Interview by Scott Preston
Photos by Susana Millman
Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay was born to sing, and over the course of time she’s done so with people like Elvis Presley, Percy Sledge, Boz Scaggs, and Jerry Garcia. Now she has a new band that she’s quite certain is on a creative par with anything she’s ever done. “This band is a perfect fit for me as a singer/songwriter,” she said recently, “and I hope to be doing this for a long time to come. We’re having so much fun with this music!” The Grateful Dead alumna has joined up with six members of the next musical generation – Mookie Siegel (David Nelson Band; formerly Phil & Friends, RatDog), Wendy Lanter (Hope in Time), and Jeff Mattson, Tom Circosta, Klyph Black and Dave Diamond (Zen Tricksters) to form Donna Jean and the Tricksters. (from donnajeanandthetricksters.com)
Cincy Groove: Were you a part of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio from the beginning? Who did you get to work with?
Donna Jean: I started going to the studio when I was 12 and began singing on demos when I was 15. By the time I was a singer in high school I was singing on hit records. I also ended up singing with Elvis Presley in Memphis. I sang on 2 of his comeback hits which were Suspicious Minds and In The Ghetto. The first major number one hit I sang on was When a Man Loves A Woman by Percy Sledge. I also sang with Boz Scaggs, was on Cher’s first solo album, Ben E. King, Joe Simon. I sang on “Take a Letter Maria” by R.B. Greaves.
Some great music has come out of Muscle Shoals. Some of the other people who have recorded there include The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Leon Russell, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, everybody and anybody at the time recorded in Muscle Shoals.
Cincy Groove: What was it like to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 94 as a member of The Grateful Dead?
Donna Jean: I wasn’t at the actual ceremony, I was literally in the process of moving from California back to Alabama at the time. But of course its a huge honor. Back in 1997 when the Donna Jean Band was touring, we played at Martyr’s in Cleveland. So of course we went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the curator took us personally through the whole thing. At the time they were still working on all the exhibits, since they weren’t open to the public. We got to go back and see all that they were working on before it was released to the public.
Cincy Groove: What was it like when you performed with Dark Star Orchestra the first time?
Donna Jean: It was way late in the game before I realized that there was such a thing as a Grateful Dead tribute band. I just wasn’t hip to everything that was going on outside of the real deal. When we were making the Heart of Gold Band album in 2003, I got a call from Greg Anton. He was telling me about John Kadlecik the lead guitar player for Dark Star. I have never heard of them before and a couple days later I got a call from John and Dark Star was playing in Birmingham. I was back in the Muscle Shoals area at the time and John asked me if I wanted to come down and sing with them. When I was at sound check I was blown away, I just couldn’t believe it. I laughed so hard during the entire sound check because these guys were doing what they did. Even Rob Eaton emulated Bobby so perfectly I couldn’t believe it.
Cincy Groove: What was it like to have Zion work with you on the Heart of Gold Band album?
Donna Jean: Zion wrote a lot of the songs, he played guitar and drums on every song except for two. He was very instrumental in the way the cd coming out the way it did. He had a big hand in the production of it as well.
Cincy Groove: You must be proud that the love of music has rubbed off on your children.
Donna Jean: How could it not? I sang on stage with The Grateful Dead with the loudest sound system in the world until I was 8 1/2 months pregnant. Zion started playing drums when he was 2 years old and when he was 4 Mickey and Billy built him a drum set. When he was 6 he was playing on stage with me after Keith had died in the Heart of Gold Band. I would come out and play a few songs on the keyboard before the band would come out. Then Zion would come out with me.
My youngest son Kinsman has a band called Grown Folks. They just finished their first cd. They have been playing some local gigs down here in Alabama and drawing huge crowds. Like BoomBox they are just ripping it up. Nelsons Ledges is doing this event I think its in May. Boombox is headlining and my youngest son Kinsman’s band Grown Folks is opening. I got to sing on Grown Folk’s cd and I of course sing on things that BoomBox does. We just have an amazing musical family.
My husband David MacKay is a bass player and plays in a band called the Fiddle Worms down in Alabama. He was also the bass player for a real popular San Francisco bay area band called the Tazmanian Devils. They won Bammy’s in the bay area for best band. We are all on the same page and I couldn’t be happier at this time in my life. I am amazed at what I’m getting to do and what my children and husband are getting to do. We could do a festival with just our bands (laughing).
Cincy Groove: How did you end up hooking up with the Tricksters?
Donna Jean: It was in 2005 at Gathering of the Vibes. I was hired to come up and sing with a bunch of bands. It was the 10th anniversary of Garcia’s passing and they wanted me up there to sing with whoever. The Zen Tricksters asked me to come and sing with them and sit in on a couple songs. I got to see they were really great musicians and then hanging out with them back stage I really felt an a connection with them.
Everything culminated at the end of the year at this benefit the Rex Foundation was putting on. The Zen Tricksters were the house band. The lineup was myself, Mickey Hart, David Nelson, and Tom Constantin. In the process of this all happening Jeff Matson, who is the lead guitar player for The Tricksters, was sending me cd’s of their music to learn. I was sending them music of mine for them to learn. I really got to see what great song writers they are. They had moved on from being a Grateful Dead cover band. We had 2 days of rehearsal before the event and they played my songs perfectly, I was really amazed. By the end of the event we were already talking about doing some gigs together. Once we really got into talking about it we decided it was really something we wanted to put our full focus and energy into.
We have been playing together so much now that we are really started to develop our own identity. As you can hear on the cd everybody brought something to the table as far as songwriting and singing. Everybody is a lead singer, everybody writes songs. We are already working on the second cd. I have written a song, Dave Diamond and I have written a song, Wendy and Dave have written a song. Jeff Matson and I are working on one right now and they gave me another song to work on just today.
Upcoming Donna Jean & The Tricksters tour dates:
for complete show details visit http://www.donnajeanandthetricksters.com
3.20.08 BAMBOO ROOM Lake Worth, FL 33460
3.21.08 MOJO KITCHEN Jacksonville Beach, FL 32217
3.22.08 SKIPPER’S SMOKEHOUSE Tampa, FL 33613
3.26.08 ZYDECO Birmingham, AL 35205
3.27.08 MARTIN’S LOUNGE Jackson, MS 39201
3.28.08 NEW DAISY THEATER Memphis,TN 38103
3.29.08 GEORGE’S MAJESTIC LOUNGE Fayetteville, AR 72701 USA
3.31.08 LUCAS SCHOOL HOUSE St. Louis, MO 63104
4.2.08 SHANK HALL Milwaukee, WI
4.3.08 MAJESTIC THEATRE Madison, WI
4.4.08 THE CABOOZE Minneapolis MN, 55404
4.5.08 MARTYRS’ Chicago, IL 60613
5.24.08 – 5.25.08 THE CHARTER AT BEAVER CREEK BLUES, BREWS & BBQ
Chicago, IL 60613
7.31.08 GATHERING OF THE VIBES Bridgeport, CT
8.1 – 8.2.08 GRATEFUL GARCIA GATHERING Legend Valley Thornville, OH