Although Hart had temporarily left the Grateful Dead at the time he made Rolling Thunder, members of the Dead play on the album, along with a number of other well-known musicians from the San Francisco Bay Area music scene. Also featured are classical tabla players Zakir Hussain and his father Alla Rakha. The album contains early versions of two songs co-written by Bob Weir that later became Grateful Dead concert staples — "Playing in the Band", and "Greatest Story Ever Told" (called "Pump Song" on this album).
The cover art for Rolling Thunder was created by Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse's Kelly/Mouse Studios.
The album was named after the Shoshone medicine man, shaman, teacher, and activist Rolling Thunder, who was a friend of Mickey Hart and the Grateful Dead and whose voice is heard on the first track.
In 1986, Relix Records re-released the album on vinyl, using the original masters and color separations. In 1989, the album was released on CD on the Grateful Dead label. It was subsequently re-released by Relix.