Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 for singing in America’s most eclectic and esoteric ensemble, the Grateful Dead. Most people would expect that to far overshadow her induction earlier this year into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, but for her, the latter was even more important.
“To be honored by your peers from your home state—your own town actually, Muscle Shoals—cuts a little deeper,” Godchaux-MacKay tells GT from her neighboring home in Florence, Alabama. “That’s where I started out and learned my craft. It’s where I began my trip and adventure into the music business and it’s where I’ve returned to live.”
It’s staggering how many great musicians and singers come from Alabama—Nat King Cole, Hank Williams, Percy Sledge, Tammy Wynette, the Commodores, Wilson Pickett and Emmylou Harris top a very long list. In the late 1950s, within the small community of Muscle Shoals, a music aficionado named Rick Hall opened a recording studio called FAME Studios, which produced a treasure chest of national hits.
“I went to my first recording studio when I was 12,” says Godchaux-MacKay. “My mother’s friend was a cousin to Rick Hall. I saw all that equipment at FAME Studios and I got hooked. I got nailed. If I didn’t know before, I knew at 12 years old [that] that was what I wanted to do. I set my heart, my hand and my life into singing. I had no other plan. I pursued it and because of FAME studios I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time when all this incredible music was being released and hitting the national charts during my high-school years.”
The lithe, raven-haired beauty would run to FAME Studios straight from cheerleading practice, arriving in her uniform, her friends unaware of what was brewing. “They didn’t even know there was a music scene going on until the documentary came out in 2013,” chuckles Godchaux-MacKay. “The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, so many people came to Alabama to record, but nobody in the area had any idea what was going on. On a certain level, it was almost covert what we were doing.”
Godchaux-MacKay sang at small sock hops in high school and in the studio with people like Elvis, Duane Allman, Cher, and Boz Scaggs. A fortuitous move to San Francisco led her and her husband at the time, Keith Godchaux, to join the Grateful Dead. So, when she performed with them for the first time at Winterland in 1972, it was also her first time in front of a big, colorful, chaotic audience.
“That was a huge leap,” says Godchaux-MacKay. “What provided the confidence was that I knew I was where I was supposed to be. It was daunting being in a big boy band. I had to hold my own. You either sink or swim with the Grateful Dead, and I was going to swim!”
A conduit between Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, Godchaux-MacKay sang her heart out, but this was 1972. Audio technology was stuck in the high-school auditoriums of the ’50s and ’60s. There were times, and every Deadhead will attest to this in varying degrees of emotion, that Godchaux-MacKay could simply not hear herself. By 1974, the Grateful Dead were performing through 92 tube amplifiers and crushing 26,400 watts through 604 speakers. It was the loudest sound since the big bang.
Godchaux-MacKay was recently back in the saddle singing with the most recent incarnation of the Dead, Dead & Company. The singer/songwriter is positive about that experience and admits that she always loves singing with her old bandmates whenever the occasion arises. But, Godchaux-MacKay’s heart is at home with her extremely talented friends and family in Alabama.
“My next project is redoing some of the songs I’ve written,” says Godchaux-MacKay. “My husband David MacKay is recording an album of basses, and I’m involved with that project. I’m not embarking on putting a new band together. When you get to be my age, you get to choose what you want to do. This is a great time in my life. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I get to just have fun.”
Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay will perform with Shady Groove at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, July 22 at Don Quixote’s in Felton. Tickets are $20.