Pedal steel guitarist John Rich is one of the two most intriguing and unknown guests in the history of the Jerry Garcia Band (the other being the mysterious Tim Hensley, who played electric piano alongside Nicky Hopkins on October 11 and 12, 1975). Rich played pedal steel for almost every song for two nights at the Keystone Berkeley, on December 21 and 22, 1976, possibly again on January 29, 1977, and then disappeared to wheresoever he came from. The limited picture we have of a pedal steel guitar providing some color between Garcia and Keith Godchaux popped open a fascinating door in to Garcia's musical mind, only to have it popped shut again. The instrumental thinking seemed to be for the steel guitar to play the part usually played by an organ, an angular yet perfect fit for the country-tinged Garcia Band.
Unfortunately, that is all we know. Who was John Rich? I'm not even sure how we know his name, but I assume Garcia introduced him at some point during the two nights. Google is no help. There is a very well known country singer named John Rich, part of the duo of Big And Rich, so search efforts are largely stifled. And the famous John Rich, besides being a bass player, was born in 1974, so it definitely wasn't him. Someone named John Rich played steel guitar on a 1993 album by a country singer named Billy Dean, but I have no idea if that was the same person. Otherwise I draw a blank.
I am mainly posting this in the hopes that someone has an answer to who John Rich was, and what his musical connection to the band might have been. He seems to have been a fine, tasteful player, so he must have been a professional musician somewhere. I have to think that playing 4 sets in two nights was a clear sign that this was a tryout of sorts for the Garcia Band, but for whatever reasons Jerry must have found him wanting. The band actually played three nights, but Rich did not play on December 23. Of course, Rich possibly had another booking. Various sources have noted some steel guitar sounds on the January 29, 1977 Keystone tape, and suggested that it was Rich again, and perhaps it is, but we really have no idea.
A couple of points come to mind:
- Garcia rarely shared the stage with a pedal steel player. I can think of the closing Festival Express jam, when Buddy Cage and Garcia (and many others) backed Ian and Sylvia and others, but nothing else comes to mind. I believe Garcia sat in with the Riders once in 1972, playing six string, thus sharing with Cage again, but otherwise that's all I can think of.
- As JGMF has correctly observed, the very name of the Jerry Garcia Band was a sign that it was a serious undertaking for Garcia, so I think that is why he did not ask Cage to sit in. Given the strange touring schedule of JGB, working around the bookings of both the Grateful Dead and Elvis Presley, Garcia could not afford to have another member committed to a full-time band. This leads me to think that Rich was some kind of pro in Los Angeles or Las Vegas, where steady money could be made while still finding time for fun playing with Garcia. Thus I think the John Rich connection was through Ronnie Tutt, who played Vegas with Elvis and did sessions in Southern California in between Garcia gigs.
- There were many fine Bay Area country players, particularly in the South Bay, most of them not well known, so that is a possibility too, but the rather insular Garcia tended to play with people recommended to him by his own circle of musicians, so I don't know who the South Bay connection might have been. Garcia was still friendly with Peter Grant and Norm Van Maastricht, both playing country music in the San Jose area--Grant was playing it on Garcia's old Zane Beck pedal steel guitar--so its at least in the realm of the possible.