John Dawson: Leader of the country-rock pioneers New Riders of the Purple Sage
Thursday 10 September 2009
John Dawson was the acknowledged leader of the prototypical country-rock group, New Riders of the Purple Sage – often referred to as NRPS or simply New Riders. He was their principal songwriter and was notably active during the band's initial burst of creativity, writing all 10 songs on their debut album. The flaxen-haired Dawson was the only member of the original line-up to stay the entire course of the band into the 1990s. Like the Byrds, The Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers, they reflected a hippy open-mindedness towards country music, with the environment, touring adventures and dope-smuggling songs acting as potential springboards for their work.
Originally from the Midwest, Dawson grew up in the San Francisco Bay area before going to boarding school at Millbrook, New York in 1959. After college, he fell in with the San Francisco Peninsula's budding bohemian folk scene in Palo Alto, alongside his subsequent NRPS stalwarts David Nelson and Jerry Garcia. He became part of the pool of floating musicians in and out of Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, a band that existed before the Grateful Dead coalesced in 1965.
Nicknamed Marmaduke (abbreviated to McDuke), the folkie guitarist was "psychedelised", fitted into the Grateful Dead circle and began writing songs. By 1968-70 the Dead had two contrasting sides, manifested by the psychedelic experimentation of Aoxomoxoa (1968) and Live/Dead (1969) and the folk-philosophical lyricism of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty (both 1970). Dawson added guitar to Aoxomoxoa, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty.
Talking to me in 1979, the Grateful Dead guitarist and songwriter Robert Hunter recalled, "Nelson, Marmaduke and I sat down and wrote 'Friend of the Devil'. They would have been good for me at that point; like, I think 'Friend of the Devil' is the calibre of the material we would have started churning out." It was eventually credited to Garcia, Dawson and Hunter.
New Riders of the Purple Sage, named at Nelson and Robert Hunter's suggestion after Zane Grey's 1912 Western novel, had its roots as a Dead side-project and because of Garcia's temporary fixation with pedal steel guitar. Dawson obtained a residency in Menlo Park, San Francisco Bay and by May 1969 Garcia began setting up beside him to play a country/folk repertoire, including Dawson's new material like "Last Lonely Eagle". The next month, the short-lived spin-off Bobby Ace and the Cards from the Bottom of the Deck (comprising five-sevenths of the Dead plus Dawson and Nelson) played, only to be overtaken that August by the arrival of the NRPS proper.
Before the band could take off, Hunter exited, to be replaced by the Dead's bassist Phil Lesh. The line-up was completed by Dawson, Garcia, Nelson and the Dead's drummer, Mickey Hart. Clive Davis signed the NRPS to Columbia Records in 1971, their debut album coming out that September to excellent reviews, by which time the NRPS line-up was given as Dawson, Nelson and Dave Torbert on bass, assisted by the pianist Commander Cody, the ex-Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden, Garcia and Hart. After that album, Buddy Cage took over on pedal steel and Dryden joined the band permanently. The new line-up debuted on the 1972 album Powerglide. It was while supporting the Dead in Europe at the Bickershaw Festival in May 1972 that Dawson met his Welsh wife-to-be.
A big part of their early success was down to the producer Stephen Barncard, who, having already worked with Crosby, Stills and Nash and acted as co-producer on American Beauty, captured and polished their sound marvellously. The Columbia contract would yield eight albums between 1971 and 1974.
After the Norbert Putnam-produced The Adventures of Panama Red (1973), with its marijuana-inspired title track penned by Peter Rowan, burn-out occurred. In the wake of Who Are Those Guys? (1977), Dryden gave up the drum chair to manage the band, with Patrick Shanahan replacing him for Marin County Line (1977). Record deals with MCA and A&M did little to staunch the bleeding-away of the band's life-force. Musical sparks grew fewer and fewer, though archival releases on Relix and Kufala are a reminder of how good they could be – especially live.
In 1997 the New Riders folded their hand, though in September 2002 they reconvened to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award – a Doobie – from High Times magazine. Peter Rowan guested. After the band's break-up, Dawson settled in Mexico, where he taught English. When the band returned to the road in 2005 after Dryden's death that January, Dawson declined on health grounds but gave his blessing. However, he did sit in with them at the 2007 Summer of Love anniversary concert in San Francisco. NRPS returned with Where I Come From in 2009, with seven out of its 12 tracks co-composed by Nelson and Hunter.
John Collins Dawson IV, singer, guitarist, songwriter and English teacher: born Detroit, Michigan 16 June 1945; married Elanna Wyn-Ellis (deceased); died Guanajuato, Mexico 21 July 2009.
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