Thursday, June 29, 2006

New Riders of the Purple Sage

From Springfield News Sun:

Country-rock jam band traces roots to Grateful Dead
New Riders of the Purple Sage co-founded by Jerry Garcia himself in 1969 as a way to play country music.
By Andrew McGinn

If you don’t know anything about New Riders of the Purple Sage other than the awards they’ve won — turns out you know them pretty well.

There’s not a single Grammy on their shelf.

There is, however, the 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award from High Times magazine.

Then again, it probably doesn’t sit on the shelf.

“We cherish it,” said lead guitarist David Nelson, who at 63 has become an elder statesman of jam rock. “The actual award is a working bong.”

And there you have it. By the time the original New Riders fell apart almost 25 years ago, their trippy country-rock had found more cult recognition than critical praise.

Cult probably still intact

With Nelson and pedal steel player Buddy Cage leading a new version of the band — they’ll play Peach’s Grill in Yellow Springs on Sunday — the cult is more than likely still intact.

In fact, as long as there are Deadheads in this world, New Riders of the Purple Sage will have a following.

After all, the band was something of a Grateful Dead franchise, having been co-founded by Jerry Garcia himself in 1969 as a way to play country music.

“The hippies were really into country music,” explained Nelson, who’d served in folk and bluegrass bands with Garcia as far back as the early ’60s. “What’s not to like about it? From Hank Williams to Bill Monroe, it’s timeless.

“In a way, we wanted to play like those bluegrass guys. On that level.”

Good thing ol’ Captain Trips was a fast learner — his pedal steel guitar was brand new.

“It was comical at the time,” Nelson recalled. “But Garcia was the type of player who jumps in and tries it. One of the first things he did was the pedal steel on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children.’

“That’s pretty great, don’t you think? He’d been playing for maybe a year.”

Time for both bands

Early on, the New Riders seemed to be cool with doing their space cowboy thing in the shadow of the Dead. That is, if you could even tell the two apart.

The Dead’s Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart also rode the purple sage in those days.

“They weren’t huge. There was time for them to do both bands,” said Nelson, who briefly served in an early edition of Big Brother and the Holding Company. “Within two years, the Grateful Dead just escalated and Garcia was busy all the time.”

Enter Cage on pedal steel in 1971. Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden had joined the year before.

While Garcia would occasionally step back in to produce here or play there, New Riders found a decent amount of success without the Dead. Their fourth album for Columbia, 1973’s “The Adventures of Panama Red,” went gold.

“It was the disco dark ages”

But country-rock seems to have been of a certain place and time — something the New Riders discovered as the ’80s dawned.

“It was the disco dark ages,” Nelson said. “We’d go back to clubs we played and they’d changed it all to glass and mirrors. It wasn’t really possible for us to go on.”

Until now.

Nelson and Cage decided to saddle back up last fall and play the old stuff. (Chief songwriter John Dawson has since retired to Mexico.)

And, really, what’s every jam fan dying to know?

Probably this:

“We’re getting a lot of juice out of these songs,” Nelson said


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