NEW RIDERS of the PURPLE SAGE – ” NRPS “

Posted: February 24, 2022 in CLASSIC ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Although the New Riders of the Purple Sage are often grouped among the pioneering country-rock bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s like Poco, the “Flying Burrito Brothers“, the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo ” period Byrds, and even Dylan himself with his John Wesley Harding and “Nashville Skyline” albums but theirs was a different undertaking. While country and rock did indeed reside at the core of their sound, anchored by pedal steel guitar and the twangy fretwork of lead guitarist David Nelson, NRPS as their name has always been abbreviated was born of another sensibility, one that shared much with their friends and mentors the Grateful Dead.

Like the Dead, the origin of the New Riders is traceable directly to the folk music scene centred in the region south of San Francisco encompassing San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, in particular the city of Palo Alto. During the early ’60s, the area was a hotbed for aspiring folkies and bluegrass connoisseurs, many of whom banjoist/guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia, singers/songwriters/guitarists David Crosby, Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen and others traded ideas as they worked the local clubs.

By 1965, with the advent of the Beatles, the calling of rock and roll was too tempting to resist: Crosby was going strong with the Byrds, Garcia had co-founded a band initially calling itself the Warlocks (soon to become the Grateful Dead); and Kantner and Kaukonen had just launched (along with singer Marty Balin) a rock outfit they called Jefferson Airplane.

San Francisco itself served as ground zero for the psychedelic culture that began shifting from well-kept secret to international phenomenon during this time, luring thousands of young people to the area these musicians enjoyed while performing at venues like the Fillmore Auditorium and the Carousel Ballroom in the city.

Numerous rock bands, most based either in the Bay Area or the vicinity of Los Angeles, looked to country music as a refuge from the sizzling, cranium-searing electricity of what was being labelled acid-rock or psychedelic music a desire to simplify life seemed to go hand in hand with the lonesome sound of steel guitars, fiddles and songs touting the richness of a rural, less encumbered lifestyle away from the clatter of the city

The ever-restless, hyper-prolific Jerry Garcia counted himself among those looking for new outlets. Although the Grateful Dead were arguably at their most experimental and electric at the time, he began learning to play the pedal steel, an instrument inextricably associated with country music. He incorporated it into Dead concerts but that avenue didn’t allow him to fully explore its potential.

He teamed up with his Peninsula friend Nelson, who had been keeping busy with a group called the New Delhi River Band, and singer-songwriter John Dawson, who went by the nickname Marmaduke. Working up songs largely written by Dawson, as well as some choice covers, the trio also had assistance from Dead bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart and morphed into the New Riders of the Purple Sage, taking their name from the 1912 Western novel Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey.

With Dave Torbert (who had been a member of the New Delhi outfit) replacing Lesh on bass, the quintet began gigging around the Bay Area in 1969 and, by the spring of the following year, opening for the Dead on tour. A typical gig of the period might find the Dead beginning a concert with an all-acoustic set, followed by the New Riders and finally the electric Dead: with Garcia participating in all three configurations, he might keep busy onstage for upwards of six or more hours.

As the New Riders gained in popularity in their own right, and with the Dead finding a wider audience via their acoustic-based 1970 albums “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty“, it was not long before record companies began sniffing around. Columbia Records, run by the renowned Clive Davis, signed the group and they went into San Francisco’s Wally Heider Studios toward the end of 1970 to record their debut album, self-producing with the help of engineer Stephen Barncard. They ultimately laid down 10 original Dawson compositions that varied in style and temperament, drawing nearly all of the songs from their live setlists.

The album, self-titled, was the only official NRPS release to feature Garcia on pedal steel, and as such it serves as a shining example of his uncanny ability both to absorb the traditional techniques.

There would be one more personnel change as the album sessions were underway, however: Drummer Mickey Hart was out (he also left the Dead for a period of four years), and Spencer Dryden, who had driven Jefferson Airplane during that band’s prime years of 1966-70, was in. He proved a better fit, a steadier, more rock-solid sticksman than Hart, less prone to tossing in offbeat, sometimes ill-considered percussive accents. Hart appeared on two tunes, “Dirty Business” and “Last Lonely Eagle,” both of which also featured pianist George “Commander Cody” Frayne, the leader of the rising local band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.

Dawson was the primary creative force of the New Riders of the Purple Sage. As sole composer and lead vocalist throughout the album, this was his vision. The album’s lead track, “I Don’t Know You,” also served often as the opening number during the group’s concerts. A melodic, uptempo rocker, it tells a simple but mysterious tale of a woman appearing in the protagonist’s life unexpectedly, or maybe not: “I don’t know you, you’ve been lately on my mind,” sings Marmaduke as Nelson and Torbert join in harmony, but soon after he’s telling another story: “Come sit beside me, I’m not sure if you’re still there.

“Whatcha Gonna Do,” which follows, slows the pace, the singer again musing on a woman of no fixed presence: “Where you gonna go on the planet today?” he asks to a springy rhythm, then leaves her appearance to chance: “Take a look around ya now and what do you see?/If you could go somewhere’s else now, where would that be?/When you find a place to hide, come and tell me where it is now/I’ll still be sitting here, singing in the air.”

A long time staple of the band’s live shows, “Portland Woman” is an oft-told but usually not quite as frankly tale of a traveling musician’s yearning for temporary companionship: “If I don’t find someone tonight, I just won’t make it through,” Dawson laments. He heads back out on the road the next day, but this time he’s having second thoughts: “The little girl that I had found, her I left behind/But I haven’t felt too good since I left Portland yesterday/I’m going back to Portland town now, what more can I say?” he sings with longing and firmness in his voice.

Another NRPS perennial, and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, was “Henry” is an unabashed tribute to a high-volume smuggler of weed heading toward Acapulco, then back to the States through the rugged mountains of Mexico, to the “50 people waiting back at home for Henry’s load.” One of the speedier songs on the album—reflecting Henry’s “fast, fast, fast” driving down the “twisty mountain roads”—it was always a fun romp, packed with crisp country licks from Nelson and a playful, bluegrass-y pulse from the rhythm section,  that gave the band’s drug-happy fans an opportunity to celebrate a very different kind of outlaw than those usually found in country tunes.

“Dirty Business” is he album’s most unorthodox tune, a showcase for the extreme sounds that Garcia had already discovered he could get out of his pedal steel. At times taking it so far from country music as to be nearly unrecognizable haunting, eerie, unsettling sounds, just plain nasty his performance here is the epitome of his visionary approach to the instrument. Garcia gives the ballad a sense of foreboding and dread that its lyrics of the “dirty business” perpetrated behind the scenes at a coal mine where frustrated workers and management are at odds.

An age-old country music standby story of the great train robbery is next. “Glendale Train”—which reprises the band’s favoured stepped-up bluegrass tempo and features Garcia returning to the banjo, is one of several tunes on the recording that find the Dawson-Nelson-Torbert trio engaging in harmonies.

In 1971, songs warning of impending environmental cataclysm were few and far between, but in “Garden of Eden,” Dawson was on it. The “cool clear water ain’t quite as cool and clear as it out to be,” he proclaims, and there’s “smoke fillin’ everywhere.” We “live in the Garden of Eden,” he reminds us, “don’t know why we want to tear the whole thing to the ground.” Sad to say, those who could do something about it didn’t—the song, despite its pretty melody, is just as relevant today as in 1971.

“All I Ever Wanted” is a thing of beauty, a tender, sensitive love song which gives Garcia an outlet to display the most tear-jerking sounds that can be coaxed from a pedal steel guitar. Marmaduke’s vocal performance can’t exactly be called a croon, but the soft edges he brings to the lyric how much more to the point does it get than “All I ever wanted was your loving?” define the sound of affection.

It’s followed by “Last Lonely Eagle,” one of the most powerful songs on the album and another that was years ahead of its time. With stellar vocal harmonies driving the appropriately uplifting chorus, and a sense of drama balancing out its discomfiting message, Dawson writes of those who’ve “forgotten their dreams and they’ve cut off their hair” (hello, David Crosby!), while imploring us to “Take a last, flying look at the last lonely eagle/He’s soaring the length of the land/Shed a tear for the fate of the last lonely eagle, for you know that he never will land.”

Finally, there’s the stomping “Louisiana Lady,” in the grand tradition of a road warrior trucker our intrepid traveller has been on the road for a full week, “so beat my vision’s just a yellow haze.” If he pops a little speed and drives faster, he can cut an hour off the time on his way to New Orleans, where “it’s gonna be worthwhile, I’m gonna see my lady smile.” Another crowd-rouser in concert, the song, like several of its predecessors, features stunning harmony and a vibe that’s somewhere between hardcore hippie and good ol’ American traditional music,

Released in August 1971, the album featured, on its cover, the band’s striking red, white and blue, and orange and gold, logo a green cactus standing tall at its centre that would become familiar to all of its fans. the album helped establish the New Riders as an entity apart from the Grateful Dead, although they would continue to open shows for the more successful band for years, even while touring on their own. The 1972 follow up, “Powerglide”, Garcia would bow out of the group, concentrating full-time on the Dead, replaced by Buddy Cage on steel the band had seen him performing with Canadian folkies Ian and Sylvia.

Sadly, all but one of the key members of the 1971 New Riders—Garcia, Dawson, Torbert and Dryden all have passed. Only Nelson still survives, still leading a NRPS group while also performing with his own David Nelson Band. Their debut album remains an invigorating, prescient listen more than 50 years after its release.

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