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New Riders of the Purple Sage is an American country rock band. The group emerged from the psychedelic rock scene in San Francisco, California, in 1969, and its original lineup included several members of the Grateful Dead. Their best known song is "Panama Red." The band is sometimes referred to as the New Riders, or as NRPS.
Origins: early 1960s-1969:
The roots of the New Riders can be traced back to the early 1960s Peninsula folk/beatnik scene centered on Stanford University's now-defunct Perry Lane housing complex in Menlo Park, California, where future Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia often played gigs with like-minded guitarist David Nelson. The young John Dawson (also known as "Marmaduke") from a well-to-do family centered in Chicago, Illinois, and later Los Altos Hills, California, also played some concerts with Garcia, Nelson, and their compatriots while visiting relatives on summer vacation. Enamored of the sounds of Bakersfield-style country music, Dawson would turn his older friends on to the work of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and provided a vital link between Timothy Leary's International Federation for Internal Freedom in Millbrook, New York (via boarding at the Millbrook School) and the Menlo Park bohemian coterie nurtured by Ken Kesey.
Mutually inspired by the emergence of blues rock, and folk rock, Garcia formed the Grateful Dead (initially known as The Warlocks) with blues singer Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, while Nelson joined the similarly inclined New Delhi River Band (which would eventually come to include bassist Dave Torbert) shortly thereafter. Although they lacked the managerial acumen and cultural cachet of the Grateful Dead and elected to remain in East Palo Alto, California vis a vis the former group (who soon relocated to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco), the New Delhi River Band were considered to be the house band of The Barn (one of the region's few viable concert venues outside of San Francisco) in Scotts Valley, California by late 1966. The group continued to enjoy a cult following in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties through the Summer of Love until their dissolution in early 1968.
After a period of inactivity, Nelson contributed to the Grateful Dead's Aoxomoxoa (1969) sessions and served as the caretaker of Big Brother and the Holding Company's rehearsal space while guitarist Peter Albin and drummer David Getz undertook a European tour with Country Joe and the Fish following the schismatic departure of Janis Joplin and James Gurley from the former band in December 1968. During this period, Nelson and Garcia played intermittently in an early iteration of High Country, a traditional bluegrass ensemble formed by the remnants of the Peninsula folk scene. It is believed that Nelson would have been lead guitarist in the reconstituted lineup of Big Brother that coalesced later in 1969 and thus may have contributed to some of the recordings on Be a Brother (1970) during this transitional period.
Contemporaneously, Dawson dropped out from Occidental College and decided to find his fortunes as a solo folk singer in the Bay Area. After an early 1969 mescaline experience he began to compose songs on a regular basis. Some (such as "Glendale Train" and "I Don't Know You") were traditional country pastiches; a number of others ("Last Lonely Eagle", "Garden of Eden", and "Dirty Business") found him working in a "psychedelic country" fusion milieu redolent of Gram Parsons' nascent Flying Burrito Brothers. "Henry", a traditional shuffle with contemporary lyrics about marijuana smuggling, also dates from this period.
Dawson's vision was prescient, as 1969 marked the emergence of country rock via Bob Dylan, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, the Dillard & Clark Band, and the Clarence White-era Byrds. Around this time, Garcia was similarly inspired to take up the pedal steel guitar, and an informal line-up including Dawson, Garcia, and Peninsula folk veteran Peter Grant (on banjo) began playing coffeehouse concerts together when the Grateful Dead were not touring. Their repertoire included country standards, traditional bluegrass, Dawson originals, and a few Dylan covers ("Lay Lady Lay", "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere", "Mighty Quinn"). By the summer of 1969 it was decided that a full band would be formed and David Nelson was recruited from Big Brother to play lead guitar.
In addition to Nelson, Dawson (on acoustic guitar), and Garcia (continuing to play pedal steel), the original line-up of the band that came to be known as the New Riders of the Purple Sage (a nod to the Zane Grey classic and the western swing combo from the 1940s led by Foy Willing) consisted of Alembic Studios engineer Bob Matthews on electric bass and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead; bassist Phil Lesh also played sporadically with the ensemble in lieu of Matthews through the end of the year, as documented by the late 1969 demos later included on the Before Time Began archival release. Lyricist Robert Hunter briefly rehearsed with the band on bass in early 1970 before the permanent hiring of Torbert in April of that year. The most commercially successful configuration of the New Riders would come to encompass Dawson, Nelson, and Torbert; former Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden; and Buddy Cage, who replaced Garcia in 1971.
Vintage NRPS: 1969-1982:
After a few warmup gigs throughout the Bay Area in 1969, the New Riders (for all intents and purposes Dawson, Nelson, and Torbert) began to tour in May 1970 as part of "An Evening with the Grateful Dead." An acoustic Grateful Dead set that often included Dawson and Nelson as adjutant members would then segue into New Riders and electric Dead sets, obviating the need to retain external opening acts.
By the time the New Riders recorded their first album in late 1970, change was in the air. After Hart went on sabbatical from active touring in February 1971, Spencer Dryden began a ten-year relationship with the group, eventually serving as the band's manager. Their first album, eponymously titled, was released on Columbia Records in late 1971. It proved to be a moderate success comparable to the Dead's releases of the era, peaking at #39 on the Billboard 200 chart. Entirely composed by Dawson (in comparison to the more egalitarian songwriting of later releases), the record was driven by Garcia's pedal-steel playing.
With the New Riders desiring to become more of a self-sufficient group and Garcia needing to focus on his other responsibilities, the musician parted ways with the group in November 1971. Buddy Cage, a seasoned pedal steel player who had contributed to the latter-day recordings by Ian and Sylvia, replaced Garcia. The band's second album, Powerglide (1972) was the first to feature this line-up. The Powerglide album art included a caricature of the band members, drawn by Lore Shoberg.
1973's The Adventures of Panama Red included a Nelson-sung cover of Peter Rowan's "Panama Red" that steadily gained traction as an enduring FM radio staple. The album peaked at #55 in Billboard and, albeit as a sleeper hit, marked the band's commercial zenith; in 1979, it was certified gold by RIAA.
In the mid-1970s Radio Caroline adopted the song "On My Way Back Home" from the Gypsy Cowboy album as the station's theme tune. The song was well-suited to the station's album-oriented format of the time, and included the lyric "Flying to the sun, sweet Caroline".
The New Riders of the Purple Sage continued touring and releasing albums throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s to an increasingly fallow reception; none of the albums that followed New Riders (1976) charted on the Billboard 200 in antipodal contrast to the widespread mainstream success of the outlaw country movement (exemplified by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) and such second-wave country rock groups as The Eagles, Pure Prairie League, and Firefall. The band opened at several Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band shows in 1977 and 1978, including the final concert preceding the demolition of Winterland Arena on December 31, 1978. In 1974, Torbert left NRPS; he and Matthew Kelly had co-founded the band Kingfish (best known for Bob Weir's membership during the Grateful Dead's 1974-1976 touring interregnum) the year before. He was initially replaced by Skip Battin (formerly of The Byrds), followed in 1976 by Stephen A. Love of Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band and the Roger McGuinn Band. Spencer Dryden relinquished his performance duties to manage the group in 1977. His musical replacement was Patrick Shanahan. Allen Kemp joined in 1976, originally on bass, but later on guitar and vocals, contributing to the songwriting for the 1981 album, Feelin' All Right. Then, in 1982, both Nelson and Cage departed from the band.
New New Riders: 1982-1997:
From the early 1980s to the late 1990s, Dawson continued as leader of the New Riders of the Purple Sage. He was joined by multi-instrumentalist Rusty Gauthier, who sang and played acoustic guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. During this fifteen-year period, an evolving lineup of musicians played with Dawson and Gauthier in the New Riders. These included, among others, guitarists Allen Kemp, Gary Vogensen and Evan Morgan, bass players Fred Campbell, Bill Laymon, and Michael White, and drummers Val Fuentes and Greg Lagardo.
Some projects had the current line-up performing new material and others reworked older material. On some albums, such as Midnight Moonlight, the band's sound was less influenced by electric country rock and more by acoustic bluegrass music.
In 1997, the New Riders of the Purple Sage split up. Dawson retired from music and moved to Mexico to become an English teacher. By this time, Nelson had started his own David Nelson Band. There was a reunion performance in 2001. In 2002, the New Riders accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from High Times magazine. On hand were a frail Dawson (suffering from emphysema), Nelson, Cage, Dryden and Torbert's widow Patti. The band performed "Panama Red" and "Lonesome LA Cowboy" with Peter Rowan as part of the celebration. In the spring of 2004, Cage sat in at several gigs with the David Nelson Band.
NRPS revival: 2005-present:
Shortly after the death of Spencer Dryden, a reconstituted line-up of the New Riders began touring in late 2005. It features David Nelson and Buddy Cage, alongside guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque, and drummer Johnny Markowski. They have released a live album, Wanted: Live at Turkey Trot, and two studio albums, Where I Come From and 17 Pine Avenue.
Allen Kemp died on June 25, 2009, and John "Marmaduke" Dawson died on July 21, 2009, at the age of 64 in Mexico. This statement was posted on the band's official website: "John Collins Dawson IV (June 16, 1945 - July 21, 2009). John passed away peacefully on July 21, 2009 at the age of 64 in Mexico, where he had retired several years ago. It is with great sadness that we relay this news, and extend our deepest condolences to his family and all his many fans out there. His songs inspired us in so many ways. His energy, passion and commitment to the New Riders brought us all so much joy over the years. We can all be thankful that his music and legacy will live on forever."
New Riders of the Purple Sage