Tag Archives: Grateful Dead

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.

Music, News and What Not: The Pirate Broadside


For those of you who visit No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music website for the latest music news, reviews and columns…May 2017 marks the month that the site has hit the pause button on fresh content in order to run a subscription drive for their quarterly print journal. You can read about it here, but the deal is this: you commit to just $6 USD per month and you receive four copies of incredible music journalism each year delivered to your doorstep. And you can cancel at any time. Took me a second to punch in my numbers and take the plunge.

To give you an idea of the quality of writing you’ll be getting, No Depression has sidelined all new content this month in favor of running some of their past long form stories that originally were published in the print journal. So if you want a sampling, here’s a few complimentary stories to check out:

Songs from The Gut: A Conversation with John Prine from Holly Gleason

Sweet Freedom: Jason Isbell Has Hit His Stride by Kelly McCartney (No relation to above pirate.)

Re-Trace: Jay Farrar Looks Back on 20 Years of Son Volt from David McPherson

So there it is…my personal Public Service Announcement; a swing and a pitch to keep No Depression alive and well. Keep in mind this is a non-profit organization, and most of us who contribute do it for literally peanuts or soy beans. Money and writing are like oil and water these days, so unless you’re James Patterson or Stephen King, flipping burgers is in your future.

Enough….let’s pull something new out of the ether and take a music break. Even though No Depression is in ‘send me money mode’…there is plenty of news, music and what not. Here’s Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performing ‘If We Were Vampires’ live in TV Studio A at KCPT in Kansas City, Missouri. This is on the new new album and it sounds great.

The 2017 Americana Music Awards‘ nominees announcement ceremony included special performances from the Milk Carton Kids, the Jerry Douglas Band, Caitlin Canty and more — but it also featured one particularly special moment: Jason Isbell and the Drive-By Truckers‘ Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley coming together for an acoustic performance.

Isbell, Hood and Cooley sing “Outfit,” originally from the Truckers’ 2003 album Decoration Day. Written by Isbell alone, the song is one of two songs that the then-24-year-old penned for the album; the other, also written solo, is the record’s title track. Earlier this year, in late January, Isbell — now, of course, a solo artist — reunited with his former bandmates during a Drive-By Truckers show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. (From theboot.com)

Speaking of the AMA awards, I was taken aback by the announcement of Van Morrison receiving a lifetime achievement award for songwriting. No disrespect: Van is indeed The Man, and we know that the organization loves to recognize those from the UK (Richard Thompson and Robert Plant were past recipients), but I just don’t get it. Although I know this guy probably doesn’t give a damn and wouldn’t show up anyway, I think he might be deserving of anything with the tagline ‘Americana’ in it.

The folks over at Pitchfork have published a User Guide to The Grateful Dead that focuses not on their studio work but rather the gazillion of live tracks that are out there. Which reminds me…Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter…a songwriting team that deserves acknowledgement from the Americana cabal. You know, since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame people are often slapped around for missing folks like Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers, the AMA might be moving into their elitist territory. Sad…to quote the POTUS.

By now you’ve heard about the sad passing of Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave. Local radio station KOKE-FM published the statement from his label and family, and you can find it here. And No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock covered LaFave’s Songwriters Rendezvous for the Austin American-Statesman, and I think it’s a beautiful piece of writing. Click here to get there. This video was recorded at SXSW in 2011. Rest in peace.

“Every day, every minute, someone in the world is singing a Pete Seeger song. The songs he wrote, including the antiwar tunes, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and those he popularized, including “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome,” have been recorded by hundreds of artists in many languages and have become global anthems for people fighting for freedom.” So begins a story of Pete, and how we keep his spirit alive.

Writer Susanna Reich and illustrator Adam Gustavson have produced a book dedicated to that objective. In 38 pages of text, paintings and drawings, Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice provides a wonderful portrait of Seeger, focusing on how his strongly-held beliefs motivated his music and his activism. The book introduces children to the notion that music can be a powerful tool for change. As Reich notes, Seeger saw himself as a link in “a chain in which music and social responsibility are intertwined.”

Read more about Pete and his music in this wonderful article posted at Common Dreams.

This year marks 50 years since Otis Redding died. He’d ignited the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967; later that year, he and his band were en route to a show in Madison, Wisc., when their plane hit rough weather and crashed in an icy lake. Redding was 26 years old. Half a century later, Redding’s influence as a singer and spirit of soul music remains. Author Jonathan Gould, who’s written a new biography called Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life and you can read more about it here.

Guess it’s time to close the ‘pirated’ version of my Broadside column out with something that captures Mr. McCartney’s early acting career. In the meantime, while I’m officially on hiatus, please feel free to come visit me at therealeasyed.com ,  The Real Easy Ed: Roots Music and Random Thoughts which is my Facebook home where I aggregate daily and feel free to subscribe to my Flipboard e-mag of the same name.