By 1969, The Grateful Dead‘s Jerry Garcia was becoming more and more enamoured with country music and decided to brush up on his pedal-steel playing.
He chose to practice in a pizza joint in Menlo Park, where his old musician friend John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson had a Monday-night residency. The pair instantly rekindled a musical relationship that had first begun in the Bay Area folk scene of 1959.
Garcia discovered that Dawson, having written Last Lonely Eagle, Garden Of Eden and Glendale Train had developed into a fine songwriter over the years, while Dawson’s experience at Ken Kesey‘s Acid Test happenings two years earlier had instilled in him a commitment to spike Bakersfield country with the trippy rock of the San Francisco scene. The duo soon formed New Riders of The Purple Sage.
The original line-up included guitarist David Nelson and, briefly, fellow Dead members Mickey Hart on drums and bassist Phil Lesh.
New Riders of The Purple Sage – named after a 1912 Western novel by Zane Grey – were quickly ensconced as The Dead’s regular opening act in 1970. Before long they were headlining on their own.
Columbia released the band’s self-titled debut LP in 1971, entirely written by Dawson and with Garcia on pedal-steel and ex-Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden replacing Hart. When Garcia left to concentrate on The Grateful Dead, Dawson brought in Buddy Cage.
New Riders of The Purple Sage went on to release eight albums between 1971 and 1976, including the gold-selling The Adventures Of Panama Red, whose Peter Rowan-composed title track and FM radio favourite was an ode to the pleasures of pot.
At their peak in 1974, NROTPS played to 50,000 fans in Central Park.
John Dawson pressed on as leader of the band into the 1990s, before retiring at the end of the decade. He passed away in 2009.
Spencer Dryden died on 12 January 2005 at his California home after a three-month battle with colon cancer.
John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson
Guitar, banjo, pedal-steel guitar
Vocals, guitar, mandolin
Bass, guitar, vocals