John Dawson: Leader of the country-rock pioneers New Riders of the Purple Sage

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.

Ken Hunt

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.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little