Donna Jean Godchaux of the Grateful Dead

by Corey O'Flanagan

Donna Jean Godchaux is the only woman to ever be a member of the Grateful Dead. Along with her former husband, Keith, she was in the group from 1972-1979 as a singer and songwriter. She joined them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Pre-Dead, Godchaux sang backup in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, appearing on the Percy Sledge classic "When A Man Loves A Woman." She later sang back up on two of Elvis Presley's most famous songs: "Suspicious Minds" and "In The Ghetto."

In this episode, we talk about those Elvis sessions and get the story behind a song she wrote for the Dead called "Sunrise," which appears on the Terrapin Station album. But we start the show with the story behind "Shelter," a song she wrote in 2007 with her guitarist, Jeff Mattson, that she remixed and re-released in 2021.


Why It Was Important To Get A Fresh Take On "Shelter"

Well, it's two-fold. Jeff and I had talked for years and years about redoing the song and at least adding some new background vocals on the choruses that we wanted to be heavier and more gospelly-sounding - just a deeper groove. In the initial recording of it, we didn't get there, so both Jeff and I, for all of these years, have thought we would really love to redo that, and we were able to during this pandemic when everybody had the time and nobody was really traveling.

I live in Alabama, Jeff Mattson lives in New York on Long Island, and we talk back and forth. We have major recording studios down here, and one of our best friends, Jimmy Nutt, owns the best studio here in Muscle Shoals - it's called the Nutt House. We took the hard drive from the track and brought it down here to Muscle Shoals, and it really came into fruition.

The lyrics to "Shelter" and the meaning of the song really translates perfectly with what's going on in America today, and as a matter of fact, in the world. We thought the combination of those two things is the prescription. Get the hard drive, get in the studio, and redo what you want to do and get this thing out because its time is now.

When we did the background vocals, they were so strong and so pronounced and just took the song into another direction, so we needed to redo the rhythm section to pump it up, to meet where this was headed. My husband David McKay, who is a really fine bass player, he replaced the bass and then Jimmy Nutt is also a drummer, so he replaced a bunch of the drum track.

I wanted the rhythm section to be more tribal sounding and just pound it out and make it as forceful as what the lyrics were saying and indeed what we're going through. I think the combination of the vocals and re-doing the bass and the drums took it into that place that both Jeff and I wanted it to be, and we're thrilled at how it turned out.


Lyrical Inspiration for "Shelter" and What It Means Now

At the time, there was something pretty heavy going on overseas, which really takes place in the lyrics of the song. I just incorporated that feeling and that intensity of what was happening. It was real at the time and important at the time, which was why I wrote the song the way that I did.

But now, in 2021, the lyrics are even more up-front because of what we've been going through and what the world is going through - it's heavy out there! Just about any way you can think about it, there are obstacles to overcome these days, and that's why I ended every chorus with "there is shelter for the soul." Because you look around and you go, "But where is the safe place?" You're in Alabama and you've got tornadoes, and you're up north and you've got all this snow and everything is coming to a screeching halt. You've got the fires in California and earthquakes and all of the things - and that's just America. Then there's all of this plethora of things that are going on in the world at large, so now is the time we're all searching for that place where we feel some kind of safety. That's why I ended the choruses with "shelter for the soul" - it's where you hang your hat.

The song speaks to people's need to find peace within when there's so much chaos on the outside. You've got to find that place or you'll go under, and we can't do that and we're not going to do that. We're going to rise to this occasion and we're going to get through with flying colors, but it's going to be a haul and we've got to persevere.


Will She Ever Stop Singing?

Not to the extent that I used to, but I'm going to always sing. I've been doing that since I was 4 years old and my little neighbor boy hit me in the ear trying to get me to stop singing on the back porch... I don't think anything is going to stop me now. He actually burst my eardrum he hit me so hard... "stop singing!"


The Grateful Dead Song "Sunrise"

A lot of things haven't been told, but I did write that alone, and the reason songwriting like that came out in me at that time, was Garcia said to me, "I want you to write a song for this album," and I just got to it.

The band had been hanging out a lot with Rolling Thunder 1 with the idiom "medicine man," and so the song "Sunrise" is about sunrise services we attended and what Rolling Thunder would do.

It's very literal actually. Rolling Thunder would conduct a sunrise service, so that's how that came about.

Image on the back cover of <i>Terrapin Station</i>, inspired in part by "Sunrise"Image on the back cover of Terrapin Station, inspired in part by "Sunrise"
It's different than the other songs on the album in a way, but in the deeper way it's not, it's right in there. You'll notice on the back cover of Terrapin Station is the skeleton with the eagle feather. It's got a very Native American feel to it, so it's in there, it's just not totally obvious.

I write on the keyboard, on the piano. We lived in Tiburon, California, when I wrote the song and I think the lyrics and the music came together at the same time. I would sit at the piano and it just flowed. I can't explain it - it just flowed together and it's one of the easiest songs I've ever written.

I love that song, and of course we all loved Rolling Thunder. It's a deep cut, but it was not a frivolous thing to write it or to sing it. I'm very proud of that song.


Medicine Drum

On "Sunrise," we incorporated one of the Native American medicine men from Los Angeles. We cut it in Los Angeles, and he came and brought the medicine drum, so what you hear on the end is the real deal.

It was like a sanctuary in that studio when he was playing that. It was very heavy.


What Made The Cornell Show of 1977 So Special?

Of all the Grateful Dead concerts, one in particular has grown an outsized legend: Their performance at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, on May 8, 1977. The audio is in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, and an entire book was written about the show.

Well, that's a loaded question because we did so many shows, and if you would have asked me at the time, is this show special? I'd tell you it's special because every time the Grateful Dead plays it's special. Whether they're really, really on, or if it was not an on night, it's still the Grateful Dead and it's still the most unique music you're going to hear.

So as far as concerts like Cornell are concerned, now that I look back on it and hear what we were doing, I think, Gosh, we did that? I was in that band? And it's pretty incredible. But a lot of people ask me what was my favorite show, or do you remember this show? I have distinct memories of just a few shows, but we played so many and there were so many tours and so many hockey rinks and just playing music all the time, it's hard to delineate between one show and the next. It's hard to describe.

It's still crazy to me that it really did happen. I wouldn't take anything for playing in that band for those people, that music, at that time. You put all of those things together and that makes magic. I consider myself one of the most fortunate people in the world to have had the opportunity to do that and to be around the incredible people that I was around. And not only getting to listen to that music all the time but getting to be a part of it was awesome.


Donna Jean Godchaux and Jeff MattsonDonna Jean Godchaux and Jeff Mattson

How Grateful Dead Songs Varied Live

Well that happened with every song, every night, all of the time. But, whether it was tempo or the whole sense of the song and the vibe of the song, everything changed so often and with every show, which is why the Grateful Dead audience didn't want to miss a show. Even though they could've played the same song again the next night, the same show again, it was going to be different and they knew it. That's the beauty of the Grateful Dead and that's the attraction that so many hundreds of thousands of people had to the Grateful Dead: You go to a concert and it's an adventure.


"When A Man Loves A Woman"

With Percy, it was the magic in Muscle Shoals coming together, and all of a sudden here is this massive hit record recorded in this little northwestern podunk town in Alabama, and how did that happen? Well, all of the musicians including the Swampers,2 we all grew up together and we were all friends and we were all musically inclined, so when the studios started springing up in the Muscle Shoals area, that's where we all ended up.

I was in love with David Hood, who was one of the Swampers, when I was 13. That's how far back we go.

The whole thing that happened with Percy was very, very organic. It wasn't put together by a company or anything, it was put together because of this star spill on Alabama. Then this whole musical thing happened here with Aretha and Otis Redding, and just so many hit records came out of this little town... Paul Simon. So many hit records came out of Muscle Shoals.


"Suspicious Minds"

We were thrilled beyond thrilled to get the call that Elvis Presley wanted us little podunk girls from northwestern Alabama to come and sing on his comeback album. When I was 9 years old, maybe 10, we lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I went to the theater to see Love Me Tender. You couldn't even hear the dialogue, there was so much screaming.

I was just overwhelmed with Elvis Presley, and if I had known then that I would be singing on one of his records, I don't think I could have lived. But, long story short, Elvis was so encouraging, kind, and he was wonderful to us. So with all the negativity that was going on about Elvis, he was a very kind man at his heart and his soul and I wouldn't take anything in the world for being able to sing with him.

There was a period of time in the Jerry Garcia Band that Keith and I were in when the drummer, Ron Tutt, was Elvis' road drummer. We would do Garcia Band tours and he would be on tour with Elvis, and then we would come together. We were making Cats Under The Stars [1978 album], and I said, "Tutt, I don't know why I'm all of a sudden asking you to do this, but the next time you see Elvis, would you just tell him I said hello, and that I sang on 'Suspicious Minds' and 'In The Ghetto.'" He goes, "Oh yeah, I can do that."

Then a few days later, Tutt had to leave to go on the road with Elvis. I had had emergency surgery and I was waking up from surgery, in recovery, and my phone rang in the hospital and it was Ron Tutt telling me that Elvis had died. He said, "I saw him the other day and I told him what you said, and he said, "Well, tell her I remember her and I hope I get to see her again."

After Percy Sledge and all the people had started recording here in Muscle Shoals, we were a background vocal group. We worked on sessions, and we were called Southern Comfort. My friend Jeannie Greene and I were the ones that were very much local, we lived here. The other two girls, one lived in Nashville, I think, and the other had gotten married and lived in, I think Arizona. But we had been working together for years by the time we worked with Elvis, so he knew who we were.

It was real odd the way that he even got to hear "Suspicious Minds" because Colonel Parker would not let him record anything that they didn't publish. Elvis was in the studio at American Sound in Memphis, and our friend Mark James, who wrote "Suspicious Minds," had an office there. Elvis walked by Mark's office and Mark was playing the demo that we had done - we had done the background vocals on his version of "Suspicious Minds." Elvis walked in and said, "I want that song and I want those girls." So, against all the odds, his management let him record that. He prevailed and got to record "Suspicious Minds."


Returning To Action In Front Of Audiences

Musicians who have been used to being on the road and in front of people, we're going to have to renegotiate how to re-enter this new world, and it's not going to be the same. So I'm loathe to say what I'm going to do or not do until I walk my way through to the new norm. So, we'll see about that.

May 5, 2021

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Further reading:
Grateful Dead Songfacts
Aretha to The Black Keys: The Muscle Shoals Story

photos: Susana Millman

Footnotes:

  • 1] Chief Rolling Thunder was part of a caravan of 32 Native Americans who traveled from New York to California in 1967. There, he met with the Grateful Dead and they shared ideas. (back)
  • 2] The Swampers are the musicians at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, immortalized in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song "Sweet Home Alabama." (back)

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