Few bands distilled the essence of Northern California’s mid-to-late ’60s music scene like New Riders of the Purple Sage. The group began life as a side project of the Grateful Dead, guitarist Jerry Garcia on pedal steel joined by John “Marmaduke” Dawson and David Nelson, both members of pre-Dead groups with Garcia. Propelled by songwriter Robert Hunter’s lyrics, the Dead were moving from long space jams to a more countrified sound.
“After all those years of mind-gumming psychedelics,” said the band’s manager in 1969, the Dead were “beginning to crave the normal.” Nelson was both an early collaborator with Garcia and a close friend, serving as best man at his first wedding. He was also a frequent houseguest; Nelson remembers being awakened from naps on the couch with news that “the boys,” Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, were stopping by for vocal rehearsals.
“Phil and Bobby would sit at the guitar and piano and sing these songs,” Nelson recalled recently from his Northern California home. “That was when I first heard stuff like ‘Brokedown Palace,’ ‘Cumberland’ and ‘High Times.’ These guys were really laying in and trying it. It wasn’t quite up to the bluegrass singers, with a high tenor singer able to nail it and all that, but they were doing it in their own way and going for it [with] really deep and elaborate harmonies.”
Nelson and Dawson would contribute to the breakthrough Workingman’s Dead and its follow-up, American Beauty. The two records helped move the Dead from cult band to institution — but success wasn’t a given.
“It took a lot of courage … the pop thing at the time was to orchestrate it loud,” Nelson says. “I remember the first few gigs in San Francisco just trying it out and being so concerned that it had a chance of falling flat, because audiences would be expecting us to be an extension of the Grateful Dead [but] even louder and bigger — but we were quieter. To my amazement, people just shut up and listened.”
After a couple of years opening shows backed by Garcia, Lesh and Dead drummer Mickey Hart, a fixed NRPS lineup came into focus: Dawson, Nelson, drummer Spencer Dryden, bass player Dave Torbert and steel guitarist Buddy Cage (though Garcia played on the band’s 1971 debut). Their Bakersfield-meets-Haight-Ashbury sound informed the style of countless cosmic cowboys who followed them.
In 1983, Nelson and Cage both departed, effectively ending the band, though Dawson would carry on the name with other musicians; the official breakup came in 1997. Nelson moved comfortably to other projects. A veteran of countless groups in the early ’60s — “three months with a band would seem like a lifetime,” he recalls — he played bluegrass, Zydeco and country rock in the ensuing decades.
Two members of Cage’s band suggested he reunite with Nelson and revive NRPS in 2005. Overtures were made and dates booked. Dawson’s failing health precluded his participation, though he gave the project his blessing. Nelson remembers the band’s first reunion gigs less than fondly: “Almost every song was a train wreck,” he says.
In the end it didn’t matter. Crowds “dug the fact that we were playing off the cuff, we weren’t trying to reproduce something, we were actually playing with and off each other, in the moment,” Nelson says. “The audience doesn’t look at it like a musician … every performance has been a little better and it just keeps going up from there.”
The band released a studio album, Where I Come From, in 2009. Robert Hunter wrote seven of the record’s 12 songs. The old friends have an easy partnership. Nelson once told Hunter he felt like he could order up songs “like cheeseburgers.” The songwriter enjoyed the analogy — including it in his book, Box of Rain. “Here’s one with no onions,” he wrote.
In the mid-90s, when Nelson was working with his own band, he wrote to Hunter: “Hey, how ’bout more cheeseburgers?” Hunter responded by asking him to send music.
“It was uncanny,” Nelson recalls. “In every phrase of the lead, I’d put an instrument for what I imagined the vocal to be and he’d match them syllable for syllable.”
When NRPS reunited, Hunter sent Nelson some unsolicited lyrics.
“He must have heard about it,” Nelson says. Hunter’s stake in the band goes back to the beginning. According to Dead biographer Dennis McNally, he was the band’s first bass player — “for about 20 minutes.” Nelson, though, insists that distinction belongs to Bob Matthews.
But Hunter definitely gave them their Old West moniker.
“We were in a total quagmire about the name of the band. Garcia really didn’t want it to be Jerry Garcia and Friends; he insisted on being a sideman,” Nelson says. “When you need a name, it deteriorates quickly to a lot of funny stuff. Jerry came up with The Murdering Punks, but in the not so good summer of ’69 with Charles Manson, it was not a good idea.”
Hunter suggested Riders of the Purple Sage, but Nelson pointed out that Foy Willing led a band with that name in the 1940s, and instead offered a slight modification.
“They said I just liked bands with ‘new’ at the beginning because I was in New Delhi River Band, and I always liked New Lost City Ramblers,” Nelson says. “But anyway — that was it!”