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
“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.”