New Riders of The Purple Sage: Americana Lost and Found

Halloween 1970 in Novato, California. From left to right: David Nelson, Jerry Garcia, Marmaduke, Mickey Hart, and Dave Talbert. Photo by Mary Ann Mayer.

John Collins Dawson IV,nicknamed both Marmaduke and McDuke, was only 64 when he died peacefully in Mexico eight years ago. Growing weary of life on the road as a professional musician, he retired in 1997 and had moved to San Miguel de Allende with his wife. Dawson, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, was doing weekly gigs at The Underground in Menlo Park in May of 1969 when an old friend of his was tinkering around with a pedal steel guitar and asked if he could sit in with him.

 

“I first met Jerry Garcia at the house of my guitar teacher, who was my best friend’s mother,” Dawson told Instant Armadillo News. “It was during the folk music days in Palo Alto, sometime, I guess, before I left for my first semester at Millbrook School in New York, in September of 1959. After that, I would run into him often when I went into Dana Morgan’s shop in Palo Alto. He rented a space there to give guitar lessons, and whenever he wasn’t teaching, he’d be in the front of the place, picking his guitar (or banjo or mandolin), and holding forth.”

After two months of playing as a duo, they decided to expand the group and play straight country-western. They recruited David Nelson for lead guitar. Nelson was an old friend who had played in The Wildwood Boys, a bluegrass band with Garcia. Mickey Hart from the Dead sat behind the drums, bass was handled first by Alembic Studios engineer/producer Bob Matthews, followed by Phil Lesh. They called themselves New Riders of The Purple Sage.

 

“So there we had it: a full, five-piece band,” Dawson recalled. “And the neat thing was, the Dead would only have to buy two more plane tickets and we could go on the road with them, as an opening act. It would give Jerry, Phil, and Mickey a chance to warm up before theirset and it would give our music and my songs a national audience. After doing more gigs than I can remember locally that summer, we did the two extra ticket thing and went on the road with The Grateful Dead in the fall of 1969.”

In early 1970 Dave Torbert took over on bass, and when Mickey Hart decided to take a sabbatical from touring with the Dead, they enlisted former Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden, who eventually also became their manager. It was that lineup, with Garcia still on pedal steel and banjo, that was signed to Columbia Records, and their self-titled debut was released in August 1971. Every single song on the album was written by John Dawson.

 

According to the Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1998), the album “blended country rock with hippie idealism, yet emerged as a worthy companion to the parent act’s lauded American Beauty.” When Dawson passed away, Rob Bleetstein, archivist for the band, wrote in an email to the LA Times that “Dawson’s songwriting brought an incredible vision of classic Americana to light with songs like ‘Glendale Train’ and ‘Last Lonely Eagle.’”

 

In addition to the songs he wrote for the New Riders, Dawson co-wrote the Dead’s “Friend of The Devil” with Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter. And he also contributed in some manner … guitar, maybe vocals … to at least three Dead albums: Aoxomoxoa, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

Garcia left the band in November 1971, and was replaced by Buddy Cage, who came from Ian and Sylvia’s Great Speckled Bird. The lineup stayed intact for Powerglide, The Adventures of Panama Red, Gypsy Cowboy, and Home, Home On The Road. Torbert exited the group in 1974 for Bob Weir’s Kingfish, and Dryden stayed for another three years. Dawson, Nelson, and Cage carried on with a number of bassists and drummers up until 1982, ultimately releasing 11 albums. When it came to touring, they were road warriors.

 

For the next 15 years, until he left for Mexico, Dawson teamed up with multi-instrumentalist Rusty Gauthier, and, along with a number of supporting musicians, they continued to tour and released one album, Midnight Moonlight, on Relix Records. In 2006 David Nelson and Buddy Cage re-formed NRPS to take the music of John Dawson “back to the ears of adoring crowds.” Dawson not only blessed the endeavor but “was excited to know his music is being heard live again by a new generation of fans.”

I got a chance to see the original band on their first tour with the Dead, and several times in the early ’70s. They’ve always been one of my favorite bands and I never quite understood why they haven’t been acknowledged as one of the pioneers in this thing we call Americana. Solid songwriting, great musicianship, and they carried on the sound of Bakersfield-style country, not unlike the Flying Burrito Brothers. But in 2002 they were given a lifetime achievement award by High Times magazine, so I guess there’s that.

 

For a complete history of the band, check this out. John Dawson’s personal memories, which include some of the quotes I used above, is here.

Update: In 2012 Buddy Cage was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and has been battling blood cancer and a heart condition. Though he managed to stay on the road playing, he recently suffered a stroke and could use some help. There’s a GoFundMe page to help him out with his medical expenses and it can be reached by clicking here. You can also send him cards or letters in care of Natalie Menegus, PO Box 1216, Powell, TN 37849. Nelson and the rest of the band have taken a break from touring this summer, but hope to be back out on the road later this year. Best way to get news and updates is from their Facebook page.

 

This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.

Streaming: A Music Junkie Shifts Gears

As an addict, I’ve been able to kick a lot of bad stuff out the door. Dope, alcohol, and nicotine to name but three, and if I think hard enough there’s probably a couple more things I could add to that list. Living a life unmanageable has been my calling card, and while I never suspected music to be one of those things that would or could cause me irreparable harm, as long as I didn’t inhale it, I have come to realize that the art of collecting music – the actual hunting and gathering – has consumed way too much of my life. So as an act of self-discovery and recovery, I’ve recently chosen to surrender and become baptized in the digital stream. Glory hallelujah.

 

This will not be another wistful look back at how wonderful it was to find some gem back in the ’60s because the cover art was amazing, or the first time I dropped a needle onto the edge of a disc and watched it magically spin around and around as the sweet sounds came floating ethereally out of the speakers. Y’all have done this long enough to know that the joy of finding, acquiring, and sharing new music is one of the greatest highs you can have. And while it sounds like I’m giving that up, I’m not. But I shall no longer be a prisoner of consumerism, where possession and ownership equates to my happiness. I now gladly rent my music.

 

Streaming. In this modern age, it’s access that matters. For under ten bucks a month there are over 30 million songs to fulfill my needs … 62,500 days of unlimited listening, give or take. And outside of some still undigitized and “missing in action” titles, a lot of what I love to listen to is there for the taking. With a couple of keyboard punches and a swipe of my finger, there it is. And with the “if you like this, you might like that” feature of most streaming services, along with tons of curated playlists, exploration and discovery is easier and deeper than when I used to hang out at a record store flipping the stacks. Before some of you shake your heads with disdain, give me a moment.

From the early ’60s through the mid-’80s I was a vinyl junkie, with a little eight-track and cassette chaser on the side. Then I transitioned to CDs for another 15 or 16 years before uploading, downloading, saving, converting, transferring, and backups took over much of my free time. While never a Napster or Pirate Bay dude, a few years ago I started searching for digital files of long out-of-print 78s, getting a shellac rush whenever I found an obscure recording on a Japanese or Finnish blog site. But it’s a solitary and endlessly boring way to collect songs that I only would listen to once, so I began to wonder about the value.

 

The disposal of my physical goods, what little is left of them, will be relatively easy. My eldest has offered to put everything up on the Discogs marketplace, and what won’t sell will go to the local thrift store. My massive digital library that I worked so hard to maintain with a consistent file structure and original artwork, and which is triplicated on hard drives, will likely wind up in a box or on a shelf. There’s nothing pretty to look at there, and if history is any indication, they’ll shortly become as useless as an iPod Classic.

 

 

If you want to know what tipped the scales, look no further to an endless barrage of vinyl reissues that cost 25 bucks at Barnes and Noble or some supermarket, and come from digital masters that sound like crap. And here’s my message to Gillian and Dave, and Jack White and T-Bone, who are doing these custom analog direct-to-disc projects: I don’t care and it doesn’t really sound that much better than the digital versions. Seriously … loved watching American Epic and all, but you’re in the ether of the barely one percent who give a damn. Sorry, and I still love ya.

With the big corporations seeing dollar signs after a self-inflicted devaluation of their content, if I see one more piece of marketing fluff touting the joy and wonder of vinyl, I might jump out the window. From a personal observation, my workplace consists of me – the old dude – and 89 people in their 20s. They are voracious music listeners and concertgoers, are constantly walking about with their earbuds, talk about and share songs and albums with each other at lunch, and every single one of them streams. Nobody buys anything anymore. The revolution was not televised; it just happened and you missed it.

 

Just to add to my overall annoyance, do y’all know about October 14th? That would be Cassette Store Day. Seriously. Did you know that tape sales have increased by 74% in 2016?  I didn’t. Thought they were just something that only experimental musicians still released. Here’s how the website explains this new phenomenon:

CSD began in the United Kingdom in 2013 and quickly grew to become a global event with the participation of the United States, Japan, Germany and France. Through the efforts of CSD and the stores, labels, bands and fans involved worldwide we’ve helped keep what was once perceived as a dead format alive and viable in today’s digital age!

This makes me want to rush out and start hoarding candles, once word gets out that lightbulbs are a thing of the past. Thomas who? Oh yeah, he also invented the phonograph player.

 

This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.