This story originally appeared in More magazine
STILL GRATEFUL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
The only female member of the Grateful Dead looks back on her years with the legendary group as she prepares to go out on the road with her new band.
Donna Jean Godchaux-McKay remembers the first time she went on stage with the Grateful Dead. In 1971 she was 24, and, although she had extensive experience as a studio musician, “I had never sung live before,” she recalls. “And there I was with the biggest band in San Francisco, in front of 6,500 people. I was terrified, but it was sink or swim. I swam.” Donna Jean, now 62, spent eight years singing with the Dead, the only female member in its 30-year history. Her husband, Keith Godchaux, was also a member, playing keyboards.
“I loved it,” she says now, looking back on that period of her life. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” It was, as she says, “the age of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.” But the drug scene in the Grateful Dead took a toll on Keith and Donna and they left the band in 1979 to seek a healthier lifestyle. A year later, Keith was killed in a car accident and Donna Jean was left to raise their young son Zion alone. What followed was a period of rebuilding and retreat from the tumult of the music industry. She remarried, had another son, Kinman, and returned to her hometown of Florence, Alabama. “I wanted to give my kids a normal life,” she says. “Baseball, the whole thing.”
However, her kids turned out to be musicians, not baseball players. “It shouldn’t surprise me,” says Donna Jean, “I was onstage with Zion until I was about eight-and-a-half months pregnant. No wonder he can play every instrument!” In the mid-nineties she began writing songs and playing again. She and her husband, bassist Jeff McKay, have just formed a new band, The Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson, and they are touring the East Coast, playing festivals and jam band gatherings, where she feels right at home. “This is a scene that was spawned by the Grateful Dead,” she says. “It’s multigenerational and adventuresome.” Her son’s bands are part of the same circuit, and she often sings with them, as well as occasionally appearing with other former members of the Dead. Not every sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll tale has such a happy ending, and Donna Jean is well aware of that. “I’m very lucky,” she says. “My family and my music—things have never been better. I’m continually inspired and it’s not stopping.”