New Riders of The Purple Sage: Americana Lost and Found
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 their set 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.
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.
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