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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Interview with David Nelson of the New Riders of the Purple Sage

Jerry Garcia. The Byrds. Zane Grey. These are just a few names associated in some way with the fabled California band New Riders of the Purple Sage. Just the band's name alone could be the subject of an entire chapter. The story goes that founding NRPS members David Nelson and Robert Hunter (noted lyricist with the Grateful Dead) were sitting around trying to come up with a name for their new country-rock outfit when Hunter suggested Riders of the Purple Sage. Not wanting to be confused with the 1930s band of the same name-also the title of a 1912 book by western adventure novelist Zane Grey-Nelson decided to add the New moniker. The band member lineage of The Riders is indeed rife with history. At one time founding member Jerry Garcia was trying hard to split time between the New Riders and his brand new band called the Grateful Dead. At that time Garcia was playing pedal steel guitar almost exclusively. But then again he wasn't getting any better on the instrument. So he left the Riders to focus on playing the guitar with the then-fledgling Dead. This infamous move opened the door for the Buddy Cage era on pedal steel guitar. As David Nelson describes, the association with Garcia and the Riders even predates this late 1960s band shuffling. "I met Jerry in 1962," Nelson said from the van en route to a tour stop in Kentucky. "At the time I loaned him my banjo and he borrowed my acoustic guitar. We started a bluegrass acoustic band called the Wildwood Boys. It was Bob Hunter, me, and Jerry. We played around the San Fransisco peninsula area, many gigs, for a about a year. It was a lot of fun in those days." Needless to say there will always be a connection between NRPS and the Grateful Dead. But as Nelson points out the NRPS of today is not trying to regenerate an earlier period of jam-band mentality. "The difference between the old New Riders and the new New Riders is that we're not trying to recreate from the 70s-era," Nelson said. "When we're playing a song we're taking it out there to where it feels tonight instead of being a slave to the old arrangement." One highlight to a live performance of NRPS is the guitar Nelson plays for a good portion of the show. "It's a Gene Parsons StringBender," Nelson said. "He invented it back in the Byrds days. Clarence White was playing it then and Gene was the drummer in the Byrds. It takes the second B string so when you pull the neck down, the lever (inside) is where the strap is usually, you get a bend to an exact note rather than a string pull that pulls indefinitely. You tune it to bend to a whole step similar to what the pedals do on a pedal steel. I've been using this guitar for years. I'm really into it and enjoy it." This particular incarnation of The Riders came together in 2005. Along with the veterans in the group like Cage and guitarist Michael Falzarano (formerly of Hot Tuna), NRPS welcomed two newcomers to the band in Johnny Markowski and Ronnie Penque. According to Nelson drummer Markowski and bassist Penque not only hold their own instrumentally but they offer valuable songwriting contributions. "They bring a lot; both sing and have their own bands," Nelson said. "It's been a great thing. They are largely responsible for the renaissance of this band because they made it possible for me, Cage, and Falzarano to actually start doing it (again). I didn't think it was even possible but we tried it and it's working."

New Riders of the Purple Sage wsg Gunnar and the Grizzly Boys at the Intersection Oct 30 at 7:00pm.

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