The New Riders Return with a Fine New Album
By Blair Jackson
One of the most satisfying comebacks of recent years is the righteous return of the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Of course, the New Riders (or NRPS…many even pronounce that “Nerps”) have a long lineage with the Grateful Dead—in fact one of the group’s early lineups consisted of John “Marmaduke” Dawson as lead singer/songwriter and rhythm guitarist, David Nelson on lead guitar, Garcia on pedal steel guitar (an instrument he was still learning), Phil Lesh on bass and Mickey Hart on drums.
Johnny Murowski,David Nelson, Ronnie Penque.
Photo: Bob Minkin/minkindesign.com © 2009
Phil was replaced by David Torbert in mid-1970, and by the end of that year, ex-Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden had replaced Mickey. Garcia stuck with the Riders until the fall of 1971, when Buddy Cage took over on pedal steel. The NRPS opened many Dead shows in the early ’70s, but also managed to establish a large following apart from their Dead connection. Still, they’ve always been “family.”
The New Riders’ history through the late ’70s and early ’80s is spotty, as there were many personnel changes and the group clearly lost its early momentum for stretches. By ’82, Nelson had split and John Dawson later picked up the mantle without his former partner. Nelson eventually went on to play for a spell in the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band and then formed one of the best jam bands in the Bay Area, the David Nelson Band (who continue to play amazing music to this day).
Marmaduke has been limited by health issues and is semi-retired. A new version of the New Riders—with Nelson and Buddy Cage from the old band, joined by bassist Ronnie Penque, drummer Johnny Markowski and longtime Hot Tuna associate Michael Falzarano on guitar and vocals—took its first steps back into the limelight in late 2005, and has been picking up steam ever since. Just recently, however, the group put out its first album of new material in two decades, Where I Come From, and it’s a gem: The disc contains seven strong new originals co-written by David Nelson and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (including the propulsive title track), plus excellent tunes by the other members—in keeping with Riders tradition, there’s even a doper song, Markowski and Bobby Driscoll’s grower’s anthem, “Higher.” The album was cut mostly live in the studio, and the playing is hot—Cage and Nelson play together beautifully, and they’re not afraid to stretch out and jam a bit, either. Indeed, this incarnation of the Riders is more in the jam band mold than the original country-rock “cosmic cowboys” of four decades ago. It’s a NRPS for a new day, still with a rich catalog of great songs, but also a group pointed forward, eager to create a modern legacy, as well.
Recently, I sat down with David Nelson in a diner near his Petaluma home to talk a bit about Where I Come From and the current state of the New Riders. We kicked off the conversation talking about the decision to revive the group four years ago…
What made that the right time to bring the New Riders back?
Buddy Cage had been playing occasionally with these guys in Stir Fry, doing session work and stuff. Johnny Markowski and Ron Penque were both in it, and they’d have both Vassar [Clements, the great fiddler] and Buddy play with them on certain gigs and on some sessions. One time they were talkin’ and the idea came up—“What would you think of getting the New Riders back together?” and Cage said, “Well, you’d have to talk to Nelson about that.” They called me and that was the beginning of this new thing.
When had you last played with Cage?
He’d sat in with the David Nelson Band a few times, so we’d kept up a bit. Anyway, those guys booked the first shows—we did four or five shows as a trial thing and they went great. People seemed to be really excited about it.
Did you rehearse a lot?
No, and that turned out to be a good thing. [Laughs] I’m the only West Coaster—they were all in the New York area—and we went to Johnny’s house in Orangeburg and somehow we thought that in one night we’d be able to rehearse 40 songs!
I don’t know what we were thinking there. [Laughs] Of course that didn’t quite happen, and even though they already knew a lot of the songs, we had train wrecks on nearly every song. “Do we do it like the record, or do it the live way?” Also, John Dawson sang most of the songs [in the original group], so I had to have my lyric book handy, and we had to figure out who would sing what. Because we couldn’t arrange everything, it caused us to play it more on the fly at those first gigs and that turned out to make it all sound really fresh. Every time we played, it was a little bit different and new ideas came up and so we thought, “Yeah, let’s keep doing this.” We got more gigs and then we got a booking agency involved—when a booking agency is interested, that makes it feel a little more solid.
What had also happened during the many years the Riders weren’t playing was the jam band movement got started, and certainly you’re in one of the best jam bands ever [the DNB]. So you’re more geared that way than you were in the earlier New Riders days, and so are so many of the fans in the scene who follow all these jam bands in different styles. It was cool seeing some of the old New Riders songs suddenly opening up in ways they hadn’t before.
That’s true. It is different now. A lot of it was John [Dawson]—he didn’t really care for the jam stuff as much. When Garcia was with us it was a matter of course—you had to jam a bit. He’d look at you like, “Well”? [Laughs] We limited it to a couple of songs, though—“Portland Woman,” Garden of Eden” and “Dirty Business.”
Don’t forget “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “Willie and the Hand Jive.”
That’s true. The jamming would make little cameos.
But it never got to 18 minutes, like some of your tunes now.
Our sets can go like that. But it can also wear on an audience when you have long song after long song, so we have these packages that are neat little songs—like “Sutter’s Mill” and “Sing Me A Rainbow” and a lot of others and we still do straight.
From the beginning of this latest revival, too, you’ve brought in fresh material.
That’s part of what makes it fun to do and not just a thing where you’re playing old songs.
Like a nostalgia act…
Right. I brought in one of my songs, “Any Naked Eye,” and we started doing that, and Falzarano brought in a couple, and Ron and Johnny, too.
How did Falzarano get involved?
I don’t know, but it sure is a good thing because he’s more or less the Wise Man. He’s really got his head on his shoulders and he’s connected in New York with all sorts of people in our community, so it turns out to be perfect, because the rest of us—me included—tend to get a little scatter-brained: “Oops, I forgot to do that!” [Laughs] But Falz is always on top of everything.
Also, we go back to a lot of the same roots—we’re from the same schools of music.
How has the process of taking on more of the lead guitar role been for you? In the DNB, you’ve got Barry Sless as a foil. In the Riders you have Cage, obviously, but that’s a little different.
It’s made me come alive to have the job put on me. Like you said, there’s no Barry there, who can just play endlessly like a fountain. So I had to jump in and start playing more, and I’m really liking it. It was kind of rough and ragged at the beginning, but you get used to it and you get a flow going. In the old days sometimes I used to just clam up and say, “Oh, I can’t think of anything,” and Garcia would say, “I can’t either!” So if he feels that way, you feel better and then you can relax, and that’s the whole thing to getting it flowing.
So then the notion of making a new album with new material comes up. Do you approach Robert Hunter or does he approach you?
We actually had started on that idea before I hooked up with Hunter on this. “Any Naked Eye” was being considered, and I had a couple of others, and Johnny had “Higher” and another song. And Ronnie had a couple, and Falzarano had a couple, so we were planning to go up there and rehearse at Turkey Trot Acres, which is a spread in upstate New York which is run by a Vietnam Vet family and a community of guys who are into hunting. They have a lodge where people can pay to stay and hunt wild turkeys. They have a lodge and lunch room that’s like a log cabin and it has really good sound and we played a gig there one time. In fact we made our live DVD there.
So we were planning to go there and hole up and rehearse some new material, and right then—Hunter didn’t know anything about it—he happened to be on one of his [writing] rolls and he went up to his cabin on the Russian River and he sent me an email. “I’m up at the cabin and doing some writing. What do you think of this?” It was the lyrics to something called “Eagle Breeder’s Waltz.” I read over it and I realized that it was a thing between him and me: “Let’s do the Eagle Breeder’s Waltz, like we did in ‘65/ Revive our spirits with smelling salts and act like we’re still alive.” I thought it was pretty cool, so I went to work printing out things and trying to record something. I made it a waltz and tried all these other things, but I couldn’t quite get it. Then he starts sending lyrics just about every other day: “Hey, it’s your turn! How about this one?” The first ones to come in were ‘Where I Come From” and “Ghost Train Blues.”
I think “Where I Come From” is one of his best lyrics in years.
I agree. That was one where the music just came right off the paper. You don’t want to force them. So I might read the words a few times, just say them, not try to put music to them, and then go do the dishes or something. In the middle of doing dishes is one of the best times for ideas to come to me. You shut off the water, dry your hands and go into the other room and work on it. But that was one where I quickly thought, “Oh yeah, it’s that kind of tune.”
There’s a line that jumped out at me from another song Hunter wrote, “Barracuda Moon”: “First mistake we made was coming on too proud/ Next mistake we made was not being proud enough / It’s always all or nothing/ If you don’t like it, tough.” For some reason I got a flash about that being about the San Francisco scene 40 years ago.
I know; I can see that. Me and Falz have been going through the lyrics and saying, “You know what he’s talking about there?” “Barracuda Moon” definitely seems like the idea of starting out in ’65—there’s even that line about August 1964, “Pick up your cards and bet/ Careful what you ask for, it might be what you get.”
“Down the Middle” is pretty obvious about being on the road. There are also seem to be a lot of images that seem to be related to or pointing to the Grateful Dead, though I haven’t actually talked to him about any of this.
I wondered about that myself.
“Last thing I see as light doth fade/ Skull and crossbones on my grave.” [From “Down the Middle”]
That was the first thing I thought of when I heard it—that it was about Hunter’s own legacy.
I think “Ghost Train Blues” is about Garcia’s guitar: “Listen to that wolf wail/ Thunderclap and black hail/ Enough to make my nerve fail, all night long.” ’Cause Garcia used to pester him for songs and Hunter’d be saying, “C’mon leave me alone. I’m doing the best I can!” [Laughs] I don’t know… That’s just another idea.
Well, this begs the question, how do you feel about being a vehicle or a conduit for his ideas about that stuff?
It’s great! I love these songs. Also, I have no idea if any of those notions are right or what he had in mind. I could be completely off-base. And I’m sure other people will have other interpretations, as it should be. His lyrics are so totally artistic and expressive, and he tends to stay away from clichés. Though he does have his own set of symbols and vocabulary. And he has all these different sides of him. He can write the most beautiful and poetic things and do more straightforward rock ’n’ roll songs.
Like “Rockin’ with Nona” on the new album…
Yeah, that’s a really fun song
Jerry used to say the Hunter wrote “him” into songs occasionally; that’s he’d be singing a song and suddenly it would dawn on him, “Shit, this is about me!”
Right! [Laughs] I’ve had those moments, too, but I think I’ve suppressed them so far, because you don’t want to start feeling self-conscious about what you’re singing. What’s great is that so much of what he writes is so open-ended and you can bring what you want or what you imagine to them. In fact they encourage that…Then you get the cosmic idiot moment: “Duh!” [Laughs]
“Where I Come From,” “Big Six” and “Barracuda Moon” were sort of like my symphony that’s been coming out of me for years. They have similar melodic tonalities and harmony structures to some other stuff I’ve written—like “Snakebit”—but they also go in some new directions.
In the past you’ve written some good songs for the DNB with Hunter, like “Long Gone Sam” and “John Hardy’s Wedding.”
Those were done in the reverse of this fashion, and actually it was before I got the [DNB] together. I told him, “I’ve got nothing to do and I’m writing some songs,” so he lent me a 4-track tape recorder and I started making little songs—putting on overdubs with a fake bass part and all. I sent him the music and it had a little melody on the guitar and he thought it sounded like [the traditional song] “John Hardy,” and I guess it does, so he wrote the lyrics that way. So on those earlier ones, they were sent to him as music.
Where did you record this new New Riders album? There are no credits…
We would be on the road and we’d have a day off, or if we were lucky, two days off, and we’d just find a studio, because Falzarano knows different places. There was one near Johnny’s house and we did a couple of days of tracks there, and then we’d take that on a Pro Tools hard drive and then the next place was in Pennsylvania, and the next was in Sacramento. So those were where we did the basics and then we mixed it. Most of them are virtually live studio cuts. Our attitude was like, “If we don’t get it in three tries, we’ll move on.” Most of them ended up being take one or take two. “Barracuda Moon” was only played one time all the way through and it was the one song we hadn’t played in front of an audience. I think we’d worked out an arrangement at Turkey Trot, so we had the concept, but then we didn’t think it was ready for an audience, but we tried it in the studio and blam—one take!
Do you feel the lineage to the older band when you play the new material in the midst of the old material?
Oh yeah, because of the way me and Cage play together. We have all that stuff in our systems.
It’s in your DNA.
It is. And so far the audiences seem to really like the new stuff…
Are you getting young people at the shows?
We are, which is really satisfying, of course. From the beginning of this four-year stretch we’ve seen a lot of young kids—“Oh, my dad used to go see you guys!” [Laughs]
There’s more of these songs coming. Hunter has sent at least four more and I’m working on two of them now. One of them is a beautiful thing called “Five-eo.” This is the first he’s sent along with a chord progression. He said he’d had it lying around for a while and I might as well have it. [Laughs] So I tried his chord progression and there was one spot where I thought it wasn’t quite working right, so I changed it a little and now it works great. It’s really sweet—it’s a walking-home song: “I’m going to Five-eo.”
I know there’s a tradition of “Five-eo” songs, like “Peggy-o” songs.
I think if you wanted a four-syllable word for a place in traditional songs you took “Fennario.” If you wanted three syllables, you took “Five-io.” [Laughs]
This is basically the 40th anniversary of the band. Are you making hay of it?
Not yet, but we probably will!
NRPS basically started because John Dawson had a bunch of songs and Jerry wanted to learn how to play pedal steel…
That’s right, and the next thing we knew we were in a band together. I remember going up to Jerry’s house in Larkspur with John and we had [Grateful Dead sound engineer]
Bob Matthews fill in on bass and we practiced John’s tunes, and then we thought, “Hey, let’s get a gig! We can get Mickey to play drums!” So we played two or three nights there at the Bear’s Lair student union [on the UC Berkeley campus] and they said, “What do you call the band?” and Jerry blurts out, “The Murdering Punks!” Which was very timely, because right around then the Manson killings happened. [Laughs] So the guy wanted to call it Jerry Garcia & Friends, which Jerry hated, of course. “I’m a sideman!” he’d say. So we got down to thinking in earnest about a name, which is really hard, because once someone starts going funny then it gets crazier and crazier. It’s hopeless! Fortunately we had Hunter there, because he was living with Jerry in Larkspur at the time, and he’s down to earth and serious. Or at least he can be, unlike the rest of us. [Laughs] He said, “How about the Riders of the Purple Sage?” [after the Zane Grey novel]? And I said, “There’s already a Riders of the Purple Sage band.” So we became the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
* * *
For lots more on the New Riders, and to buy their fantastic new album (or the Turkey Trot DVD), check out the band’s very cool website at www.nrpsmusic.com.
I can't make the link work, but got mine at amazon.com.
RIP John Dawson 1945-2009. Passed away from stomach cancer Tuesday in Mexico. Got the whole New Riders thing going with Garcia--wrote the complete debut album!
"He's soaring the length of the land."
www.nrpsmusic.com/music/index. Home,Home on the Road set list. Too bad you can't listen a bit of it.
Nope. I still don't see anything about Dead Flowers to do with NRPS. ???
live album produced by Jerry, 1974. It's just before "Henry".
BTW, thanks Mary. It took a long time before rereleased.
Share the LOVE! Richard.
isn't that the Rolling Stones? I didn't see or remember NRPS with it.....lmk.....
The band's music makes me relaxed and happy. Today I found myself singing California Day--man what a great song--always puts me in a great mood.
the cover of "Dead Flowers" is absolutely GÉNIAL.
BTW, where can we find this album?
Share the LOVE! Richard.