“New Riders of the Purple Sage” by New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971)
When I was at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I didn’t particularly like the music the guys usually had blaring through the fraternity-house speakers during parties. “The chicks dig it,” they’d explain, or something to that effect.
One of the brothers who lived at the house, Steve, had a decent stereo and record collection in his room. So every once in a while, to escape “Another One Bites the Dust,” I’d head upstairs and put something on that I wanted to hear.
Usually it turned out being the debut by the New Riders of the Purple Sage. I’d been familiar with the song “Henry” for awhile; it’s kind of a novelty number about a fellow who smuggles a bunch of “vegetative matter” from Tijuana. But listening to Steve’s record revealed gems I hadn’t known: “I Don’t Know You,” “Louisiana Lady,” “Garden of Eden” and the epic “Dirty Business.”
I’ll admit that one of my big attractions to the album is the presence of one Jerry Garcia, playing pedal steel guitar. Jerry had picked up one of those in Denver while touring with the Grateful Dead and immediately taught himself how to play it. And while he was at it, he figured he’d use the instrument in a side project. And so the New Riders of the Purple Sage was born.
By the time the band recorded its debut for Columbia Records, Jerry still was on board, but all the songs were written by the late John “Marmaduke” Dawson, one of the NRPS guitarists. Look at the credits of the Dead’s immortal “Friend of the Devil,” and you’ll see his name there, too.
“New Riders of the Purple Sage” digs deeper into the country-folk-bluegrass territory the Dead was mining at the time, as a radical departure from its marathon psychedelic concerts. The new formula worked like a charm on “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” both released in 1970 and both recognized as being among the band’s greatest accomplishments.
While not quite living up to the standards of those albums, “New Riders of the Purple Sage” holds its own with stellar compositions, harmony vocals and, of course, the steel guitar. The epic “Dirty Business,” sort of about the plight of coal miners, has Jerry opening up the sound into a fuzztone-feedback effect reminiscent of what audiences were likely to hear during various points of Dead concerts.
I eventually bought my own copy of “New Riders of the Purple Sage” and still have the LP downstairs somewhere. And that’s not just because Steve left school and took his records with him.
Postscript: This is kind of depressing, but most of the principals involved in “New Riders of the Purple Sage” are with us no more:
- John Collins Dawson IV (1945-2009), guitar and vocals
- Spencer Dryden (1938-2005), drums
- Jerome John Garcia (1942-95), pedal steel guitar
- Dave Torbert (1948-82), bass
Here’s to the health of survivors David Nelson and Mickey Hart.