In the summer of 1969, John Dawson was looking to showcase his songs while Jerry Garcia was looking to practic his brand new pedal steel guitar. The two played in coffeehouses and small clubs initially, and the music they made became the nucleus for a band—the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
That same year, David Nelson, expert in both country and rock guitar, joined the group on electric lead guitar. Filling out the rhythm section in those early days were Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and engineer Bob Matthews on bass, who was later replaced by Phil Lesh. In 1970, Dave Torbert took over on bass and the New Riders played every chance they got. Soon enough, smoky clubs all over the San Francisco bay area were filling up with whooping, foot-stomping crowds as their music got tighter and more dynamic. They began to tour extensively with the Dead, and in December of 1970, Spencer Dryden, who had previously showed his impeccable drumming style with the Jefferson Airplane, had stepped in on drums.
One of the many gigs with the Dead included the Trans-Canadian Festival Express with Janis Joplin, The Band, and other American and Canadian artists like Ian and Sylvia, who had with them a brilliant, innovative pedal steel player named Buddy Cage. When Garcia’s busy schedule made it increasingly difficult for him to play with the New Riders, the talented Cage was the perfect choice to fill the pedal steel spot. He moved from Toronto where he had been working in Anne Murray’s band, to California in the spring of 1971 to join the New Riders. With the addition of Cage, the New Riders emerged as a fully independent unit. An excitingly creative band with a special brand of music—sweet country harmonies mixed with pulsing rock rhythms.
The New Riders were signed to Columbia Records in 1971 by Clive Davis and their eponymous first album, New Riders of the Purple Sage, was released in September of that year to widespread acclaim. In December, 1971 they played a live radio broadcast with the Dead over WNEW-FM in New York to an audience of millions. In 1972 the pattern of their success continued to grow, with their first European tour followed in June by the release of their second album, Powerglide. They toured the United States extensively in response to increasing demand, and in November, 1972 released their third album Gypsy Cowboy.
In May of 1973, the New Riders appeared on ABC-TV’s “In Concert” program to a nationwide audience. Working hard on the road for much of the year, including gigs with the Dead at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco and R.F.K. Stadium in Washington, DC, they took a brief time out to go into the Record Plant in Sausalito with producer Norbert Putnam. The result was The Adventures of Panama Red, released in September of 1973 and with Peter Rowan’s title track, this became an FM radio staple and the first gold record for the band. In November they embarked on an east coast tour that included them setting the box office record at New York City’s Academy of Music. This tour was recorded for the group’s first live album, Home, Home on the Road, which was produced by Jerry Garcia.
Early 1974 found bassist Dave Torbert wanting to pursue a more rock and roll direction as he left the New Riders to form Kingfish with old friends Matthew Kelly and Bob Weir. Skip Battin, formerly with the Byrds, joined the band on bass as they kept to their solid touring schedule which had become one of the band’s trademarks. In August, 1974, the New Riders gave a free thank you concert in Central Park on a Tuesday afternoon to 50,000 New York fans. Their sixth album, entitled Brujo, was released in October, 1974 and found their recorded sound getting crisper with delicate harmonies and more original songs.
1974 Publicity photo (l-r): Spencer Dryden, John Dawson, David Nelson, Skip Battin, Buddy Cage.
Searching for expanded musical horizons, the New Riders hooked up with producer Bob Johnston, known for his work with Bob Dylan, in 1975. Letting Johnston take them down uncharted terrain, the resulting Oh, What A Mighty Time found the band hooking up with Sly Stone and a bevy of female background singers. Mighty Time also features Jerry Garcia’s electric guitar leads on “Take A Letter Maria.” Just about this time, the music business was entering another era and the New Riders ended their relationship with Columbia Records. The subsequent release of the Best of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, with its infamous cover, fulfilled their obligation to Columbia and the band then signed with MCA Records in 1976.
New Riders, the bands first release for MCA, was comprised of mostly cover material and was the last album to feature Skip Battin, who had left to join his cohorts in the Flying Burrito Brothers. Once again, mining from the Byrds/Roger McGuinn stable of bass players, Stephen Love, also an alum of Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band, joined the band and inserted a renewed energy to the live shows. Love’s songwriting talents contributed heavily to Who Are Those Guys?, which was released in the Spring of 1977. At this point, Spencer Dryden traded in his drum sticks to begin managing the band. Patrick Shanahan, another Stone Canyon Band alumnus, fit right in on drums and is featured on Marin County Line, the late 1977 release that ended the bands association with MCA.
Many more changes would engulf the New Riders personnel from this point on. Buddy Cage and Stephen Love departed in 1978 to join the short-lived San Francisco All Stars with John Cippollina. Skip Battin and his Burrito Brother pals Gib Gilbeau and Sneaky Pete Kleinow were then brought in for what would seem like a dynamic mix. But after a brief tour of the Northeast, they had exited as quickly as they entered. Bobby Black from Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen took over on pedal steel and another Rick Nelson alum, Allen Kemp, took over on bass. Cage would re-join the band in 1980 and the band would make their last major label release for A&M with Feelin’ Alright.
The years of grinding it out on the road and the lack of major label attention led to Nelson and Cage taking a break in 1982. Dawson continued to carry the New Riders torch all through the 1980s and early 1990s with help from Rusty Gauthier, Gary Vogensen, Bill Laymon, and select other Bay Area musicians.
The New Riders of the Purple Sage received a Lifetime Achievement Award from High Times magazine at their Doobie Awards in September, 2002 and performed a brief set (which included “Loneseome L.A. Cowboy” and “Panama Red” with Peter Rowan) at the festivities at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York City.
Henry’s taken the brakes off and 2006 finds the New Riders of the Purple Sage back on the road with a revived and inspired lineup, bringing the songs of John Dawson back to the ears of adoring crowds nationwide as well as taking those songs to places they’ve never been before musically. Led by David Nelson and Buddy Cage, the current touring lineup includes Michael Falzarano (Hot Tuna) on guitar and vocals, Ronnie Penque on bass and vocals and Johnny Markowski on drums and vocals. John Dawson passed away on July 21 2009 but before he passed he had given the guys his blessing and was excited to know his music is being heard live again by a whole new generation of fans. The new lineup vows to keep the NRPS spirit and tunes alive by taking them to fans everywhere. In 2009 the band released its first studio album in 20 years called Where I Come From on Woodstock Records. It features new songs written by David Nelson and Robert Hunter, Michael Falzarano, Johnny Markowski, and Ronnie Penque. The band continues to grow braking out new songs on every tour while staying true to the legacy that was started over 40 years ago by John Dawson and Jerry Garcia.