If Buck Owens and Don Rich had dropped some acid and become hippies, it's quite possible their music would have sounded a lot like the debut of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage.
Fronted by a Palo Alto, California, singer and songwriter named John "Marmaduke" Dawson, the band formed in 1969 when Dawson, steeped in country music, teamed up with his friend Jerry Garcia, who had recently taken up the pedal steel, for some Bay Area coffeehouse gigs. Soon, guitarist David Nelson was on board, along with two of Garcia's Grateful Dead bandmates: bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart. Lesh and Hart quickly dropped out and were replaced by bassist Dave Torbert and drummer Spencer Dryden. Garcia, however, stuck around long enough to appear on the band's first album, released in 1971.
It's always been easy to dismiss the New Riders as a mere Grateful Dead spinoff whose fame was due largely to Garcia's participation in the enterprise and the band's high-profile gig as the Dead's opening act. But it's time to put that view to rest. Sure, Garcia's inventive and at times wildly psychedelic pedal steel licks infuse every track on New Riders, but Dawson, who wrote all ten songs on the album, is the main attraction. He took hippie themes -- sex, drugs, environmentalism -- and merged them with Bakersfield-style twang, with Nelson providing Don Rich-influenced Telecaster runs. The result is a tie-dyed, patchouli oil-scented, country-rock classic.
You can bet that Merle Haggard never would have touched trippy lines like "Whatcha gonna do on the planet today?/Missy you're so fine to see." But Dawson -- who sings in a naive, almost childlike voice -- does it with a straight face. Elsewhere, he longs for a groupie's sweet love ("Portland Woman"), spins the tale of a desperate drug dealer ("Henry"), and bemoans the destruction of the environment ("Garden Of Eden"). The album ends with the wonderful "Louisiana Lady", a kind of hippie version of Dave Dudley's "Six Days On The Road".
For this reissue, Columbia has markedly improved the sound reproduction and added three bonus tracks, recorded live in 1971 at the Fillmore West: Joe South's "Down In The Boondocks", the Band's "The Weight", and Dawson's "Superman". While hardly essential, they do give provide a taste of the New Riders' early live shows, and they will be of particular interest to fans of Garcia's short-lived pedal steel period.