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New Riders of the Purple Sage
by Chris Flisher © 1994 /
(first published October 1994 Worcester Phoenix)

New Riders of the Purple Sage
As the sole remaining and founding member of the legendary country-rock group, New Riders of the Purple Sage (N.R.P.S.), John Dawson has seen a lot. From the early days, playing to crowd-packed stadiums with the Grateful Dead in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, to the small concert halls and bars of late, this tenacious musician has remained on the country-rock perimeter, as front man and songwriter for the New Riders since 1969. The New Riders were musical cousins to the Grateful Dead and went on to become one of the pioneering bands behind the country and rock fusion.

N.R.P.S., along with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Pure Prairie League, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, Asleep at the Wheel and others fused the soaring three-part harmonies and twangy pedal-steel guitars of country with the power chords and driving back beat of rock, creating a hybrid that, today, dominates country radio. “New country” or “young country” as it is also called, enjoys an unparalleled presence on the pop charts, attracting a wider audience by incorporating electric country with conventional rock.

“No surprises there,” says the raspy-voiced Dawson. “When you hear country music on the radio today, it sounds like they spend as much time making the snare drum sound right as they do on everything else, and it sounds just like rock’n’roll to me; countrified rock’n’roll. The only difference,” pauses the Californian cowboy, in the stoned dialect of an aging hippie, “is the topics. Instead of singing about wanting to get laid and stuff, they’re singing songs for people who are married. Hey man,” he continues, “I always figured if you put some of the rock together with the country you’d have something. Some of those power chords with that pedal steel, three-part harmonies, and a drum to drive the beat, and man that’d really be something. And I guess I was right,” he concludes with a sinister cackle.

Named after a western novel by Zane Grey and a 1940s country swing band (Riders of the Purple Sage), the New Riders of the Purple Sage were an offshoot of the Grateful Dead, formed by then pedal-steel guitar apprentice, Jerry Garcia and his former folkie friend John Dawson. “I’ve known Jerry from my days as a kid in Palo Alto,” recalls Dawson. “He used to teach guitar and play the coffeehouses and stuff. We began to jam together and we started the band.” Shortly after guitarist David Nelson and other Dead members Mickey Hart (drums) and Phil Lesh (bass) joined and made the band official. “The Grateful Dead really helped our career,” admits Dawson. “We toured with them and they brought us to a much bigger audience than we probably could have done on our own.”

It comes as no surprise to any self-respecting Dead-head that Garcia’s roots stretch deep into country and bluegrass. Uncle John’s Band and American Beauty are laced with strong references to the acoustic-based music of the Appalachians and Nashville. It was a mutual interest in country that brought Dawson and the Dead together.

“Bill Monroe and Buck Owens, man, they were my favorites,” remembers Dawson. “I also loved Pete Seeger, Ian and Sylvia, and a bunch of folk singers. But, I always figured that those elements; the steel guitars and the three-part harmonies; you know straight-on major-chord harmonies would work.” With 16-plus albums to their credit, a loyal cult following, and a radio full of imitators, it’s hard to argue.

Although the band established themselves as innovators in the ‘70s, the ‘90s version is more traditional in form. Gone are the drums and bass. In their place are acoustic instruments and, of course, tightly-knit harmonies, which spin their much-requested repertoire with a new twist. “Louisiana Lady” and “Glendale Train” from their 1971 debut are both reincarnated on their most recent release, Midnight Moonlight. Even “Panama Red,” their gold-record, drug-referenced theme song is stripped down. Unplugged, so to speak, the band edges closer to the true roots of country and rock, using traditional instruments and performing with a country-pickers reverence instead of their trademark California cowboy routine. Fiddles, accordions, even Uillean pipes (Irish bagpipes) appear in their show with nary a drum to be heard.

The latest incarnation of the band includes multi-instrumentalist Rusty Gauthier (guitar, violin, lap steel) and Evan Morgan (acoustic/electric guitars) who replaced original the members and the long-departed Dead faction. “I only hoped we [and the Grateful Dead] could get together again,” says Dawson, “But it is kind of hard. After all they are the biggest grossing band on the planet and Jerry has got these walls around him. He is very hard to approach these days.”

But for all their tasteful authenticity and trend-setting ways, the New Riders find themselves ironically ahead of the curve again. The high-polish of the booming country music business now allows little room for tradition. “It is hard to get played on the radio these days,” bemoans Dawson. “If you don’t fit that formula, you’re not going to get too far. I mean, there is some good stuff out there, man, but I’m just as likely to turn off the country radio station as I am to keep it on. It’s too much of the same,” he pauses and laughs with a raspy cackle, “At least they could play an old-timers hour or something.”

Chris Flisher

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