Category Archives: New Riders of the Purple Sage

New Riders of the Purple Sage Discography

When the New Riders of the Purple Sage released their first album on Columbia Records in 1971, they were already familiar to Deadheads, both as an opening act and for individual cameos on Aoxomoxoa (1969), Workingman’s Dead (1970) and American Beauty (1970). The seeds of the relationship, however, date back almost a decade, when David Nelson and John Dawson (a/k/a Marma-Duke) met Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter in the San Francisco music scene of the 1960s. The Riders originally started out as something of a hybrid Dead project, with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Mickey Hart on drums and percussion and Phil Lesh on bass. Before the first Riders album was recorded, Lesh was replaced by David Torbert and ex-Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden joined the band. Featuring all-new material written by Dawson, the first Riders record is a classic country-rock album that suggests a wide-eyed and innocent Workingman’s Dead.

With subsequent albums, the Riders began dropping Dead along the way: Buddy Cage replaced Garcia as the pedal steel guitarist on Powerglide (1972), and by Gypsy Cowboy (1972) the only Dead connection consisted of backing vocals by Donna Jean Godchaux. Despite the dearth of Dead, NRPS continued to attract a following with its hippie-inspired country-rock music, culminating in The Adventures of Panama Red (1973). Torbert, who had shared songwriting duties with Dawson since the second album, left after the live Home, Home On The Road (1974), and the Riders’ commercial fortunes faded when they moved to MCA Records in the mid Seventies. Dryden left the band after Who Are These Guys? (1977).

The Riders recorded one album with A&M Records in 1981, then called it quits. Dawson re-emerged with new Riders in 1989 and recorded a few albums for Relix Records. Since then, live archival material has appeared on various boutique labels as well as modern-day live recordings from the Dawson-led lineup. Dawson passed away in Mexico in 2009, which pretty much marked the end of the original ride, although Nelson and Cage revived the band and even released new material on the Woodstock label. While NRPS never had the cult of the Dead, the commercial success of Poco or the star power of The Flying Burrito Brothers, their first few albums are “highly” recommended to fans of country rock and rolling papers.

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The Best of The New Riders of the Purple Sage (1976)

Kronomyth 9.0: THE BUST OF THE NEW RIDERS. Their greatest hits (get it?), although I would have racked ‘em up differently. Since the Riders didn’t even have a pair of hits to call their own, this compilation attempts to pick the best from the first half-dozen Columbia albums, with ample consideration given to their first album. Columbia should have swapped out “Glendale Train” and “Louisiana Lady” for “Groupie” and “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” or, here’s a notion, added a few more songs and puffed this up to a respectable forty minutes. (At under 31 minutes, this may be the shortest “best of” record on record.) In other words, if you thought Skeletons was slight, this is bone thin. While it’s over too quick, The Best of New Riders of the Purple Sage is pedal-steel perfection and sweet country harmonies the whole way through. These are small, powerful doses of what made the Riders so intoxicating: the mythical drug tales (“Panama Red,” “Henry”), gilded cowboy songs (“Last Lonely Eagle”) and tangential Dead tracks (“Kick in the Head”). So is this the logical place to start in navigating the New Riders? Hell, no. Because it repackages half of the first album anyway, better to just bite the bullet and buy their debut, since song for song it’s better than this Best Of. Also, the complete absence of anything from Dave Torbert seems like a mean-spirited move, seeing as how he’d just jumped ship to join up with Bob Weir in Kingfish. Of course, this compilation doesn’t mark the end of the ride, just ta-ta’s for now.

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New Riders of the Purple Sage: The Adventures of Panama Red (1973)

Kronomyth 4.0: COLUMBIAN GOLD. The high point of the band’s fourth album is “Panama Red,” an open ode to that potent strain of pot written by Peter Rowan (of Old And In The Way) and sung by David Nelson. The rest of the record contains country songs and a few country-rock songs that invite comparison to the Grateful Dead (including “Kick In The Head,” which was written by Robert Hunter). Produced by Nashville veteran Norbert Putnam, The Adventures of Panama Red often feels like a country album on speed. Buddy Cage’s pedal steel flies by like a fleeting pleasure, and the band moves briskly from song to song; only one track (Rowan’s “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”) is longer than three minutes. John Dawson contributes just two tracks this time, both of them forgettable (he also sings lead on “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”). Dave Torbert writes three songs (one of them with Tim Hovey, a former child actor who would go on to become the road manager for the Grateful Dead in the late 70s), including the Weir/Barlow-soundalike “Thank The Day.” The album closes with an original from Spencer Dryden and David Nelson, “Cement, Clay And Glass,” which feels like something that didn’t make it out of Bob Dylan and The Band’s basement. Songs about marijuana and cocaine notwithstanding, The Adventures of Panama Red is their least psychedelic record to date. Putnam’s fast, sweet and shuffling pace is the antithesis of the eight-minute “Death And Destruction” or elegiac “Gypsy Cowboy.” The Riders get in, get out and get back in the saddle for the next song. Increasingly, the band’s future looks to be as cosmic country comedians with some amazing pedal steel playing thrown in plus the occasional cameo by the Grateful Dead family to keep Deadheads engaged. The disappearance of John Dawson as a songwriter and the imminent defection of Dave Torbert hardly boded well for that future, however, and listeners should proceed with caution from here on.

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New Riders of the Purple Sage: Gypsy Cowboy (1972)

Kronomyth 3.0: LIFE AFTER THE DEAD. The Riders had been dropping their Dead along the way and, presumably, Deadheads along with them. By their third album, Gypsy Cowboy, the Dead’s participation in the project consisted of Donna Jean Godchaux singing backing vocals on a pair of tracks. Unlike the previous Powerglide, Dawson and Torbet take up most of the songwriting themselves, with only two cover tunes this time (both of which I think are sung by David Nelson, but don’t quote me on that). As with many of California country-rock counterparts, it’s not clear what side of the fence the Riders are on: are they pot-smoking cowboys or psychedelic rockers who see themselves as modern-day Western outlaws? You won’t find the answer in the songs, which range from the sweet country confection of “Sutter’s Mill” to the epic “Death And Destruction” featuring psychedelic guitar/violin feedback and a subject that shadows the Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil.” Maybe Gypsy Cowboy is the right title, since the band doesn’t rest at any one place too long. The opening title track sounds more like a long goodbye, then it’s on to a pair of country-rock songs about tight getaways and loose ladies, followed the polar opposites of “Sutter’s Mill” and “Death And Destruction.” Side two features are few innocent tunes from Dawson (including “Superman”), Tobert’s reflective “On My Way Back Home” and straightforward covers of the country songs “She’s No Angel” and “Long Black Veil.” Although it didn’t contain any hits and was slighted on 1976’s Best Of compilation, if you’ve come this far with the New Riders, there’s no reason to turn back now.

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New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971)

Kronomyth 1.0: ZANE GREYFULL DEAD. This record is the vinyl consummation of a relationship that began almost a decade ago in the San Francisco folk scene, where David Nelson, John Dawson, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter first met. The four reunited during the Dead’s psychedelic country-rock phase (1969 to 1970), and a mixture of Dawson, Nelson and the Dead became the band’s opening act in 1970. Soon after, NRPS added full-time members David Torbert and Spencer Dryden (of Jefferson Airplane), retained the services of Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, and released this album of John Dawson originals. The songs on the first NRPS album are typical of the West Coast psychedelic country-rock sound, inviting comparison to Buffalo Springfield (e.g., “Garden of Eden”), The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Dawson, Nelson and Torbert achieve nice harmonies, Garcia’s pedal steel playing is decent enough and Dryden makes for a surprisingly credible country-rock drummer. This album has always struck me as a simple, countrified cousin to Workingman’s Dead, especially on songs like “I Don’t Know You,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” and “Last Lonely Eagle.” The Riders dig even deeper into American folk myths than the Dead, with songs about outlaws (“Henry,” “Glendale Train”), miners (“Dirty Business”) and girls from the country (“Portland Woman,” “Louisiana Lady”). If you enjoy country-rock music with a psychedelic twist, you’ll find plenty to admire here among the purple sage. It’s not as pretty as American Beauty or as dazzling as The Gilded Palace of Sin, but it’s a pleasant ride from sun-up to sundown and, as an added bonus, one of the best of the ancillary Dead albums.

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Grateful Dead: American Beauty (1970)

Kronomyth 6.0: GREAT FLOWER BED. A Dead album by any other name would not smell as sweet as American Beauty. The band returned to the studio six months after the breakthrough Workingman’s Dead to record a new collection of songs written this time by various members in collaboration with lyricist Robert Hunter, and the results were the strongest of their short career: “Box of Rain,” “Friend of The Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Ripple,” “Truckin.” If their last album had been a revelation, American Beauty was paradise found. Instruments intertwined like DNA strands, voices creaked like comfortable sneakers, piano and pedal steel provided the perfect punctuation to Hunter’s sage-poems, and the entire album rolled easy with a deceptively loose feel that belied the artistry underneath. Although many have heard on American Beauty a continuation of the band’s country-rock adventures, this album has always struck me as a partial return to the ornate style of Aoxomoxoa. Again, the cover artwork seems to capture the essence of it: psychedelic rock framed in a country-rock context. The track sequence for American Beauty is an interesting one, showcasing different members of the band before settling in for half an album of Hunter/Garcia songs. Jerry Garcia’s contributions have a quiet intensity to them (“Brokedown Palace,” “Attics of My Life,” “Candyman”), forming the soul (if not the heart) of American Beauty’s appeal. It’s strange to think this would be the last studio album from the band for several years. Ron McKernan’s health issues had forced him into a peripheral role (“Operator” essentially amounts to a cameo), and Garcia in particular was already eyeing other alliances with New Riders of the Purple Sage, Howard Wales and David Grisman (all of whom appear on this album). American Beauty thus stands as the pinnacle of the band’s first phase, and (for my money) the finest album they’ve ever recorded.

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Grateful Dead: Aoxomoxoa (1969)

Kronomyth 3.0: DED ‘ED. Palindromes, ambigrams, epigrams… oh my. Aoxomoxoa marks the beginning of the band’s best music, including such perennial favorites as “St. Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower” and (my own personal favorite) “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” Much of the credit belongs to new lyricist Robert Hunter, whose pithy observations would help to define the Dead. And yet, the psychedelic touches are still too pronounced, too precious on Aoxomoxoa, diluting what would otherwise be a nearly perfect album. Specifically, Jerry Garcia as cosmic cantor on “What’s Become of the Baby” is exactly the sort of song that CD makers had in mind when they invented the skip button. That freakshow and “Rosemary” would sink a lesser album. Fortunately, Aoxomoxoa is buoyed by tracks like “Doin’ That Rag” and “Cosmic Charlie.” Even the brittle “Mountains of the Moon” makes for a pretty musical box. I tend to listen to the first side of this and leave the second side alone (if I could swap “Cosmic Charlie” with “Rosemary” I might never flip it over at all). Despite the frequent criticism that the Dead sounded confined in the studio, Aoxomoxoa isn’t confined by anything but the occasional lapse in judgment. The intricacies in the arrangements shine through, the playing is lively and the interplay organic enough. It is the closest thing to a psychedelic pop album that the band has made, at times sounding like an American version of The Kinks. It’s also the last studio album to feature the (musically) experimentally minded Tom Constanten, whose exotic instrumentation (harpsichord, electronic tapes) would have seemed strangely out of place on the earthier, folkier Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

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