Named for a Zane Grey novel and often unfairly judged to be just an adjunct of the Grateful Dead, not surprisingly due to the presence of key New Riders’ personnel on early Dead albums, and the undeniable fact that Jerry Garcia is an ever-present presence across the New Riders’ eponymous debut album. The New Riders of the Purple Sage (NRPS) were thus also an easy opening act to take out on tour with the Grateful Dead, particularly since Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart also played as New Riders. However, as the active participation of members of the Grateful Dead fell away NRPS would prove to be a long-lasting band in their own right – albeit one with an almost ever-changing line-up. For the debut album Garcia and Dawson were joined by David Nelson on electric guitar, David Torbet on bass and, from Jefferson Airplane, Spencer Dryden on drums.
Their 1971 debut album though stands apart for two reasons – Garcia’s pedal steel is one of them and the other is that all the songs were written by John Dawson, the main vocalist and acoustic guitar player of the band. The songs differ wildly across the album, there are serious environmental concerns, there’s a fear for the death of the Hippie Dream, there are historical throwbacks which out-Band The Band and there’s the perils of life on the road, especially when there’s a shortage of smoking materials. It’s an album that can swing from the deepest heartbreak to a musical equivalent of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and the greatest success is to do this without the slightest sense of incongruity – or put more straightforwardly that which should jar does not jar but segues in that seamless way that perfection achieves.
The song selection put NRPS at a different level to bands that might have been considered as their Country Rock peer group – The Eagles or Poco – and there was a slightly gritty feel to the recordings that further distanced them from the often overly super clean studio recordings that other bands produced. NRPS felt more real, more connected to the songs.
Opening with the warm and burbling ‘I don’t know you‘ there’s an immediate sense of the paradoxes that run through NRPS’s love songs – “I don’t know you – you’ve been lately on my mind” on the surface makes no sense at all, but captures a confused love at first sight mood perfectly “Well you came into my world and you took it by surprise – sun could rise up in the West and I would be no wiser.” The punchy “Whatcha Gonna Do” dazzles with the flashes of light from Garcia’s pedal steel as Dawson sings of escaping from everyone else with that one special girl.
‘Portland Woman‘ is a bittersweet love song progressing from touring ennui to be relieved by a casual hook-up with the pay-off with the realisation that the Portland Woman who “treats you right” has actually made a deeper connection “I’m going back to my Portland woman, I don’t want to be alone tonight.” So far so many shades of romance – and then there’s a swerving left turn with ‘Henry‘, whose titular hero has stepped right out of a Gilbert Shelton underground comic. At a frenetic pace the story of Henry’s run to Mexico to fetch twenty kilos of gold unravels, with Henry driving home after sampling the wares “Henry tasted, he got wasted couldn’t even see – how he’s going to drive like that is not too clear to me.” It’s a joke, but a joke that sounds pretty good even after repeat listens.
After this light-hearted entry there comes the eight-minute epic story of a mining dispute, with miners striking for better pay and conditions, whilst the mine owner reacts by locking them out. There’s a great sense of tension to ‘Dirty Business‘ augmented by Garcia’s wailing pedal steel fed through a number of effects pedals to give a sound that was – and still is – quite astonishingly different from the usual pedal steel twang. ‘Glendale Train‘ makes good use of sprightly banjo to make a gruesome series of killings linked to a train robbery into the kind of light-hearted fare we’re familiar with from songs like ‘Jesse James‘ – who you’ll doubtless recall “killed many a man” and “robbed the Glendale Train.” Dawson’s song for the NRPS sits right alongside this as a brand new traditional cowboy folk ballad.
‘Garden of Eden‘ is an early example of the environmental awareness protest song – despairing at the destruction of the world’s beauty, and the casual pollution of resources “hey look at the green green tree – it ain’t quite as green green as it used to be / and hey look at the cool clear water – it ain’t quite as cool clear as it ought to be.” Undeniably, and depressingly, ahead of its time, because it’s as relevant today as it was when it was recorded fifty years ago. ‘All I Ever Wanted‘ is perhaps the saddest song of unrequited love, at least in the country-rock canon. The lyrics tell of a hopeless love, where the adored object has a string of other lovers, seemingly oblivious to the effect this has on their yearningly faithful friend. Coupled with Garcia squeezing every weeping note possible out of the pedal steel it’s a true downer, but in a good way. ‘Last Lonely Eagle‘ blends together environmental concerns – in this case extinction concerns – with a broken-hearted love song and a strand of concern for dedicated youth who have given up on their ideals and conformed to society’s conventional plans. It’s a complex song that comes off perfectly.
After this string of serious songs there’s a final sense of relief with the exuberant love song ‘Louisiana Lady‘ which eschews complexity in favour of the glories of passionate romance as the protagonist tells of a seven-day drive which will culminate with reuniting with his love “tonight I’ll see my Louisiana Lady / My Louisiana Lady is going to sleep with me tonight and hold me tight.” Nothing too complex – and one hundred percent feel good to finish with.
Whilst the New Riders of the Purple Sage would record many more fine albums, none of them had quite the completeness of vision provided by this album full of songs by John Dawson – there’s be more than flashes of brilliance, but they’d be shaded by what could feel like unnecessary covers padding the tracklist, and progressively fewer Dawson songs, but the debut, that’s flawless.