead’s version is more uptempo than Cash’s more somber take (listen below) with enough space for blazing solos from Garcia not to mention Keith Godchaux and later Brent Mydland on the keyboards. Cash’s rendition seems more closely tied to the lyric arc of the song. It is, after all, about a man’s big river of pain – heartache brought on by his ex-lover’s decision to leave him.

Well I taught that weeping willow
How to cry cry cry
Taught the clouds how to cover up
A clear blue sky
Tears I cried for that woman
Are gonna flood you big river
And I’m a gonna sit right here until I die

Cash released the track as a single on Sun Records in 1958. The song stayed on the Billboard country music charts for 14 weeks, topping out at #4. In addition to The Dead, many other artists would cover the song, including Hank Williams Jr., Bob Dylan and The Band, Trick Pony (with Cash and Waylon Jennings) and The Secret Sisters (with Jack White).

Here’s the original from the cowboy legend himself:

The Grateful Dead would cover “Big River” hundreds of times in a big ol’ nod to one of the coolest cats in country music.


I’ve assembled the hottest versions of “Big River” I could find from across The Dead’s touring run. Although the early- and mid-’70s were red-hot years for “Big River,” I wanted to include a couple from the Brent era as well. As far as its slot in the setlist goes, in the early-’70s it was frequently positioned in the 2nd set, but by the mid-’70s the song found a permanent home in the 1st. Now saddle up, ’cause here we go.

December 31, 1971
Winterland, San Francisco, CA

MUST-HEAR VERSION! It’s the very first one, and like most Dead debuts it’s one of the most unique performances of the song on record. Bobby and Jerry share lead vocals with Garcia taking the second verse. Short and sweet, clocking in at under 4 minutes. This show was broadcast on KSAN-FM radio in San Francisco. Listen here (archived track 22).

September 27, 1972
Stanley Theatre, Jersey City, NJ

Here’s an early HEATER! Jerry lays down blazing leads (1:14 and again at 3:23). “Big River” brought out the best in Keith Godchaux – and he shines brightly in this one. Check out his smoking solo (2:18).

February 26, 1973
Pershing Municipal Auditorium, Lincoln, NE

It was a banner year for “Big River” and this one is indicative of the high-quality crop. I’m not sure it gets any better than this. Jerry’s picking is like lightning in a bottle. Keith slaps the keys to absolute perfection.

December 19, 1973
Curtis Hixon Convention Hall, Tampa, FL

SICK!! Gun-slinging guitar at its best – and the keys ain’t bad either. Scorching solos from Garcia, and Keith is MONEY throughout! A spectacular version from a spectacular show. Hey, we’d expect nothing less from Dick’s Picks Vol. 1.

June 16, 1974
Iowa State Fairgrounds, Des Moines, IA

The long, easy-paced intro sets up one of the hottest all-time performances. Keith lays down delicate, sparkling fills and a summer-breeze solo (2:39) that will warm your soul. Jerry blazes. Check out the long killer transition from “Eyes” into “Big River” – listen here (archived tracks 16 & 17).

August 13, 1975
Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA

SMOKERRRRR! Super-fast, super-clean version with Jerry burning up his fretboard. Flawless execution both vocally and instrumentally. Could easily be the best ever. Magical interaction between Keith and Jerry. At 3:10, Garcia turns on the firehose and never looks back. This is the first version on this list to feature the double-drummer format. Mickey Hart rejoined the band in March ’75 after having been on hiatus since February of 1971.

May 9, 1977
War Memorial, Buffalo, NY

Like a runaway freight train! X-factor up to the rafters, and clean as a whistle (as was much of the band’s play in ’77). Jerry goes higher and higher – and then just lights himself on fire. Buckle up or get the fuck outta the way.

April 24, 1978
Horton Field House, Normal, IL

BURNER ALERT!! Red-hot pickin’ from the Horton Field House. One of the most unique renditions complete with “Stayin’ Alive” teases (yes, the Bee Gees’ song). Don’t miss it. Remember, the Bee Gees released the “Stayin’ Alive” single in December of 1977. By February ’78, the song had climbed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it stayed there for a month.

May 16, 1981
Barton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

This one is HOT, HOT HOT!! In my opinion, this is the best one of the ’80s. It’s the Brent Mydland Show, and he burns it down (2:53)! And did I mention Jerry??

June 14, 1991
RFK Stadium, Washington, DC

One of the last great performances. Features Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby on keys. Jerry and Bruce have some great exchanges. Is that a smile of approval from Uncle Jer?

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at