New Riders of the Purple Sage

s/t (Columbia 1971)

If there was some way to astrally project myself into the my college dorm room circa 1993, I would take great pleasure in revealing that I now absolutely adore the Grateful Dead just to watch my shaggy, elitist doppleganger retch and vomit in disapproval. “Believe me, I tried to fight it, but the years just mellowed my edges and I found myself becoming more and more of a kindred spirit with my hippie brethren whom I once mocked and assailed for their worn shoeboxes of meticulously documented Dead shows. In retrospect, I had no leg to stand on as I look back upon my worship of melancholy mopers and nihilistic noise mongers that seems so shallow and trite when I kick back and listen to a righteously gorgeous, life affirming and downright genius string of albums beginning with Anthem of the Sun and ended with From the Mars Hotel before the drugs, hangers-on, financial and personal disasters took their toll and they slowly became the punchline I envisioned in my 20s. However, my wife has seen the Grateful Dead over twenty times and converted me to the other side.

You are all grown men and women here and have probably picked what side of the fence in which you reside regarding the Grateful Dead, so there’s no point in delivering a passionate sermon about how “Pride of Cucamonga” is a flawless mutation of country music or why American Beauty is a seamless suite of songs that perfectly encapsulate all that is transcendent about 70s Americana, so let’s focus on New Riders of the Purple Sage, an offshoot of the Dead that’s been brightening my dark corners these days.

Although the New Riders of the Purple Sage were an ongoing and occasionally brilliant concern until 1997, it’s their self-titled debut and its followup Powerglide that are worth examining closely if you have even a passing interest in 60s and 70s country rock in the vein of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Dillard and Clark, Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons. However, their self-titled debut is the strongest entry in their discography and best conveys the rollicking, loose and patchouli scented vibe they aimed for throughout the 70s. Centered around David Nelson and John “Marmaduke” Dawson, the band got their start via their connection to Jerry Garcia since they used to play together in the mid 60s and Dawson was the one who turned Garcia onto the sounds of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. This seamless synthesis of the Bakersfield sound and psychedelic country was  achieved through the talent imported from the Dead as Jerry Garcia returns the favor by playing an integral role here playing pedal steel, guitar and banjo while Mickey Hart provides percussion alongside Spencer Dryden of Jefferson Airplane. I always liked the more country-tinged side of the Dead instead of the bluesy workouts, so the New RIders of the Purple Sage give me all I could ever want since every song mines this fertile vein.

All that is impeccable about the New Riders of the Purple Sage can be found in the very first song on the album. “I Don’t Know You” bests anything recorded by their contemporaries by a long shot as it intersects the late 60s Byrds and 70s Dead and encapsulates all that was blissful about both bands at their best. It captures all the bright eyed and bushy-tailed innocence of meeting a potential love connection and deriving their true intentions as hormones cloud your vision and you battle the urge to dive into the pool or dip your toes in the water. It’s followed by “Watcha Gonna Do” which may repulse anyone who dislikes the Dead since it’s central hook is almost a archetype for any number of Dead “jams” as the guitars lope and dive in a nimble dance in a way only they could in the early 70s. Well, I guess their hippie credentials are stamped and validated next on “Portland Woman” which champions the superiority of those Portland women that “treat you right.” I guess somethings never change since hippies of today would probably parrot the same sentiments. “All I Ever Wanted” counters the Bacchanalian call of “Portland Woman” and flips the script as our protagonist bemoans a love gone sour as the target of his affection spurns him and parades her suitors before his teary eyes as a gentle riff builds and builds in unison with chiming harmonies as instrument and voice plead their case for a little respect and honesty. It’s kind of a simple song, but deep as an abyss if you listen to it enough times. By now, I guess you’ve surmised I’m the guy who listens to New Riders of the Purple Sage far too much. However, I’m unashamed since this is a forgotten gem that has been tarred by its association with the Dead while the same folks embrace Gram Parson and his nudie suit. They may have traveled far beyond their expiration date, but dig into any of their 70s albums and you will find yourself wondering why you’ve ignored them all these years.

Dillard and Clark

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark (1969, reissued in 2000 by Demon)

I love all posted here, but occasionally I must pull you aside and state the absolute brilliance of a particular album. The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark is one of those albums that reinforce the idealistic attitude twoards music and its ability to make the world so much more colorful by its very presence. To be honest, if you lack love for the Byrds, bluegrass, country and the richness of a well-told tale, then my hyperbole is a mere shout into a deaf ear. It may not be my favorite album in the entire world, but I’ve always felt it walked in lock step with my guardedly optimistic and relaxed personality. It’s a bruised, but hopeful collection of tunes that always nudge me in the right direction while reminded me that all is not sunshine in this dour world.

This Dillard slot in this duo is filled by Doug Dillard, one-half of the 60s most talented purveyors of bluegrass, while the Clark portion is taken up by Gene Clark, one of my favorite songwriters and engine behind the Byrds’ earliest classics. It is a perfect product of the late 60s when folk, country, bluegrass and rock all became a fountainhead for a bunch of long-hairs who crafted it into their own grubby visage. It may not reinvent a well-worn wheel, but it is a respectful nod to their heroes that could’ve only been recorded during this era. God knows that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were on the top of their game during this period, but these two leave the social commentary at the door and just focus on personal woes involving the meaning of life, love and the potential for happiness. It’s a humble, respectful album that breaks my heart only to slap a shit-eating grin on it during the next song. Although it may aim for simplicity, there is a grace and complexity to their songwriting that place it far beyond the others who drew from the same pond.