By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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While Gram Parsons' legendary mystique has earned him most of the credit, it seems as if every long-haired hippie in California was reconnecting with their roots in the summer of '69: Roger McGuinn and the Byrds followed the influential Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP with the country-tinged Ballad of Easy Rider; Parsons and Chris Hillman split that group and released their debut as the Flying Burrito Brothers; original Byrd Gene Clark continued his work with bluegrass virtuoso Doug Dillard; Richie Furay and Jim Messina of Buffalo Springfield released their first album as Poco; Michael Nesmith continued his flirtations with country as the Monkees faltered; and somewhere in the Bay Area, Jerry Garcia and the members of the Grateful Dead began crafting the songs that would make up both Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, often accompanied by their friends John "Marmaduke" Dawson and David Nelson, the founding members of the Dead's freshly formed, country-lovin' sister band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
"The New Riders started in Jerry's living room, because he wanted to learn to play the pedal steel guitar," says Nelson. "John had contacted me saying he had some new songs...and Jerry wanted to just tag along more or less." Having first met in the early-'60s folk scene of Palo Alto, California, the three were well acquainted with bluegrass, old-time string bands and Bakersfield country, which along with the psychedelic rock of the day strongly influenced the new group's sound—a blend of buoyant country-soul harmonies, funky rock arrangements and good-time hippie cheer.
After adding members of the Dead on bass and drums, the New Riders quickly became the band's opener of choice. After all, the bands' shared lineups made it incredibly convenient, financially and otherwise. Eventually the demands of the Dead's schedule forced them to untangle the two groups, though Garcia and other members of the Dead did play on the band's self-titled debut.
Undoubtedly helped by their association with Garcia and Co., the New Riders went on to become one of the most successful country-rock bands of the '70s, releasing a stream of well-received albums and even scoring a gold record with 1973's "Panama Red." The band toured steadily throughout the decade as well, though they essentially petered out by the early '80s.
In 2001, however, the 40th birthday of band archivist Rob Bleetstein sparked a one-off reunion of Dawson, Nelson and pedal steel player Buddy Cage, followed by a second reunion performance at High Times' Doobie Awards the next year, where the band received a well-deserved and highly appropriate lifetime-achievement award. "It's like an Oscar from High Times," Nelson says, "but it's a working bong with a plaque with your name on it."
Though Dawson has since retired for health reasons, the songwriter approved his bandmates' return to the road last year, where they front a new lineup of the New Riders filled out by friends from Hot Tuna and Stir Fried—a band that's been described as "Steely Dan jamming with the Marshall Tucker Band on acid." And while the new New Riders are more likely to play in an improvisational, jam-friendly style, Nelson is quick to point out that the focus is still on the band's classic songs, including fan favorites such as "I Don't Know You," "Dirty Business" and "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy." "There was no such thing as jam bands back then," he says, referring to the New Riders' heyday. "In fact, people would flood out of the hall if you started jamming."
Jam fans or not, the band's audience has seen an influx of new blood thanks to recent tours, festival appearances and archival reissues, a fact Nelson and his bandmates couldn't be happier about. "It's amazing," he says. "We often see somebody wearing a New Riders T-shirt that was made before they were born." Amazingly, it seems both the songs and the merch have survived.