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

Country-rock and the California drug culture collide on the last of the classic New Riders records.

Kronomyth 4.0: Columbian gold.

The high point of NRPS‘ fourth album is Panama Red, an open ode to that potent strain of pot written by Peter Rowan (of Old & 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.

Original elpee version

A1. Panama Red (Peter Rowan) (2:48)
A2. It’s Alright with Me (Dave Torbert) (2:41)
A3. Lonesome L.A. Cowboy (Peter Rowan) (4:08)
A4. Important Exportin’ Man (Tim Hovey/Dave Torbert) (2:24)
A5. One Too Many Stories (John Dawson) (2:54)
B1. Kick in the Head (Robert Hunter) (2:28)
B2. You Should Have Seen Me Runnin’ (John Dawson) (2:58)
B3. Teardrops in My Eyes (Red Allen/Tommy Sutton) (2:12)
B4. L.A. Lady (Troy Seals/Don Goodman/Will Jennings) (2:10)
B5. Thank the Day (Dave Torbert) (2:22)
B6. Cement, Clay and Glass (Spencer Dryden/David Nelson) (2:33)

The Players

Buddy Cage (pedal steel), John Dawson (guitar, vocals), Spencer Dryden (drums and percussion), David Nelson (guitar, vocals), Dave Torbert (bass, guitar, vocals) with Donna Jean Godchaux (additional vocals on tracks 4 & 9), The Memphis Horns (horns, horn arrangements), Norbert Putnam (horn arrangements, bass on track 10) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (additional vocals on tracks 7 & 11). Produced by Norbert Putnam; recording engineered by Tom Flye, remix engineered by Norbert Putnam.

The Pictures

Album concept by Spencer and Lore, cover design by Toots and Toots, cover art by Lore and Chris, photography (on lyrics innersleeve) by Tom Weir.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in October 1973* in the US (Columbia, KC-32450), the UK (CBS, S-65687) and New Zealand (CBS, SBP-474151) with gatefold cover. Reached #55 on the US charts (RIAA certified gold record). (*First appeared in 10/13/73 issue of Billboard.)

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1974 in the US (Columbia, CQ-32450 in quadraphonic stereo).
  2. Re-issued on elpee in 1979 in the US (Columbia, PC-32450) with gatefold cover.
  3. Re-issued on compact disc in the US (Columbia, 32450).

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