Donna Jean (Godchaux) MacKay

interview by David Gans
March 28, 1998
Philadelphia, PA


David Gans: Well, here I am in Philadelphia with Donna Jean MacKay. Hello!

Donna Jean MacKay: Hello!

DG: This interview has been a long time coming.

Donna: I know, David, it really has.

DG: Where have you been since 1979?

Donna: Oh my goodness. Preparing, I guess you would say, for today. Really. But, since 1979 -- you know, a lot of water was under the bridge, after getting out of the Grateful Dead. You know, Keith and I were pretty wasted. <laugh> It was a long haul, on the road. And so, I really did need a break from all of it, and I felt free to take that break. I don't know, I guess probably about five years ago, I started wanting to write music again. Not just *wanting* to write music again, I was *inspired* to write music again. That's a real good motivator, when you get inspired, my goodness.

DG: What was it that inspired you to start writing music again?

Donna: I really -- I don't know that anybody who's inspired could give you an answer to that question. "Inspiration, move me brightly." <chuckle> When it comes, it just comes.

DG: Yeah.

Donna: Things begin to form inside you that are maybe different, or reflect a growth or whatever. I just started getting lines to songs, and ideas for songs, and musical things. And my husband David started really getting musical -- and I would find as I was writing lyrics and had a little melody going here, I would say, you know, "I've got this going," and he would go, "Well, I've got *this* going!" And it would be the same key, it would be the same thing. So it was a real confirmation at that time that we really needed to invest ourselves once again musically, and begin to share that. So that's what we did. And we spent about a year writing, and at that time we felt a real need and a real pull, actually, to go down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which is where I'm from, as some of you may or may not know, but that's where I'm from and got my start in the music business, and started doing session work in Muscle Shoals.

For some reason, we just wanted to be down there. We went to Alabama on a vacation and met Will McFarlane and his wife Janet, and began to get musical together, you know, and establish a relationship. Muscle Shoals is such a musical town anyway. It's where Aretha, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Leon Russell, Paul Simon -- all these people recorded there. Many, many hits were recorded there. It's just a musical place. We got down there and got real musical, and ended up cutting the "Donna Jean" CD at Muscle Shoals Sound, which is my old stomping ground. So that was a real cathartic experience. It's been great, it's been great.

DG: Did I see your picture in a Boz Scaggs album?

Donna: Yes! I sang background on the Boz Scaggs album, "Loan Me A Dime," which was recorded in Muscle Shoals. That's right -- many a year ago! We did an album with Cher. We did the Percy Sledge "When A Man Loves A Woman" stuff. Ben E. King, Joe Tex, and Joe Simon. It's when R&B was really getting to be the big deal, and our vocal group were the ones that did most of the background vocal work down there.

DG: Did it have a name?

Donna: We called ourselves Southern Comfort. Isn't that sweet? A lady named Jeannie Green, whose husband Marlon produced "When A Man Loves A Woman," and Ginger and Mary Holliday, who I believe are still background singers in Nashville, if I'm not mistaken. I have not seen them in years.

DG: So you were living in Northern California --

Donna: Yes. I call myself a genuine half-breed. I spent 23 years in Alabama, and then I went out to San Francisco and I was 23 years there. Of course, now I've been back in Alabama for a few years, but I'm a half-breed. They're both home. They really are both home. The Bay Area is my home, but so is Muscle Shoals.

DG: Are you touring now with a band?

Donna: Yes. We're touring; we're right now getting dates for late spring and summer. Yes. I'm loving it. I'm loving being out there again, I tell you. I just love it.

DG: Do you have kids?

Donna: I have two kids. Zion, who's mine and Keith's son, is 24 and he plays in our band. If that's not cool, I don't know what is. And he looks *exactly* like Keith. It's just profound.

DG: What does he play?

Donna: In the Donna Jean Band, he plays some rhythm guitar and some percussion. But he's a singer/songwriter. He's getting a band of his own, and all that. He's a remarkable, musical young man.

And I have a son, 15, whose name is Kinsman. And Kinsman is in a band. <chuckle>

DG: What kind of music does he play?

Donna: More kind of banging stuff, you know, that uh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh kind of music. They're really great musicians. Our guitar player, Will McFarlane, has a son named Robbie, and then our piano player, Joey Holder, has a son named Justin. And my son Kinsman and Robbie and Justin are in this band together. So I tell you, it's just. . . musical family chairs. <laugh>

DG: Tell me more about the album.

Donna: All the songs are original. I wrote a couple alone, and my husband David and I wrote some of them, and then Will and I wrote some of them. So it's a band collaboration, as far as the writing of the songs. It's very rock 'n' roll. It's a rock 'n' roll record -- of course, because we're in America, and we're subject to so many influences musically, there's a lot of musical influences in the music. There's a little bit of reggae feel in one, a bit of New Orleans, kind of a Little Feat type sound on another one. Gosh, I don't know; it's American rock 'n' roll. Rootsy American music.


David Gans: Tell me a little bit about David [MacKay].

Donna Jean MacKay: David is a Bay Area musician. Started playing bass when he was about 14. Ended up -- do you remember the group the Tazmanian Devils?

DG: I sure do.

Donna: David was one of the founding members of that group, and played in the Tazmanian Devils. Then he went down to LA and started doing a lot of session work, and came back up to San Francisco, and that's when I met him.

DG: I remember hearing a few years ago that you had become a born-again Christian and were involved in ministry work.

Donna: Mm-hm.

DG: Are you still doing that?

Donna: Mm-hm. We have a nice, swinging little church <chuckle> in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It's very musical. Will is there, my husband's there, I'm there. We sing in church, you know. It's very untraditional, very -- what you would probably call unreligious. Spiritual, but unreligious. <laugh>

DG: <laugh> You're not a moralistic, bible-thumping fundamentalist or anything?

Donna: Oh, you know, the way I look at it, Christianity never was meant to be a religion. It's life, and life flow, and that's how I choose to live my life. I want spirit and I want life. So much of the time, people's interpretation, especially these days, of a Christian is a right-wing, hate group [member], which is absolutely opposite of what it's supposed to be. And so it's real difficult even to make that kind of association, because of the misassociations and misapplications of what Christ was really all about.

DG: Well, like so many things in the popular culture, there are people who are quietly going about doing it, in their own way, who aren't calling huge amounts of attention to themselves, or giving it a bad name.

Donna: Yeah, it's real difficult when people are blowing up abortion clinics and it has the name "Christian" on it, or whatever. It just hurts. It's awful. It's something that makes someone who is identified with Christ in any way absolutely recoil. I want my life to be expressive of someone who loves and is full of life and joy and the good things that we know should be there when you call yourself spiritual. So, we're not religious, no. I don't even like the word! <laugh> But spiritual, yes.

DG: So it's not Christian rock we're hearing, on your album.

Donna: No, this is not -- no, no, not at all. It's not even akin to what you would call contemporary Christian music.

DG: Just good rock 'n' roll.

Donna: It's rock 'n' roll, and it's saying things that I feel very deeply inside me, and as far as I'm concerned, if you do anything else, you're not being true to who you are. I'm 50 years old! I don't have time! <chuckle> -- you know, to be expressing something that is not what is reflective of who I am. But, I tell you, David, it has been absolutely wonderful being back out on the road. It's very different in this way: when I left the Grateful Dead, we were playing hockey rinks. You know, such large venues. And we were whisked in and out of situations, limousines, and blah blah blah, and I never really got to touch the people.

In this configuration, in the Donna Jean Band, the people are there, and I get to go out in the audience and I get to. . . <choking up> . . . It's really even hard, you know. . . I get to touch people, and love on 'em. Which I didn't get to do before. So as far as I'm concerned, the expression is much deeper, and more reflective of what I want to represent. I love people. I just love 'em. I just throw my arms around their little necks. . . <laugh>

DG: <laugh>

Donna: It's great. I'm having the time of my life, actually. I really am.

DG: Well, we're here in Philadelphia at this "Dick's Picks 10" [CD] release party thing. We were talking before I turned on the tape recorder about this weird thing about being a famous Deadhead and a famous ex-Grateful Dead singer, and all that stuff. How do you feel about that in retrospect now, just that phenomenon and that culture that you were a part of? I mean, it was more than music. It was music, and that in itself is controversial, too --

Donna: Right.

DG: -- but there was more to it than that.

Donna: Well, like I told you, when I left Muscle Shoals, it was at the height of my career, as far as being a session vocalist. We were very in demand. I just got to a point where I thought, there's gotta be more than this. I was after something that was more than music. To be honest with you, I really wanted something spiritual. I really wanted that. And I had always wanted to go to California, so I packed up, and really didn't *intend* on going to California to be musical again. I just wanted some new experiences in my life. That's really a lot of what I had had from when I was 12 years old. Recording studios started popping up in my little town. I mean, that's an incredible thing, when you think about it. Muscle Shoals became one of the recording capitals of the world, and I got to grow up in that. I was hanging out at recording studios at 12.

So I was ready for a change, for something new. I just wanted to see something different, and wanted to go to California. And then, all of my friends -- I was actually working at Union Oil, because one of my friends worked there, in [San Francisco], and everybody was going to see the Grateful Dead. I, of course, had never heard them. I'm gonna get real honest here. <chuckle> So they said, "I want you to listen to some Grateful Dead records," and so I did. Coming from Muscle Shoals, where everything was very precise, everything was very worked out, and very together and. . . pristine, as far as sound and all of that. And I heard the records and I thought, what is the deal? I don't get it. I really don't get it. I remember thinking, they must be good-looking or something, and then I picked up --

DG: <chuckle>

Donna: -- I picked up an album cover and I went, no, that's not it.

DG: <laugh>

Donna: And so finally, I went -- they *made* me go, and I was sitting in the balcony of Winterland, in just about the back row [10/4/70]. I had not had any kind of drugs. I'd had nothing, because I had to go to work the next day, and I didn't want to be hung over and all that stuff. So I was straight. And it was the New Riders, then Quicksilver, and then the Airplane, and then the Grateful Dead. And so as each band came on, I thought, well, that was really good! That was really good, and *that* was really good. And then the Grateful Dead come on, and they were *on* that night. They were having a *good* night. And I went, oh my gosh! How do they *do* that?

And I just flipped. I realized that it was more than music. And that's what got my attention. I thought, this is more than -- well, this is it! This is more than music. This is something that is very spiritual. And you get to be musical while you're being spiritual. And I just thought, this is what I want to do. This is it. This is what I want to do.

Keith and I had begun kind of talking to one another, and of course most people know we got married, and there was one day where we were -- I had come home and I said, Keith, let's listen to some Grateful Dead. And we were just totally into it. And he goes, "I don't want to listen to it, I want to play it." And I went. . . "All right. Well then, how are we gonna do this?" And that's when we got in the car, and Garcia was playing down at Keystone Korner in San Francisco, and that's when Keith and I just kind of tugged on his shirt sleeve and asked him, could we could talk to him. And the next week we were in the Grateful Dead. We were in the band.

DG: What did you say?!

Donna: I said, "My husband and I have something we need to talk to you about." Jerry said, "Okay, well come on backstage." And Keith and I were too scared. We didn't know what to do, and we didn't go backstage. This is when they took a break.

A few minutes later, Garcia came out in the audience and sat down next to us. And at that angle, Keith couldn't see Jerry; he was on the other side of him. And I said, "Um, Keith, I think Garcia's hinting that he wants to talk to us. He's sitting right next to you." Keith just put his head down on the table and he turned around to Garcia and he goes," You'll have to talk to my wife. I can't talk to you right now." <laugh>

DG: <laugh>

Donna: So I said, "Jerry, now -- " Gosh, if I had known that everybody does this to him, I would have never had the nerve -- and I said, "Uh, Keith is -- I just know he's your new piano player." At that time, I had no idea that Pigpen was sick. I said, "So, we're gonna need your telephone number so that we can call you. <laugh> So Jerry gave us his home phone number!

I tried to be very nice, and I called the office several times and left messages. Of course, they didn't give him the message. I finally called him at home and I said, "Well, I'm having to call you at home because you weren't getting the messages." And he said, "Well, Grateful Dead rehearsal is gonna be on Sunday. You guys come on down," and he told me where it was gonna be.

So Keith and I went down there. We got there and it was just Jerry. The band had forgotten to tell him that rehearsal had been cancelled. So Keith and Garcia played, and I played Jerry a couple of songs that Keith and I had written and that I had sung, and blah blah blah. Jerry called Billy [Kreutzmann], and Billy came down, and so Billy and Jerry played. And they loved it. The next day was Grateful Dead rehearsal, and Keith came and played, and was in the band, the next day.

DG: Wow.

Donna: Jerry asked me would I sing in the band at that time, and I said -- I don't know if I told him the reason or not, but I know that the reason I had was I wanted Keith to get to do it before I did.

Maybe that's a Southern thing; I don't know. But I wanted Keith to get to do it first. And so he did a tour, I think maybe two tours, and then I joined. So it was one of those real unusual, once-in-a-lifetime things. I'm very glad and honored that I got the opportunity to be involved in something that -- you know, here we are in 1998, and it's as big as ever. The amazing thing that I have found, even in the Donna Jean Band as we go out, I remember thinking that most of the crowd would be 90 percent people who saw me in the band in the '70s, and it's the opposite. It's mostly young people. And so you see the transference into the next generation, and it's amazing. It's amazing.


David Gans: You were part of the Grateful Dead through some really, really peak creative years --

Donna Jean MacKay: Mm-hm. Oh, yeah. . .

DG: -- and then there was a period. . .

Donna: Creative-wise, boy -- there were a lot of studio albums done during that time. Hunter and Garcia were writing a lot, Weir and Barlow were writing a lot, and Garcia was encouraging me to write, and of course I wrote two or three songs. It was just a real creative time, no doubt about it.

DG: And this "Dick's Picks 10" [12/29-30/77 at Winterland] that we're celebrating here this weekend really showcases that band at its full power, really, and dynamic range. The thing that I noticed about playing that stuff back on the CD is how wonderfully dynamic the band is. There is immense power --

Donna: Mm-hm.

DG: -- and the ability to bring it *all* the way down.

Donna: Right.

DG: And if you look at the pictures of the band on stage at that time, you all were very, very close together on stage, and you can hear chatter between songs about the dynamics. There was a lot of consciousness of ensemble playing. And it just seemed that '77 was the Grateful Dead at a real creative peak.

Donna: I really think so. You can hear pros and cons about what was or wasn't going on with the band in the '70s, as far as the vocals being bad, or out of tune, all that stuff. You know, I've heard various and sundry descriptions of what people think about it. But I tell you, getting down to the nitty gritty, it was an extremely creative time in that band, and a lot of the -- "Franklin's Tower," you know, "Slipknot!", all of the great songs -- not all of them, of course, but a lot of the really good traditional Grateful Dead songs were written at that time.

I have real fond memories of Garcia introducing those songs at band rehearsal, and watching them come alive as we would begin to rehearse for a recording. It was tremendous, it really was.

DG: And yet, 14 months after the recording of this "Dick's Picks," you guys were out of the band. What happened?

Donna: Well, like I said, we were really wasted. You get a husband and wife on the road, and that is a prescription for, you name it. It was really hard on us. Coming into such a huge scene, like we did, and being thrust from one place into such a monumental and extended musical expression -- it's not only musical expression, but you get the whole Grateful Dead dynamic. It's just a huge thing. And all of the elements, which I won't go into right now, that were in place during that time -- it was a pretty hefty prescription for Keith and I to be. . . "in demise" <chuckle>, you might say.

And we realized that we had to get out of the band. We talked about it; we said, "We're not quitters. We don't know how to quit." But we knew we that we needed to be out of the band. It was nobody's fault, it's just what was happening. And never would there be any blame there in any way. Everybody's responsible for their own actions. But we knew we needed to be out of the band. Now, they did, too, and I can maybe take this opportunity to clarify. I get questions: "Did you guys quit or were you fired?" And I say very honestly, it was both. Very much both. I left a tour mid-tour once, and I can't remember what that tour was, but I left in the middle of the tour. I just said, I can't do this anymore.

So it was after that tour, then Keith and I did one more tour. And there was a meeting at mine and Keith's house, and the whole band came, and they -- I believe it was Bobby that said, "We think you guys need to do your own musical thing, and it's time for you to go and do what you want to do." And we said, we agree. That's where *we* were at. So it was a very mutual decision. But they did say that. I want to get that on record. There was a meeting at our house, and they let us know it was time, and we let them know we were definitely in agreement <chuckle> that it was time. Therefore, it was never real strained or weird. Keith and I just went about doing what we needed to do and so did they.

DG: People on the outside, I think, sometimes will find it hard to imagine -- "How could you possibly not want to be in the Grateful Dead? I mean, it's like the coolest thing on planet Earth."

Donna: It was very, very cool. It was. But there are downsides to even what's cool, ladies and gentlemen! There are downsides to cool. There can be upsides to not cool. There are also downsides to cool. We were at the crux of a real downside, physically and emotionally and everything. It was great, and it was hard. It was both.

DG: I understand. All I can say is, looking at you now, a very healthy and happy-looking 50-year old --

Donna: <laugh>

DG: -- whatever it was that happened to you, it seems to have all turned out pretty well.

Donna: I love it. I wouldn't trade a thing. I wouldn't trade being in the Grateful Dead and I wouldn't trade where I'm at now. It's like having the best of everything. I'm very, very happy. And I'm thrilled -- you know, I still have such a good relationship with the guys in the band. We had a great time at PhilHarmonia [12/7/97]. It was just wonderful. I will just always love them with all my heart. They're part of my heart.

DG: And you were on stage with Ratdog --

Donna: A few days ago, in Birmingham with Bobby. I sat in with Ratdog. Bobby and I had a great time together, we really did. We spent a lot of time talking about, you know, things that happened. For instance, you were talking about how we were on stage together. It was very close, and you could hear what one person was saying to the next. I reminded Bobby of this time I walked out on stage, and maybe it was while the movie was being made, I can't remember, but I walked out on stage and they're in the middle of this intense jam, and I walk out on stage and Bobby whispers to me, "Donna Jean, darlin', I just love the smell of that new perfume you're wearin'." <laugh> So rapport we had, and it was wonderful. It was wonderful.

DG: Well, it's great to talk to you and to see you, and I'm looking forward to hearing you play tonight.

Donna: Good! Good deal. Love you guys! Bye-bye!