Country Rock on Acid
It’s easy to look back at the ‘70s and have a good chuckle. Sure, free love sounds pretty cool and no one looked at you funny if you liked to get high. But what about Pet Rocks, mood rings, funky hair, hot pants, the Brady Bunch, disaster movies, streaking, Patty Hearst, and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon? But mass culture has never been noted for good taste, and extremely bad taste is at least interesting. Perhaps this is partly why ‘70s’ no brow played so well in the ‘90s: Nick at Nite kept running bad ‘70s sitcoms, disco returned, and Star Wars was repackaged and resold as a cultural cornerstone.
Many of us laughed at the irony of bad culture being recycled, but perhaps the laugh was on us. As rock critic John Strausbaugh noted in Rock ‘Til You Drop, “The 1990s will be remembered as the decade that made fun of the 1970s. How lame is that?” Pretty lame. But the ‘70s, or at least the first few years of it, had one thing going for it, and that was good country rock. It was a magic time before Glenn and Don took over the Eagles, and before Gram O.D.‘d and was cremated by his road manager at Joshua Tree. Sure, no one was making any money, but they were making good music and that seemed like enough.
The New Riders of the Purple Sage was something of a happy accident, a meeting of minds—John Dawson and Jerry Garcia—and of musical ideas—country and rock corrupted by acid. When they formed in 1969, the New Riders was something of a Grateful Dead offshoot, with Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh filling out the group’s line-up. All of this would’ve been little more than an interesting footnote in the history of the Dead if the New Riders hadn’t eventually carved out their own musical niche. By 1971, Dawson and Garcia had been augmented by guitarist David Nelson, bassist Dave Torbert, and drummer Spencer Dryden (formally of Jefferson Airplane). With a good live rep and lots of road experience, Columbia invited the New Riders into the studio to record ten of Nelson’s songs in 1971.
Reviewers have oft noted that New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971) picks up where Workingman’s Dead (1970) and American Beauty (1970) left off, and that’s probably a good point of entry. The album gets rolling with “I Don’t Know You”, a jaunty “Friend of the Devil”-like tune with high-flown harmony borrowed from Crosby, Stills, and Nash. There’s a nice balance between acoustic and electric guitars, light percussion and a steady thumping bass, and Garcia’s nifty steel work. Both “Whatcha Gonna Do” and “Portland Woman” co-opt a laidback, California country-rock mode, while “Henry” and “Glendale Train” are basically electrified bluegrass. The boys ratchet up the eclecticism a notch on the eight-minute “Dirty Business”, with Garcia’s fuzzed out steel adding eerie atmosphere to Dawson’s Old West mining tale. Three bonus cuts fill out this re-issue. These live tracks, “Down in the Boondocks”, “The Weight”, and “Superman”, were recorded at the Fillmore West on 7 July 1971, and they sound just fine. These extras also have the advantage of not repeating other tracks, so it’s sort of like filler at the end of a bootleg.
Dawson’s lyrics occasionally remind me of something a contemporary jam band would concoct. It’s hard to imagine any non-hippy writing a spacey lyric like “whatcha gonnna do on the planet today?” There’s also lots of sexism, which seemed pretty prevalent in the music of the time: ‘70s men wanted free love and freedom too. “Portland Woman” is sung so romantically that you might mistakenly believe the singer’s just a lonely guy who’s more interested in friendship than getting laid.
New Riders of the Purple Sage isn’t one of the ‘70s’ lost masterpieces, but it is a finely crafted album with strong, melody filled songs. Overall, the songs have less depth and warmth than Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Dawson lacks Robert Hunter’s knack for creating symbols that flow naturally from the American landscape, and his vocal work lacks the nuance that made even a weak singer like Garcia distinctive. Still, the production and arrangements on New Riders of the Purple Sage are rich in atmosphere, and the album holds up better than most of what the Dead recorded in the ‘70s. The New Riders of the Purple Sage was a fine country-rock unit, and their debut survives as an enjoyable document from the strangest of decades.