50 Years Later- Revisiting New Riders of the Purple Sage Country Rock Debut

Especially when compared to the Grateful Dead’s like-minded releases of the same period, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, New Riders of the Purple Sage debut can be seen and heard as more style than substance. Yet as the passage of a half-century of time has proven, the album possesses a depth and durability all its own, thanks in part to the collaboration between selected personnel from those aforementioned iconic psychedelic warriors and the core members of their direct descendants.

It might be fair to state this LP is, in fact, that very point the New Riders became an (almost) independent entity, separate from the Grateful Dead. Connections would always remain, though, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter David Nelson was a long time compatriot of Jerry Garcia going back to jug-band days) and his ever-so-pithy Fender guitar playing was squarely rooted in that very Bakersfield California-Buck Owens’ country style upon which the iconic band’s titular leader aimed to base those aforementioned seminal studio albums. A former member of the New Delhi River Band like Nelson, Dave Torbert eventually brought r&b elements into the music after assuming bass chores from Phil Lesh. 

The latter had performed in that role during the group’s earliest days, alongside his partner in the Dead rhythm section Mickey Hart (who appears on two album tracks of this record alongside Commander Cody of the Lost Planet Airmen on piano). By the time of this eponymous recording, however, the once and future rhythm devil had given way to another kindred spirit from San Francisco, Spencer Dryden: the former drummer of Jefferson Airplane, like his counterpart, added rhythmic fillips aplenty to tracks such as “Whatcha Gonna Do” without ever undermining the simplicity of the songs. 

Jerry Garcia remained a fast learning acolyte in his seat at the pedal steel, whose potential he turned to his own idiosyncratic ways and means. Imprinting the originals of old friend John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson  with sounds as colorful as the band logo on the cover—a collaboration including artist Alton Kelly who worked on the Skull & Roses graphics too— Garcia could range far from the traditional tones of country steel, as with the distortion that circles throughout “Dirty Business,” while still adopting a more conventional tone on “Portland Woman” and the heart-aching ballad “All I Ever Wanted.” 

No matter the benefits of sharing the stage on tours with the Dead around this time, where the seeds planted in Garcia and Dawson’s wood-shedding to write really began to flower (with “Friend of the Devil,” originally intended for NRPS), without the pedigree earned through five years of touring and recording, there’s no way the New Riders’ work could compare to the studio peaks of the Grateful Dead discography. That said, there’s more than a little going on underneath the surface of the mellifluous vocal harmonies and equally sweet pedal steel and electric guitar adorning Dawson’s songs: how else to read ”The Last Lonely Eagle” or “Garden of Eden” except as expressions of environmental concern.

Granted, “Henry” is no more or less than a story of drug smuggling, but its narrative is so vivid it might well have served as a launching point for a film set in the Old West (like many of the late Robert Hunter’s lyric stories at this time). And while the lyrics differ on “I Don’t Know You,” “Glendale Train” and “Louisiana Lady,” all resemble each other in the sprightly bounce of the band moving through the chord changes: the placement of these numbers at the beginning, middle and end of the ten cuts amplifies the pacing of the track sequencing, only part of the deserved production kudos to assign the band itself and its executive overseers. 

Phil Lesh, of course, knew the music from actually playing it, while the all-encompassing sonics engineered by Steve Barncard compares favorably not only to the work of the extraordinary Betty Cantor-Jackson but also to his own magnificent audio on David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, released early this same year of 1971. In its original form, NRPS  is hardly the work of mere spin-offs from a successful franchise and the slightly expanded 2003 reissue includes live performances from Fillmore West that hint at the courageous eclecticism the band would exhibit over the course of its extended career.

“Down In The Boondocks” was/is a 1965 hit by Nashville session guitarist Joe South, while “The Weight” finds Dawson aiming for the plaintive soul so prevalent in the singing of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel on The Band’s Music From Big Pink.  Those two choices place the New Riders squarely within the realm(s) of what’s been variously designated over the years as country-rock/alt-country/Americana, but “Superman” boasts a loopy whimsy that distinguishes the quintet from contemporaries such as the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds. In fact, these knowing choices of outside material, like the best of the self-composed pieces preceding them, only render more indelible the impression this band left with NRPS half a century ago. In hindsight, the music both complements and transcends those now readily-recognizable graphics on the front of the album.

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