TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Bob Weir is best known as a founding member of the Grateful Dead. In recent years, he's continued to tour, performing Grateful Dead material with a group called Dead & Company. Now Weir has released a solo album, his first album of entirely new material since 1978. It's called "Blue Mountain," and our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ROSE")
BOB WEIR: (Singing) And whatever happened to Rose? Whatever happened to the end of the trail? The gold strike, the gold spike, the wood, the nail in every brass rail, my thirst of a rogue (ph). And whatever happened to Rose? And whatever happened...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: On "Blue Mountain," Bob Weir sings about Pinto ponies and ghost towns, about saloons and coyotes, about cowboys and something he calls the misery train. Although he's backed by a band, it's not the Dead. And this solo album really does sound like a solo piece, the work of a man who cherishes his solitary moments, times for reflection and dreaming.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COTTONWOOD LULLABY")
WEIR: (Singing) When the daylight is leaving, the work is nearly done. In the quiet of the evening, there's a song. Good night, all you cowboys, build your plans smart enough. But the angels appeared one time to folks such as us.
TUCKER: That's "Cottonwood Lullaby." Its lyric was co-written by Josh Kaufman, who produced this album, and Josh Ritter, who co-writes most of the material here. Nevertheless, it's very much a Bob Weir album. His sensibility and his voice, which is at once strong and ghostly, suffuse every line, every melody, every theme. On "Only A River," Weir and Ritter take the 19th century folk song "Oh Shenandoah" and imbue the Shenandoah River with mystical properties. As they see it, the river transforms life into a better place merely by its continued existence.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY A RIVER")
WEIR: (Singing) Well, I was born up in the mountains, raised up in a desert town. And I never saw the ocean till I was close to your age now. Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you. Hey, hey, hey, your rolling river. Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you. Hey, hey, hey, only a river going to make things right. Only a river going to make things right. Only a river going to make things right.
TUCKER: While the Grateful Dead has rarely had anything interesting to say musically about women, one song on Weir's record, "Lay My Lily Down," is a marvelous exception to that history. It summons up the memory of a wild-child daughter whose grave is now being dug. Terse and tense, it gives this young woman her due as a free spirit that is rising from the earth even as her body is being lowered into it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAY MY LILY DOWN")
WEIR: (Singing) Well, the first time I saw my newborn girl, she was pulling on her mama's hair. The sun coming through the window, and I'd have known her anywhere. Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow. Dig a hole in the cold, cold ground. Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow to lay my Lily down, to lay my Lily down.
TUCKER: It's significant that the most intriguing song on this album is the only one whose songwriting credit belongs solely to Weir. It's called "Ki-Yi Bossie" and begins with its narrator in a 12-step meeting in a cold church basement, wincing at its harsh fluorescent light. We're no longer outside, roaming the country. The song takes us inside - inside a troubled mind into a dream of escape that is sadly elusive.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KI-YI BOSSIE")
WEIR: (Singing) In a cold church basement one November Friday night, come along, come along. In a 12-step meeting under harsh fluorescent light - man, that's bright. Hey, come on. I know I deserve to be there, but I don't remember why. I was looking for salvation, but nothing caught my eye. My turn to tell my story, and I guess it's worth a try. Come along, come along. Come along, come along. Come ki-yi bossie, come on bossie, come along. Come ki-yi bossie.
TUCKER: On another lovely song, "Gallop On The Run," Kaufman and Weir create the musical equivalent of a vast, open territory, something out of a John Ford Western shot in Monument Valley. The lyrics by Weir and Kaufman have a certain Western movie flair as well, with phrases about outrunning the sheriff's mayor, finding work punching cows and a valley wide with grass. But it's the sound of Weir's voice sweeping across the sonic landscape like a strong breeze that brings the song to its full beauty.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GALLOP ON THE RUN")
WEIR: (Singing) The scent in the sun, her gallop on the run, a monument to film she'd not quite yet begun. Now I'm almost out of time.
TUCKER: Weir has said that some of this album was inspired by his time spent working as a ranch hand in Wyoming when he was 15 years old. Now, in his late 60s, Bob Weir has made his version of a memory album. But it's never weary or nostalgic. It achieves a glowing serenity that can only be earned by long experience.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Blue Mountain," the new solo album from Bob Weir. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be two chefs who cook only vegetable-based foods and have tried to redefine vegan cooking and make the food exciting and satisfying even for meat eaters.
RICH LANDAU: It's not really meat that tastes so good. It's what chefs do to it that tastes so good. And we're trying to put that same attention into vegetables.
GROSS: That's Rich Landau. He and his wife, Kate Jacoby, have two vegetable restaurants in Philadelphia and wrote the new vegetable cookbook "V Street." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.