For Donna Jean Godcheaux-McKay, it has been a long, strange trip indeed. As a high school student in Muscle Shoals Alabama, she began singing backup vocals on recording sessions by Atlantic Records artists at the legendary FAME and Muscle Shoals Sounds studios. Soon, she was singing on some of the most important records of the time. She sang backup on Percy Sledge’s monster hit “When a Man Loves a Woman” and on Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”
But she was a young woman and like a lot of young people, she was a little restless. So she packed her bags and moved to California. Within a short time, she attended her first Grateful Dead concert. A short time later, she was in the band. She and her husband Keith were members of the Grateful Dead during their most fruitful period in the 1970s. She traveled the world with the Dead. Her first tour with the band was the famed ’72 European tour. On one of her last tours with the band she played at the base of the Pyramids of Egypt. Her tenure ended with the Dead and shortly afterwards Keith died in a tragic car accident. She continued to perform music, though, and through music she met and married David McKay.
She then focused her attention towards raising her children—sons Zion Godcheaux and Kinsman McKay. In the 1990s, she moved back home to Alabama. But she never quit singing.
Now, her children are involved in their own musical endeavors. Both Zion and Kinsman were part of the 2003 revival of the 1970s Keith and Donna project, the Heart of Gold Band. When that revival fizzled, Zion struck out on his own with his project Boombox. Kinsman is about to release his first CD with a reggae-flavored hip-hop outfit named Grown Folk.
And Donna? She’s still singing, now with a new group called Donna Jean & The Tricksters, comprised mostly of members of the Zen Tricksters. Guitarists Jeff Mattson and Tom Circosta, bassist Klyph Black and drummer Dave Diamond are all Zen Tricksters. The band is rounded out by Donna Jean and Wendy Lanter on vocals and Mookie Siegel, who has played with Ratdog and Phil Friends, on keyboards and vocals.
The Zen Tricksters had started as a Grateful Dead cover band many years ago, but have since broken away from merely emulating their heroes and had starting writing their own songs, amassing several albums worth of original material and continually creating more.
Donna Jean met the group at the Gathering of the Vibes, an annual Deadhead-themed festival in Connecticut, and sat in for a few songs. The chemistry was so strong that they quickly made plans to perform together at an upcoming Rex Foundation Benefit in New York. Shortly after that, Donna Jean and The Tricksters were born.
They’ve toured the country, playing Grateful Dead songs of course, but also their own original compositions. Now they’ve released their self- titled debut album. It’s reminiscent of the Dead, naturally—their music is both adventurous and loose and instrumental improvisation is a key component; there is care taken in the songcraft. But Donna Jean & The Tricksters is a band in every sense of the word. Every band member is a songwriter. Every band member is a vocalist. And they brew up their own brand of earthy, good-times grooves. Like the Dead did, Donna Jean & The Tricksters mine American roots music and make it their own. There are hints of blues, a taste of R&B, a country lilt here and a funk groove there. It’s a rock ‘n roll band.
The album reveals all of these flavorings. The focus is on smooth harmony and a gospel beat on “No Better Way.” The laid back blues of “All I Gotta Say” recalls the lazy hazy pace of the Jerry Garcia Band moreso than the Dead but features guitar licks that are as much Muscle Shoals as San Francisco. They stretch way out on the extended jam of “Me & Kettle Joe,” and provide a soaring invocation with “Shelter.” The band chugs along at full steam on the dance numbers and tastefully tones down on the more tender tunes. It’s a fun album.
The band is touring like crazy behind the record, and that tour now brings Donna home to her old stomping grounds with a swing through the south that includes stops in Memphis and in Jackson, Mississippi on the 30 year anniversary of the Dead’s one and only appearance in the state.
Honest Tune caught up with Donna the day after Donna Jean and Tricksters performed live in the New York studios of Sirius satellite radio for the Grateful Dead Channel.
HT: So with Donna Jean & The Tricksters, everybody in this band is a vocalist, right?
DJ: Yes, we have seven really good singers in this band. It’s very unique. The range in what we can do vocally is just tremendous and we’ve only really begun to scratch the surface of what we can do. So it’s a real thrill for me to have this many vocalists to work with. We get to do so many things. Everybody’s a songwriter, too. We’re never at a loss for anything to play.
HT: It seems like a lot of the songs on the album are individually credited though. Was it a situation where different people brought in a song to the band or was it something more organically grown on stage as you rehearsed and played on stage? You played quite a while before going into the studio right?
DJ: We played about a year, going on a year. Obviously, some people had just written songs and they went on the album, and then Jeff Mattson and I did co-write two songs together, which are “He Said She Said” and the song “Shelter”. So that kind of began our collaboration, instead of individuals bringing songs. So we’re already starting to work on our next record. I’m working on two more songs in collaboration with Dave Diamond and Jeff Mattson and Wendy has written a song with Dave Diamond, so we’re very inspired.
HT: You first hooked up with these guys at the Gathering of the Vibes and the Rex Benefit. But you were aware of them before that weren’t you?
DJ: I was aware of them. I had heard of the Zen Tricksters before but I had never heard them. So when I met them at the Gathering of the Vibes it was the first time I got to hear them play as a band and I got to sit in on a couple of songs then. Then of course later on that year we did that Rex Foundation benefit in New York City and the Zen Tricksters were the house band. I had asked for Wendy…I had met her at the Gathering of the Vibes too. She would come and sit in though she was never a member of the Zen Tricksters. But she would come in and sit in on several occasions and that’s how I met Wendy …when we did this benefit I asked that she be involved too. So that’s how Wendy came to be part of the band.
But in trading off tapes and CDs and learning one another’s material for that benefit show I got to really see what great players these guys are and that they had really moved on from being a Grateful Dead cover band, and had three or four CDs of their own material. I got to see that they were really good songwriters. So when we got up to New York to rehearse, we just really hit it off, both musically and personally. We decided by the end of that event that we were going to try to do some things together. The more we got into it and talked about it, the more we realized it was something we wanted to put our musical energy and focus into.
HT: I happened to hear the tail end of your performance on Sirius last night doing “‘Til The Morning Comes,” a song that you said you never performed with the Grateful Dead but always wanted to. I know you do a lot of your own original material, but also do some of the Dead catalog. How do you choose what other songs of the Dead canon to do?
DJ: We really enjoy doing that song and it’s a real crowd pleaser. We just do what songs are meaningful to us. We don’t necessarily to the by-rote songs that everybody does. Like we do the song off of, I believe it’s…is it Mars Hotel? “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away”?
HT: That’s Wake of The Flood.
DJ: Wake of the Flood! That’s it. Yeah. So we do that one. We do the song “France”, and that was from Shakedown Street. And what we are doing that is a little bit of a changeup from what bands who do Grateful Dead songs do, is that I’m singing lead on a lot of the songs I used to sing backup on with the Grateful Dead, Like “Playing in the Band”, “Ship of Fools”.
HT: There is a whole generation of people who are just now being turned on to the music of the Grateful Dead—young kids. How does it feel to be bringing this music and spirit to a new generation of fans?
DJ: The range in age of people who come to our shows is teenagers to fifty and sixty year olds, because the music truly never stopped. And this next generation, a lot of these kids feel the same way we did back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. They want adventure and magic to come with the music. For a lot of people it’s just not enough to go to a show and if you went the next night, it would be exactly the same. The same riffs played exactly the same way. There’s just a group of kids coming up who feel the same way. They want to go to an adventure as much as they want to go to a show. The jam band scene really provides that and I think it’s around to stay for a long time to come.
HT: Certainly the Dead sparked the whole jam band culture and scene. A lot of those bands took off and didn’t replace it but took the spirit and moved forward with it. Are there any bands outside of the Grateful Dead family that you see as particularly carrying the torch right now?
DJ: Well, the obvious ones. Ratdog is really doing well. Phil is still out there doing his thing. Mickey and Billy are joining in on certain occasions and doing things as well. So the original band members are still out there playing it and doing it. In that way, it’s totally being kept alive by the original members. Then of course you have some of the young bands like Tea Leaf Green, who is a San Francisco band, who are continuing to carry the torch. I really like Tea Leaf Green. I think they’re a good little band.
HT: There was the Heart of Gold Band post-Dead for a short time is that right? And then you revitalized that years later?
DJ: What happened to the Heart of Gold Band is we did a tour out in California. We got back and [Keith’s brother] Brian Godcheaux developed really developed tinnitus and has been unable to play amplified music. He was our soloist. This was in 2003 maybe? So that would have been hard to try to find a replacement. And as well my son Zion Godcheaux, he was starting to get the vision for his band Boombox back in those days so he wanted to put his focus and energy into that. So we thought, instead of just trying to resurrect this thing and keep on changing members, let’s just let it rest. And it was literally at that time, maybe a year later that I met up with the Tricksters. They were a ready-made band for me. Everything totally fell into place. They’re just the perfect fit for me. And Boombox is doing great as you well know.
HT: I’m not sure a lot of people know this, but you were a backup singer in Muscle Shoals as a young woman. Do you remember what your first recording session was, and how did you get into that?
DJ: Studios just started popping up around my little home town, my little po-dunk northwest town in Alabama. The first major thing I got involved with. I think my first paid recording session was with Ray Stevens at FAME recording. I can’t remember if he was producing the session or if he was recording. But I first started recording demos when I was 12. When I was 15 and 16 I was singing on demos at both of the studios—FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound. By the time I was 18, late in my senior year of high school and thereafter, I was singing on major recording sessions and hit records. So I got an early start. But it was just because these studios were there. All of my friends were all of these musicians.
HT: So your connection was largely that you knew the musicians too?
DJ: Yeah, they played at my sock-hops and I would get up and sing sometimes. So it was a natural progression when Atlantic records started coming down and bringing artists to record. They would use our vocal backup group, and of course the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. The big, big break for Muscle Shoals music came with Percy Sledge’s hit “When A Man Loves A Woman,” I was involved in that. Then Boz Scaggs came out from California and I was on his album. I was on Cher’s first solo album, which she did at Muscle Shoals Sound.
HT: You sang on some Elvis records too, right?
DJ: Yes, in Memphis. We did the Memphis sessions—“Suspicious Minds” and “In The Ghetto” were two of the biggest hits to come out of that.
HT: It sounds like you had a fairly successful and lucrative career as a studio singer. Why did you decide to move?
DJ: I had a real lucrative career going. But I decided I wanted some more adventure in my life. I had been in the Muscle Shoals area all of my life. I had always wanted to go to California. A friend of mine moved out there and sort of made the way for me to make that transition, which was a huge one. I was this little Southern girl. I had been in music, but I hadn’t really been anywhere. I had just been in the studios and had not done too much travel. I made that huge transition out to San Francisco. That’s where I saw The Grateful Dead. Everybody was into the Dead and they made me go to a show. I got my little pea-brain blown and it absolutely changed my life. I turned to some friends sitting next to me. It was at Winterland in San Francisco, and I said: ‘When I sing again it’s going to be with that band.’
HT: I was reviewing Dennis McNally’s book [What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been] last night, and he mentions that you and Keith both had sort of a dream or a vision that you would be in the Grateful Dead. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
DJ: It was a very special and unique time back in those days. One thing is that Keith and I had no idea that the Grateful Dead were looking for a keyboard. Pigpen was really on his way to passing from this earth. They were looking for a keyboard player. We had no idea. I came home one day, and I said: ‘Keith let’s listen to some Grateful Dead.’ And he said ‘Nope. I don’t want to listen to it anymore. I want to play it.’ I said, ‘Well okay, let’s go get in the band.’ So we found where Jerry was going to be playing with one of the incarnations of his Garcia Band thing, and I just kind of tapped him on the shoulder as he was going back stage and I said: ‘My husband and I have something we need to talk to you about.’ And he actually came out and sat in the audience with us because we were too scared to go backstage. I said, ‘Well, Keith is your new piano player and I need your home telephone number so we can hook up a time to get together.’ Isn’t that bold? And he gave it to me! So within a couple of weeks Keith was in the band. They asked me to be in the band at that time as well. But I wanted Keith to be able to do it first, so I held back for a couple of tours before I joined. It was very much a cosmic thing. It just kills you what a real perceptive person that Jerry Garcia was. He picked up on it—that this was real. He just looked at me real intently and he knew it was really happening.
HT: What inspired y’all to approach him and do that?
DJ: We knew that we were supposed to be in the band. I believe in those kinds of “ordained times,” for lack of a better word.
HT: The synchronicity…
DH: Synchronicity! That’s the word.
HT: The years y’all were in the band were very fruitful times.
DJ: Absolutely. Hunter and Garcia and Weir and Barlow were so prolific during the ‘70s. I would say most of the classic Grateful Dead songs came out of that decade.
HT: You were an established and very talented singer at the time. But you must be aware that there was, over time, a contingent of deadheads who were critical of your contributions to the band.
DJ: Well, I agree with them. I can’t listen to so much of it. I just go ‘Oh, my god, What was I thinking? Where was I?’ I think about all that was going on back in those days and I kind of know. But the other thing is that I was trying to find who I was as a solo vocalist and I was used to a studio atmosphere where it’s very pristine and I could always hear everything. I was always a studio singer, so getting on stage with the loudest sound system in the world with a little tiny monitor was pretty daunting. It was always very hard to hear. So I have to say to the gainsayers there, I just have to on a certain level agree with them. I’m singing better now than I ever have though.
HT: You were part of some of these almost mythical events in Grateful Dead lore—the European Tours, the Egypt shows. What are some of your strongest memories from those travels around the world?
DJ: Playing those wonderful theaters in Europe was very special. The theater setting is my favorite musical setting. You get the best sound and you’re in a place that was designed for music instead of a hockey rink or something. So I loved playing those beautiful venues. Traveling Europe was fantastic. That was my first tour. We started out in New York and ended up in Europe and that was my first time on stage. So that was pretty heavy. Then of course, the Egypt trip was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life and probably ever will do. We were the first band to get permission from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities to do something like that. So it was a real groundbreaking thing. It was amazing looking out into the crowd and seeing this mix of Egyptians and all of these deadheads who had come from all over. It was an amazing experience. We wired the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid for echo. We traveled up and down the Nile for three days and three nights after the three gigs we did. That was fabulous. So…it’s been rich.
HT: Speaking of Egypt, one of the songs you wrote for the Dead was “Sunrise”, and it was performed for one of the last times in Egypt. Can you tell me about writing that song?
DJ: “Sunrise” is a lyrical interpretation of three or four sunrise services that I went to performed by Rolling Thunder. So a lot of that song is based on the memorial service that Rolling Thunder did in mine and Keith’s backyard in Tiburon, Calif. So a large part of that was based on Rex Jackson’s memorial service.
HT: You wrote a few songs for the Dead. Were you involved in songwriting before that?
DJ: I had written songs before. But Garcia really encouraged me when we were making what turned out to be Terrapin Station. He was very encouraging. That was ‘Sunrise’.
HT: During the hiatus, Jerry was in the Keith and Donna Band.
DJ: Yes, he played in the Keith and Donna band for a little while before we kind of scooted out on our own. As well we were playing in his band. There was a time when I was in three bands at once, with a baby.
HT: I was wondering about that. Having an infant son myself, I can only imagine that that would be challenging.
DJ: It was challenging, because it was hard having him on the road and it was very hard leaving him. So that was always tough for me.
HT: Did those challenges lead to y’all’s departure from the band?
DJ: The departure was a real mutual decision. Keith and I knew we needed to get out of the band and do something else, and get our family together. And of course me and Keith being on the road together 24/7 and never having a break from one another. It was tough. It was a real tough time. The band knew that we needed to be out of the band too. So it was a real mutual decision and it wasn’t all weird or anything. Of course, I’m still very good friends with all of these guys. They’re my brothers.
HT: You mentioned Zion and Boombox. To what extent did you encourage your children to be musical when they were growing up?
DJ: Think about this. You just had a baby. I’m sure that you’re wife said, ‘I’m going to sing to it because every thing that goes into that little being.’ Imagine, I was on the road with the Grateful Dead until I was eight and a half months pregnant. That’s all that music going into that kid. So it’s in his bones. Literally, in his bones. So he started playing drums when he was two years old. Mickey Hart put some sticks in Zion’s hands. I said ‘Mickey, he’s gonna put his eye out!’ I got mad at him. So Zion took those sticks and he started playing the rhythmical beat to ‘The Wheel’ on the bed. At two. It floored me. So he’s always been really musical. All of that music you hear coming out of Boombox, Zion writes all that and plays all those instruments. He plays everything. Mickey and Billy built Zion his first drum set when he was four. So there was no way he was not going to be a musician. Then Kinsman, my younger son. He also just finished his first CD, with a band called Grown Folk.
HT: How did you meet your husband David?
DJ: He came to audition to be the bass player in the original Heart of Gold Band. This was after Keith had died. That’s how David McKay and I got together. Then in the 1980s, I had a baby immediately. I had seven-year-old Zion and a baby, and I just had to take some time and be a mother. I had to get the family together and tight and together and raise another little boy. I’m glad I did it that way. But in the mid 1990s I really started getting inspired and started getting the itch to get back in there and do some music.
HT: You did a solo record in 1998?
DJ: Yeah. It was called Donna Jean. Then we did the Heart of Gold band.
HT: What prompted you to move back to Muscle Shoals?
DJ: We hooked up with Will McFarland, who is a Muscle Shoals guy. He’s a session player. He was the session player on most of the sessions there in Muscle Shoals. We hooked up with him. Plus my mother was getting aged. I knew it was time to go back home. As well we had hooked up with Will McFarland musically. He wrote the song “No Better Way” [on Donna Jean & The Tricksters]. So we had a musical connection and a family connection that kind of coincided to make it a move that we needed to make.
HT: It sounds like you got out of the music scene, at least in the public eye, for a while.
DJ: Yes, but that was then, this is now. This is a whole different story let me tell you. I’ve never been busier and I’ve never done a six-week tour in my life, except for Europe. My life is full.
HT: It sounds like y’all are having a blast. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
DJ: Thank you.