It's easy to tell that the Grateful Dead influenced Larry Hirshberg. In his kitchen at his East Missoula home, Hirshberg makes a cup of coffee in his Jerry Garcia T-shirt as his playlist, on shuffle, plays a Grateful Dead song. And when he sits down at the table to talk about his new record, The Rise and Fall of Maple Bar Mountain, he traces his musicianship back to a Dead show in Cheney, Wash. in October 1978. He was 20 years old then, a transfer student in his junior year at the University of Montana with good grades, and he'd never picked up a guitar. After the Cheney show he was hooked. The house on Eddy Street where he lived was full of musicians and he had one of them teach him some chords.
"Within a few weeks I had lost interest in school," he says. "All I wanted to do was sit and learn how to play guitar. And so by March of '79, I had dropped out of school and bought my own guitar and left town."
His obsession led him to San Francisco, where he spent time in Victorian apartments off Haight Street jamming with other musicians and trying to ignore the rise of punk bands like the Dead Kennedys.
"I hated punk music," he says. "There was an intense hardcore punk thing going on which I encountered briefly but just ran from every time I saw it. In the end I hated San Francisco because I really wanted to be back in Missoula."
He did get back to Missoula briefly before ending up in Santa Fe, N.M. where he started a band called The Porcupines with Banning Eyre, now of NPR's AfroPop Worldwide. Back then they played English Beat-styled music. They ended up in Eugene, all the while frequenting Dead shows as much as possible. There was a brief stint in Whitefish where Hirshberg played in a cover band called Beaten Path. "It was 1985 and so we were doing just horrible 1980s stuff and '70s stuff. ZZ Top kind of stuff. It was bad. The high point was they had a legs contest at the Palace Bar in Whitefish and so we got to judge that. It was just horrible."
Hirshberg moved to Boston where he reformed a band with his former Porcupines crew called Strunk and White, which incorporated funk and jazz along with other elements of style. He also started playing in a country-styled band called The Bag Boys with Nashville musician Paul Birch.
"I didn't get country music until then," Hirshberg says. "There were cool country radio shows in Boston at the time that I listened to but No Depression [magazine] hadn't started yet. But we were playing stuff that would be called alt-country."
When Hirshberg finally moved back to Missoula for good it was with fiddler Grace Decker, and the two of them married and started a band called Th' Spectacles, a guitar/fiddle duo that played about 60 of Hirshberg's originals plus a handful of odd covers by Mercy Dee, Mudflaps, Tom Waits, Iris Dement and Aimee Mann. For a while they also backed up local stalwart Tom Catmull as the Tom Catmull Combo and the Tom Catmull Band. By 2001, Hirshberg and Decker had divorced and Hirshberg quit drinking and going to bars. Since then he's been in several other bands including the last one he fronted, called The Trillionaires.
When he plays acoustic shows at the Red Bird Wine Bar or the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs, it's inevitably a different experience than listening to his albums. His solo recordings, like Packing For Nowhere, often utilize strange sound effects and spoken word and come off as more David Lynch than anything new age or hippie. In fact, Hirshberg isn't the stereotype of a Dead follower. He has a sarcastic, biting sense of humor. He's never really found a mainstream market for his music, and that's been an annoyance to him for decades even though part of his musical aesthetic is to never pigeonhole himself.
"It's always been about hybrid music for me," he says, "and that's always been my problem."
Listening to his newest solo album, The Rise and Fall of Maple Bar Mountain, (or any other song from his bands dating back to the early 1980s), you probably won't hear the Dead. You'll hear songs with psychedelic and blues tinges, but you'll think more of David Byrne or Tom Petty before you'll think Jerry Garcia. If you listen carefully, you'll also get how much of a wordsmith Hirshberg is. In the final song, a stomping, snappy, soulful tune, he sings,"What's new is who died in the meantime, and the hole in the sky that she left. What's new is the Lazuli Bunting who flew down like the jewel of the west. I'm blue! that's so old, but I'm strangely awake." It's in this storytelling where Hirshberg feels the Dead seep through.
"I can hear it in my writing, it's much more about Robert Hunter's songs," he says. "But everyone associates the whole Dead thing with Garcia and the scene and everything that goes with it."
The album, which features musicians Brandon Zimmer and Travis Yost, also has an uplifting feel, but without the cheese. Hirshberg has a family now, a wife of nine years, Debbie, who he says has made him more relaxed, and his daughter, Judi, 3, who sometimes joins him on Downspout, his eclectic KBGA show where he plays everything from Mastadon to George Jones to, of course, the Dead. And even punk songs. Judi has Type-1 diabetes, and Hirshberg often stays up late now to make sure she gets her insulin. During that time he busies himself in his recording studio. It's solo by necessity, but he loves it anyway.
"A lot of people might say, 'What's the point of doing it if you don't have an audience?'" he says. "I don't know what the point is. But I have tried to not do music, and I can't. It's in me. I love to play and I love to sing and I love to write songs. I wanted to be the Grateful Dead when I started, but now I'm just rolling forward. At this point I've been playing for 33 years and it is what it is. I'm not going to have a successful pop band, and I'm fine with that. I'm going to write songs, I'm going to play when I can, where I can, and I'm going to take it as it comes."
Larry Hirshberg plays a CD release party at the Badlander Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 10 PM with Tom Catmull, Travis Yost and Caroline Keys. Free.