New Riders of the Purple Sage, live at Fillmore East, April 29, 1971. Click here for the setlist, or to download the whole thing as MP3s
Dilettantes dabbling in the genre of country music have always had a hard time, from hippies like Gram Parsons to his modern day alt-country hipster inheritors. There’s almost always an inevitable anxiety over class privileges and the fetishization of working class experience by cultural elites. That combines with the classic rural versus urban divide and adds up to an awkward night sitting in a bar in Silver Lake listening to delicate, good-looking dudes in fancy vintage Western shirts singing about CB radios and old pickup trucks. It’s airless tribute at best, unaware cowboy drag at worst.
John “Marmaduke” Dawson was the lead singer and main songwriter for The New Riders of the Purple Sage, the best of the hippie country bands that emerged from the West Coast psychedelic rock and rustic folk scenes, and one of the only bands — along with Commander Cody, Doug Sahm and Asleep At The Wheel [thanks for reminding me, Michael!] — that managed to merge roper with doper without apologies to either camp. He died on Tuesday in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he’d been teaching English as part of the city’s established community of American expatriates. He was 64, and stomach cancer was the culprit.
Travel to Mexico is the subject of one of the New Riders best-known songs, “Henry.” Marmaduke often dedicated live performances of the song to anyone in the audience who “smuggles dope for a living,” and given that most of the New Riders best shows were during the early ’70s opening for the Grateful Dead, there were no doubt plenty of audience members who appreciated such recognition.
“Henry” is about the titular drug runner on his way down to Acapulco to find out why all the marijuana has stopped flowing to the United States. After navigating a series of twisty mountain roads, he finds his supplier’s farm and proceeds to get thoroughly obliterated on freshly trimmed crops. The song is about the drive back, as told from the perspective of an unnamed passenger, who is continually beseeching the seriously faded Henry to keep the brakes on as they careen through the mountain passes.
It’s a song that, like so many New Riders tunes, conveys a distinctly hippie experience using the language of country music. The band was an outgrowth of Jerry Garcia’s pre-Dead unit, the wacky bluegrass band Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. The Dead did plenty of country-leaning material, but Garcia still wanted an outlet for his pedal steel licks, and thus the New Riders of the Purple Sage came to be.
Garcia does indeed lay down sublime steel guitar on their first two albums — as a band member on the eponymous 1971 debut, and a guest on 1972’s mellow Powerglide — and joined them onstage frequently when the two bands toured together throughout the early ’70s. It’s here that Garcia really opens up on the foot pedals, unleashing sinuous lines of guitar twang; a perfect complement to Marmaduke’s dopey, nasal voice.
Such hippie experiences aren’t just limited to running drugs: Marmaduke was also quite adept at celebrating the natural beauty of California wilderness with songs like “Rainbow,” and wrote environmentalist ballads like “Last Lonely Eagle,” which managed to be as unapologetically corny and gorgeously heartbreaking as George Jones. Later, less well-known albums like Brujo continued to convey Marmaduke’s interest in South American adventure through his songs and collaborations, my favorite being the Kim Fowley-penned “On The Amazon,” the story of a thief who flees the city to become a river bandit.
The New Riders made great country music because they came off as goofy and brokenhearted as real country musicians, not urban folkies poor-mouthing their way through ballads of small town heartbreak or long nights of hauling freight; in other words, I believe Marmaduke because he wrote really dumb, beautiful songs.
Marmaduke and his band sound just like what they were: hippies who loved country music. Even when they dabbled in Bakersfield classics or pulled out their gloopy psychedelic version of the speed-chomping anthem “Six Days on the Road,” it always sounded like stoned tribute, rather than like they were really trying to come off like actual truck drivers, roughnecks or fence-mending cowboys. That puts Marmaduke’s body of work — which also includes co-writing credit on the Dead classic “Friend of the Devil” along with guest spots on American Beauty, Aoxomoxoa and Workingman’s Dead — closer to cowboy storytellers like Robert Earl Keene, Jerry Jeff Walker or Commander Cody than either the San Francisco acid rock scene from whence he sprang, or the alt-country players rocking vintage NRPS gear procured from eBay collectors.
There’s plenty of studio work from the New Riders that’s worth tracking down, but the first two albums are the best, IMHO. What’s more the New Riders still have plenty of soundboard and audience bootlegs available for download at Archive.org — unlike the Dead, who true to their unfortunate legacy as profiteering yuppie douchebags, pulled all the soundboard recordings from the Archive site several years ago. Marmaduke continued playing with the New Riders until 1997. He supported, but neglected to join in with, the 2005 revival of the band. It sounds like he was pretty content living a low profile, low cost, low impact life down in Mexico; an idyllic existence well in line with the loveliest of New Riders ballads.