Volume #18, Issue #3 -- June 1991
New Riders of the Purple Sage Interview
By Toni A. Brown
The New Riders of the Purple Sage have been a band for over two decades, having seen a number of changes in personnel during this time. John "Marmaduke" Dawson is a founding member and wrote much of the material that is still performer in their live repertoire. Their earliest performances were as the opening act for the Grateful Dead, with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Mickey Hart on drums.
Keep On Keepin' On is the latest New Riders release, and there's talk of new album. Currently, NRPS have been tourin gas an acoustic trio, and, for the last four years, members include Dawson, Rusty Gauthier, and Gary Vogenson.
Rusty Gauthier is a prolific instrumentalist, playing mandolin, slide guitar, guitar, banjo, and fiddle, and contributing wonderful harmonies and some fine original material. He has been with Dawson since 1982.
The following interview is with all three members of the current NRPS line-up:
Dawson: Prior to '82 was, well, several configurations of the old New Riders. The one that was together at the end was more like the original New Riders than a lot of the other ones that had been there in the meantime. Buddy Cage had come back and rejoined, Allen Kemp was playing bass, David Nelson was on guitar, and Patrick was playing drums.
Relix: There was a time the Riders and the Flying Burrito Brothers were one band.
Dawson: Well, that goes back! The New Riders and the Flying Burrito Brothers sort of merged for a very short period. We had our own bus, and they had their own bus. We roamed around the country playing a horrible, nasty little Cajun card game called, "Booray." If you want to learn how to play Booray, it's gonna cost you some money, I'll tell you, because nobody's just gonna teach you. He's gonna say, "Well, we bet on this game. Here's what you do--break out your money, and let's play."
Relix: What's your background, Rusty?
Gauthier: My background is acoustic-oriented folk, bluegrass, country stuff, Irish music. I started off playing banjo and acoustic guitar and mandolin, and then the fiddle. I started getting more into electric music, about 15 years ago. But it was more acoustic, folk-oriented--I played coffee houses in Detroit, where I grew up, and when I first moved out to California, I played solo, doing a lot of solo work, playing acoustic music.
Relix: Did you do any originals at that time?
Gauthier: All the bands that I've been involved in have done original music. I've never played in bands that did a lot of covers. When I moved out to California, I played solo for a while, hooked up with a Norwegian fellow by the name of Eric Malle, and had a trio called the Happy Valley String Band. That was eclectic, sort of like Incredible String Band stuff.
Relix: When did you meet the Bear?
Gauthier: I met the Bear, Owsley, when I was playing with the Happy Valley String Band. We were opening shows for the Good Ol' Boys with Garcia, who was engineering. Frank Wakefield and David Nelson were in the Good Ol' Boys. Garcia was playing, too. Bear was always taping all of Garcia's shows, and he asked us if we wanted him to tape ours. We said, "Sure." So he taped it and really enjoyed the stuff that we were doing. It was pretty out there music. We became good friends, and he was coming around, helping out, mixing sound and doing a lot of live recording.
Dawson: Owsley still thinks that Rusty's one of the best musicians he's ever heard.
Gauthier: He introduced us to a lot of people, to a lot of the Dead. That's when I first met all of the guys in the Dead, a few years prior to hooking up with John. So we have a mutual connection in the back.
Relix: Gary, where do your Bay Area roots stem from?
Vogenson: I grew up in San Rafael.
Dawson: He's got better Bay Area roots than Rusty or I do!
Vogenson: I began working with a lot of Bay Area musicians. Barry Melton gave me my first job in a rock band called "Melton, Levy, and the Dey Brothers" in 1972. I've had a series of my own bands, and played with a number of Bay Area luminaries such as Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield, Maria Muldaur, Norton Buffalo, and Boz Scaggs.
Relix: Well, John, you go back a ways. Of course, you're synonymous with the New Riders name. When you started the band, was it just a loose configuration to open up for the Grateful Dead? How did that all come about?
Dawson: I was hanging out with those guys. I was on my own different course. I've been on a different course, of course, the whole time there, but hanging out in the same scenes in Palo Alto. In the daytime, people would be hanging out at Dana Morgan's music shop, and Garcia was an instructor there. He would rent teaching space. A kid would buy a guitar from the guitar shop, and he'd come in, and Jerry would give him guitar lessons. Jerry did that for a number of years, as did David Nelson. They did it in various [and] sundry music stores around Palo Alto, but when I first remember hanging out with them was at Dana Morgan's. Dana supplied all the instruments for the very first configuration of the Warlocks, as they called themselves when they first started. Dana actually attempted to play bass, but was inadequate to the task, and after a couple of gigs in Pinky's Pizza in Menlo Park, they decided that Dana wasn't quite up for it. That was when Jerry gave his old pal Phil a call and said, "Hey, get down here, man, and play the bass for us." It was in a different music store called Guitars Unlimited, which is in Menlo Park. The first time that Phil showed up to hang out with Jerry and listen to some of the stuff they were doing, they said, "Here, here's the bass," and Phil says, "What do I do with this?" I happened to be standing right there at the time. I said, "Well, the low one's E, and the next one's an A and you go up this far to get to A," and like that. So I showed Phil the first actual formation that he learned on the bass guitar. That's one of my great claims to fame. I thought that would be a fact that would trip some Relix fans out!
Gauthier: I'm sure Phil will deny it vehemently.
Dawson: Phil will probably deny it, but I did actually say, "Okay, this is this one and that one is that one."
Relix: When did you first meet Robert Hunter?
Dawson: Earlier than that, just hanging out in various scenes in Palo Alto. They were beginning to get their jug band going. I'm not sure when I first met Hunter. In '65, I believe.
Relix: Was "Friend of the Devil" originally written for the New Riders or for the Dead?
Dawson: Hunter had this tune in mind. He came over to where Nelson and I were living. He was living about two miles away. He had that descending line, and he had all the words written out. But the words only went so far on that one line. You shouldn’t repeat it one more time, it needs to go to something else here, right? So, I'm the one who came up with the "set out running but I take my time, a friend of the Devil is a friend of mine" line, and Hunter continued. We worked on it for a while that evening, and we thought we had a completed tune. Hunter was staying at Garcia's house, and he took it back home with him that night, and played it for Jerry. Jerry says, "That's fine and dandy, but it needs a bridge, so give me some more words, please." For Hunter, it's whip out a piece of paper and a pen, and then just start working on it, and he cranked out the "got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night" part, and Jerry put the tune to it. So that's how the three of us got to be the authors of that one. But, yeah, he brought it over to our house because there was a chance that Hunter was going to be the bass player in the New Riders. As it turned out, Phil said, "I'll give it a try," and he had been playing with the Dead for long enough at that point that he was able to pull it off, and the same thing with Mickey. Mickey said, "Oh, yeah, you need a drummer, I'll try."
Relix: That's how the first New Riders album came out.
Dawson: We recorded half the songs and then had to throw most of them out because they just didn't work, and at that point we changed personnel. It fit together better as a record that way. Spencer [Dryden] came in on drums, and Phil had been replaced by David Torbert on bass before we even got the record contract.
Relix: What made you put "Friend of the Devil" on your current Keep On Keepin' On album?
Dawson: I thought that there was a chance that that would be some kind of a vehicle for the record, at least all the people that were curious about another version of it that had a chance to hear it would pick up on ours and give it a listen, and I thought that we did a rather outstanding version of it.
Relix: You've been touring as a trio, but do you have plans to tour with a larger band?
Dawson: Any time we can get to where the offers that are coming in to play are sufficient magnitude that we can afford the extra vehicles it takes or the big old bus and the driver to drive it, that's what I'd like to do.
Relix: Do you feel that as a trio you get the music across? Do you feel that the strength is there?
Dawson: Oh, absolutely.
Vogenson: Yeah, the fact is that I've never had a fan come up to us and say, "Gee, we didn't like this time, we didn't enjoy it. Why don't you get a bass player and a drummer out here?" I was really surprised when I first started doing it and people seemed to enjoy it. In a way, what we do with the trio is more conducive to vocals, vocal harmonies. It's a different focus. People still dance to us.
Gauthier: We have to really stay on top of it because everything you do is a vital part of the tune. So, actually, we'd prefer to do it as a five-piece because, for one thing, it's easier. You can relax a little bit more.
Recently, the Riders were joined by George (Commander Cody) Frayne during their set. It was a rollicking good time. The New Riders will keep on keepin' on, and if you'd like to get on their newsletter mailing list, write to: NRPS Network, P.O. Box 63, Roslyn, New York 11576.
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