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Published: 2006/06/23
by Mike Greenhaus

Buddy Cage and The New Riders Ride Again

At 16, I found the Grateful Dead by mistake. A year later, my Dad introduced me to the New Riders of the Purple Sage on purpose. “They used to play with the Jerry Garcia all the time,” he said. “They kind of sound like the Grateful Dead, but more country.”

Co-founded by Garcia and his longtime friend John Dawson as a pedal steel outlet for the Dark Star, the New Riders of the Purple Sage began as the original jamband side-project. Phil Lesh played bass, Mickey Hart supplied percussion and the country-rock outfit can be heard in the crevices of American Beauty. But, slowly, the New Riders blossomed into its own band, with Buddy Cage replacing Garcia, Dave Torbert filling in for Lesh, and onetime Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden sitting in for Hart. David Nelson supplied lead guitar. Over time the group secured its own style, wrote its own songs and found its own fans. In sharp contrast to much of the Dead’s mid-1970s canon, its albums are strong, fully realized collections, filled with country-influenced songs. After disbanding in the earl-1980s, the group’s core members pursued their own projects, with Nelson clocking in time in Garcia’s acoustic band. Recently, Cage also picked up a new career hosting a show on Sirius Radio’s Jam_On.

Last fall, longtime New Riders Buddy Cage and David Nelson formed a new touring incarnation of their famed band, spreading their songs to an audience weaned on second and third generation jambands. Though Dawson remains retired in Mexico, the pair recruited a number of friends and extended family members: Michael Falzarano (Hot Tuna) on guitar and vocals, Ronnie Penque (Stir Fried) on bass and vocals and Johnny Markowski (Stir Fried). Below, Cage clues onto the reasons behind the New Riders’ recent reunion, Dawson’s current whereabouts and why record companies are staffed with “rat bastards.”

MG- Are you comfortable calling your current tour a reunion?

BC- Well, for 20 years—-since the band broke-up—-our music has been out there. People would always ask us, “When are you going to do a reunion?” and I’d be the first person to say “never.” I would never do what is called a “fucking reunion.” I hate the word, it’s so trite. And, for me, it means that I would have to exhume dead bodies to have a true reunion [laughs]. But, right now, all those rat bastard recording companies are sitting on our catalogue—-they have ransomed it off at some unreasonable price for any working man. So, my old friend Ron, the only agent I’ve ever loved, told me about four years ago while I was in LA, “Hey, Buddy, you have to get your old cassettes and eight-inches” and make your old archival releases. It’s our catalogue, me and Nelson’s. Now, I won’t let someone else hold my music hostage, and I know there is another band parading around as the New Riders. I want to see those sons of bitches in the studio [laughs]!

MG- Where did the idea to bring back the New Riders stem from?

BC- Now, Johnny Markowski from Stir Fried called me last September to work on some demos. We were going to do it barebones, but he said, “If we were going to have a guitar player, who would it be?” I said, “Wouldn’t it be a kick to have Nelson!” So, we called him up, and he said, “Well, I don’t know” He is as doubtful as me about freelancing, plus, he is a Gemini [laughs]. Well, Johnny said, “If he does come out, why don’t we put together some new Riders songs. It would be a paycheck and something fun to do.” Dave thought it was a great thing to do, especially since his David Nelson Band had just been cannibalized by Lesh. I don’t mean that in a bad way—-both Barry [Sless] and Mookie [Siegel] earned the job and we are real happy for them. But, it left Nelson without a band. Johnny made a side-living doing side gigs in Jersey in the New Riders cover band. He really emulated Dawson and nailed the parts. We said, “Let’s see if we can play these songs with some integrity, instead of rolling this shit out like a cover band.” So, we put together a few dates as the New Riders. We could only play five dates because I had to go play a few dates with Derek Trucks.

MG- Have you noticed a change in Nelson’s playing since the New Riders disbanded?

BC- In the Dave Nelson Band, Nelson was giving most of the guitar work off to Barry Sless. So, he was playing less and less and less. At the first gig we played as the New Riders, we did “Garden of Eden” and he’d play a minute and half and we’d wave him on. The more he got into it, the more new territory he was discovering. He explores from the inside. You really have to put your ears on to hear what he is doing.

MG- At this point, do you feel the current incarnation of the New Riders has become a real band’?

BC- Well, I try to remind these guys that they are the New Riders, not some guys playing New Riders songs. They shouldn’t try to play like someone else, and I don’t want them to get stuck in a corner with the songs. We were never like that. We have been thrown into it before with a new lineup. I was the new guy in the New Riders for years and it was always, “hold my hand because I kind of know where I am going [laughs].” But, bands like the New Riders and the Dead always kind of hold everything down with these song superstructures. Then we really explore from there.

MG- Do you plan to enter the studio to record a new album anytime soon?

BC- I kind of feel like this music is handed down through generations like older folk songs. It is heard primarily by being played. These guys are always coming in and bringing in new ideas and songs, but we are not going to be signing any new record deal. But, we are going to be releasing official bootlegs’ of our shows. People want copies of the shows they were at, so we are going to continue to release them.

MG- How involved are you in choosing what archival shows are released?

BC- I am not involved in picking our archival releases. When Dawson finally hung it up in 1997, there wasn’t much left of him. So, he gave it all up to a big New Riders fan named Rob Bleetstein. I introduced him to Ron and they started putting together those archival tapes. Nelson helped out some and I gave my blessing. It’s warts and all,’ and the pockets and ambience are all there. So we have a few of those going out which we are going to distribute ourselves.

MG- What show from your recent tour would you most like to see released?

BC- We did a show up in Seattle and John Popper came and sat in with us. He’s moved out there a couple years now and he came over and sat-in with us for a few tunes. He went nuts—-it was an amazing haul. It’s Bill Gates’ city, so these guys were walking around onstage with handheld computers. They were walking around the stage adjusting the monitors from little Blackberries. It was mind-boggling [laughs].

MG- You also recently ventured into the political realm playing a benefit for Patrick Leahy.

BC- A few weeks ago, we were doing this benefit to help get the psychotic cretins out of Congress. We did some songs with Bob [Weir] as well, and I think Mickey [Hart] played with us on a tune. It was neat being out there together. They introduced me to the commissioner of the FCC, Jonathan Adelstein. My program director on Jam On keeps telling me we have to cool it on “the fuck the FCC thing.” But, as it turns out, the commissioner of the FCC is a big Jam_On fan and loves my show [laughs]. He was at the Jammys and told me to go ahead [laughs].

BG- Describe the experience of hosting your own show on Jam_On. Has it exposed you to any new styles of music?

BC- It hasn’t changed my taste a lot, but it has expanded my palette somewhat. It has gotten me a little more open and a little less opinionated [laughs]. When I first came in and started doing a show called Folk Town at the request of Meg Griffin—-that was a big call. It was an honor. It was as though for me, as a street punk, to come into a corporate environment and kind of play the game. But, I learned a few things about broadcasting through trial and error. But when I came to Jam_On, I had a little more flexibility. But what is jam? I remember the term as something from the late-40s—- these jazz musicians on 42nd St like Miles Davis, Dizzy and all these monsters. So, when you use that term, I’m not sure what it is referring to exactly. I am working tonight—-I don’t have time to jam [laughs]. Jam simply refers to good music. If you can compete with that, you have my attention.

MG- Who are some of the bands who have caught your attention?

BC-Tea Leaf Green, Victor Wooten, New Monsoon.I like Trey—- I didn’t dig a lot of what Phish got into. A few things Widespread gets into I also really dig. And Robert Randolph kills me—-any goddamn pedal steel player who disses Robert has his cowboy head up his cowboy ass [laughs].

MG- Robert has definitely helped place pedal steel back in the limelight

BC- I don’t give a rat’s ass if they put the sacred steel label on it—-he plays the pedal steel [laughs] and he is great at it. I know the elements of what sacred steel came from. It’s part of my history. He is incredible at what he does. Another young cat who is incredible is Derek Trucks. I’ve really enjoyed watching him come up through the ranks. I started playing stuff with him about 7 or 8 years ago with Stir Fried. He is amazing. We went to Holland together last year and did this radio festival called Stealing and Sliding. He is amazing, this long-haired kid.

MG- Have you sent Dawson any recordings from your recent tour?

BC- Yes, but there is a real disconnect down [in Mexico]. It’s not just the geographic. He is really not well enough to come out on the road with us. Maybe one day he will be well enough to do some tunes, but right now he is not in any shape. He kind of has a nurse to take care of his affairs—- a holistic guy, a good guy, coming in to make sure he takes walks and plays his guitar a little. They are trying to keep his mind up a little bit. He and I have talked and exchanged emails, so he knows what he is doing. But he is not functioning that well at this point. Nelson told him “we are really doing your songs.” Hopefully, one day he can play a few tunes with us again.

MG- Recently, the Dead world lost two prominent figures, Ramrod and Vince Welnick, do you have a memory of each you’d care to share?

BC- I wrote a long eulogy for Ramrod online. As for Vince, well, you can always say the stuff you knew for years, “what a nice guy, what a kind guy, what a talented musician,” but I knew that for years. Back when we were playing with the Dead, I remember talking to Garcia about the Tubes. He said, “Oh man, they are my fucking local heroes, you know how they wear those costumes and slinky eyeballs.” He said, “They explore territory we’d never have the balls to in our wildest dreams.” They were true innovators, true San Francisco types, like the Residents. He loved that stuff. Vince was Jerry’s guy. He put him there. It added to Vince’s depression when Jerry died. It doesn’t matter who didn’t like him. It is time to move ahead with the Grateful Dead. Everyone is trying to hold up this fae, but all that is left is the music. So, sit down with a tape and enjoy the music. You can’t hold these guys up to a special standard.

Mike Greenhaus caught his first New Riders show at New York’s Canal Room in May. For proof, check out his blog (

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