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Buddy Cage: New Riders of the Purple Sage’s Heart of Steel

Despite the reunion fever that has grasped so many rock acts in the past few years, finding New Riders of the Purple Sage on a concert stage once seemed like an impossibility, with David Nelson fronting a band under his own name, Buddy Cage having a busy life as a musician and radio host and John “Marmaduke” Dawson dealing with health issues while Spencer Dryden passed from this world to rock n’ roll heaven.

Enter former Stir Fried’s Johnny Markowski and Ronnie Penque of Grateful Dead cover band Ripple who brought along Michael Falzarano (ex-Hot Tuna) along with a can do attitude that ultimately found Nelson and Cage treating east coast fans to its brand of psychedelic cowboy music in 2005. The success of that run led to additional dates last summer and more in 2007, with a new release, Live New Year’s Eve 2006, available at www.nrpslive.com.

Cage explains how it all went down as well as some of the pedal steel player’s background and intent to never be cornered by any preconceptions of his chosen instrument. His demeanor may occasionally come across as coarse but he’s just a no b.s. kinda guy (which, frankly, is quite refreshing, given the false fronts that many musicians project when dealing with the media). Above all else, Cage’s his blunt style doesn’t hide his love of playing, especially in the right context.

JPG: I’m looking at all the different sessions, styles of music and people you’ve played with, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, The Band, Sly Stone, Charles Lloyd, David Bromberg to name a few, and I just want to make sure here, you do everything on pedal steel?

BC: Absolutely, and for one reason or another some guys have to play 14 instruments. For me I’ve been able to play one and do what I need to do and satisfy whatever jobs I need to do to finish up. Use your weapons.

JPG: Is it a matter that once you got into it you liked it so much and found different ways of working with it that you didn’t care to learn other instruments?

BC: When I started playing…That’s a very hard question to answer. It’s a great leading question because it gets me into an area where, for instance, I was like 17 or 18 and all you could do to play a pedal steel guitar was find a job with a Country Western Band. There was nobody else hiring. Nobody had developed a way of playing it the way I play it, up to that point. And if any musician tells you it’s anything but attracting chicks and getting the next job then they’re lying to you. If they’re on some sort of esoteric bullshit, they’re just completely fucked up people. Avoid them at all costs.

What it’s really about is getting the next work and making a living out of it. Knowing that you can through the skills that you’ve acquired. So, when in the mid-‘60s, I was up against a wall because there only were Country Western jobs. But I was the kind of guy that was the renegade, the maverick, and most of the people appreciated my skills enough that they left me alone, for the most part. My timing was excellent and my intonation was pretty good, so I kept the jobs. I was always looking to do something else, break through that wall.

When the mid-‘60s came, there were all sorts of opportunities happening. People were coming around me, circling my steel, cautiously going, ‘Hmmm…interesting.’ And producers and other players, guys dressed in Nehru suits saying, Can you play raga music?" and I went ‘Does it pay?’ Yeah, oh yeah, we’ve got a budget.’ Oh yeah, yeah, I can play raga music.’ I didn’t even know what the hell they were talking about, but I got the gig. And I went in and I started to figure out, Well, that’s simple. That’s modal, one chord.’ So, how can I play so I won’t intrude on what’s happening? I can help the song rather than hurt the song. That’s kind of what I developed along the way and with many different kinds of sessions whether it be Hair Band sessions or funk sessions or whatever or psychedelic this or country this, I could get all the jobs. And that was the mark of a great musician. That’s what I’ve done.

I’m not, not kind of what you call your average steel guitar player. We need a steel guitar player.’ What do you think I’m going to do, fucking train whistles? If you need train whistles or you need Hank Williams tunes, then you better hire someone to do that shit cause don’t place me in that category.

JPG: At what point did you that you wanted pedal steel to be more than a country instrument, that you wanted to be able to play jazz and…

BC: Oh yeah, forever. I just wanted to play the next best thing in front of me. I was always interested in all sorts of forms of music. There’s a lot of steel players who just only hear and play it a certain way. Standard country western from the 50s and 60s and that’s it, and it should not do anything else. There’s that end, the ultra restrictive conservative types.

JPG: The pedal steel itself, do you think it intimidates people?

BC: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh, I sure do.

JPG: Do you enjoy that in a way that people are intimidated and you can just go there and do whatever you want with it?

BC: Oh, not really. If people are courteous enough and inquisitive enough to actually approach me about it and ask. Not somebody like, ‘How do you play that table top thing?’ Not some ignorant sonofabitch. If I really sense that somebody’s on top of it, I’ll take the time to help them through it. Get in my two-minute indoctrination on the nature of the thing and say it’s a little simpler than you might think cause you don’t know one end of it from the other, but if you do, this pedal change actually does do a string. They might have a better concept of what I go through now, the creation process.

JPG: In some ways, it’s as if a grand piano and a steel guitar mated. You know what I mean, based on the pedals on a piano and the strings inside of it.

BC: It’s okay for folks who don’t know what it is to try and infer it in some kind of framework that they’re familiar with. And I’m going like, ‘Shut up. It would take me 40 minutes to explain away every thing you come up with. Is it like anything in the framework of your experience of your life experience? Now just stand there, listen, and I’ll give it to you in two minutes more than what you’ll ever get out of it by asking me 20 dumb questions.’ And really, because most people when you see that look in their eye like, I get it,’ or It just bent my head,’ or Wow!’ It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

JPG: Now, you’re back playing in New Riders of the Purple Sage. Tell me about the process of getting back together, which started with a few dates in 2005 and has now led to tour over the past two years as well as the live CD, NRPS Live New Year’s Eve 2006.

BC: I had to be convinced because since we broke up, the originals in ’82, ever since that time people have been harping about one thing or another, ‘Why don’t you get the New Riders back together?’ Well, for one, everyone who comes up with it has absolutely no conception of what I do or why I do it. Yet they want something that’s self-satisfying. Well if you’re going to talk the talk you best be walking the walk. If you want the New Riders to come back in some sort of form, you’re going to promote it, you’re going to come up with the money and the budget to pay for your dream.

So, that’s never come to fruition in these many years. Not enough to get me and David Nelson and John Dawson out together. What happened was I’ve been pretty much a steward of the catalog that we recorded over these three millennia. I mean these three decades. Millennia. (laughs) I’m an old man.

But it turns out that these two guys were…that one guy, Johnny Markowski, now I had worked three sessions for him and his band Stir Fried over a number of years. And he had been looking for jobs and his band wasn’t doing anything and he called me and said, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be neat to put the New Riders together?’ I gave him pretty much what I gave you. Now shut up, give me a budget and we’ll do something.’ Was gonna fly Dawson up from way down near Mexico City and stuff. Anyway, he said, Well, we’ve got the personnel. We’ve got guys that can sing Dawson tunes and Michael Falzarano (an old friend of mine from Hot Tuna) would be really interested in doing it.’ I said, Well look, you’ve got as far as you’re going to get with me. The next thing you’ve got to do is talk to Nelson and convince him.’

It turned out that Nelson had his own band around for a long time. Really good players. They’d been cannibalized by Phil Lesh to form one incarnation of Phil and Friends. It was dormant. So I got these guys calling Nelson and they call me back, Well, he’s agreeable.’ Nelson was calling me and saying, ‘Yeah, we could do it. Are these guys any good?’ I went, Ah Nelson, you want the paycheck, man? Fly out.’ So he did and I could only give them, when you alluded to the first little tour, the northeast tour, only a five-day window I could give them cause I was going directly off to Holland for three major concerts with Derek Trucks Band. So I said, Nelson look, book the damn flight, it can’t hurt too much cause good or bad you make a paycheck and we’ll have done with it in five days. I’ll be in Europe and I won’t give a rat’s ass.’

He came out and I swear to God man, at the end of the five days, we were laughing cause number one we wanted to be faithful to all the great songs that John Dawson had written and [Dave] Torbert and the ones Nelson had written with Spencer [Dryden].

But these guys really nailed it. So, we were happy and they said, Well, could we do it again?’ And we just went, Oh yeah. Do it, man.’ So that’s pretty much what that first little tour led to. My concern was do we have enough material? Do we have enough fans? Cause we don’t want to have to pay to go out. I basically only saw a year’s worth of playing, maybe nine months of playing with this band. That’s because I could see the old-timers coming out. And then pretty much saying [in a rough old timer’ voice], ‘Well that’s great. I waited 20 years for that and now me and the old lady we go out once a year now and I’m done.’ And it would be hard to pull another audience from what? From the crypt?

But it turned out because of a renewed interest by younger people who are maybe a generation or generation-and-a-half removed, these people were into our songs. Maybe through older uncles and aunts, maybe brothers and sisters or moms and dads. And when they heard this stuff, the music caught on. It was showing me that these young so-called jamband types were coming in and they knew the words to the songs. It was really gratifying, so much so that I said, Okay, book another tour.’ And there was a market there to go to. I mean, a musician doesn’t want to look stupid on stage, but the worst thing in the world is playing to an empty house or half a house or some shit like that. Discouraging. But it’s really caught on so neatly with a whole other generation of people. I’m really pleased with ‘em.

JPG: You mentioned jambands and I’m wondering did Johnny Markowski introduce you to other bluegrass and country influenced artists from the jamband scene or…?

BC: No, no, no, I didn’t know anything about those guys. The way that they came into my life was because about slightly before we started doing this, maybe about 2 1/2 years ago, a dear friend of mine who is one of the major radio broadcasting legends in New York, Meg Griffin, had asked me to supply her with what they call sweepers (station ID spots) for a new channel that she was doing for Sirius satellite radio. And she just liked the fresh non-professional deejay voice and wanted to use it. I did it. It’s a gig, like a session. It turned into where she brought her shift to me. I got into that for awhile. It was something to do. Then, I got fairly good at it. They asked me to go over to this jam station. And I had a basic problem with that because I didn’t know all these so-called jambands. And I wasn’t really sure if I cared to know about them because it seemed like they’d all developed, well not all, a great deal of them had lost the meaning of the word jam.’ Kind of pirated the word away from what was an original jam form of respect, dignity and great skill into some kind of you be jammin’ man, some kind of merchandising term, some kind of adolescent jive-ass term to me.

I just went, ‘No, I’m not jamming asshole. I’m working a gig.’ And when I started with this thing I told the people that asked me to do it that signed me on for it, ‘That you better be careful cause I’m really going to have some confrontational moments with this audience.’ If you got into it because you thought Phish was the last answer, we do have a problem. I respect Trey’s chops and all that. You don’t get to kidnap the word jam’ over that stuff. But I appreciate their love of wanting to go into open ended, open sided type of music. That was okay. But too many of them were just like over-scaled and over-moded stuff, and it was just like, Oh c’mon, you might as well be jacking off.’ There’s no body to the tunes. There’s no lyrical sense to it. There was no story. There was no nothing that I really cared for.

But when I started working with that audience, I found that they were a whole lot more resourceful and a whole lot more intelligent than I gave them credit for. And I pleaded with them, I challenged them to do their homework and Google things up and get interested. Why I have to say Jerry Garcia/Grateful Dead every time I play a Grateful Dead tune is just redundant crap. When I say Jerry, you know there’s a Grateful Dead tune coming up. You better have done enough homework to pay respect to that guy.

So, that’s kind of a mutual symbiotic relationship, if you will, that we’ve been able to establish with each other on the air. And I enjoy it very much. But the jam band scene, I interviewed Yonder Mountain at Sirius one time, had fun with them and had them play. They did a really good job, so I was impressed enough.

JPG: Earlier you mentioned about David Nelson losing members of his band to Phil Lesh, it reminded of how you were playing with Ian and Sylvia but then David and Jerry Garcia asked you to join New Riders as Jerry’s replacement. What did they say that interested you? [Playing in Great Speckled Bird, the back up band for Canadian folk legends Ian and Sylvia, Cage caught the ear of Garcia during the infamous Festival Express dates.]

BC: That was as fun a gig as it was with Ian and Sylvia and playing with Amos Garrett on guitar. I mean that guy is a genius, and I was learning so much from him. But, at the time of the Festival Express when Jerry asked me to come on over, I kind of went, Well, you know…’ and he said, ‘There are no rules, Cage!" That’s some sound reasoning. That’s very appealing. And he says, You can’t tell anybody what drugs they can or cannot take. You just do what you want and there’s no sidemen.’ Now that got to me. It was in the back of my mind and I said, Well, look man, I got several things to finish up in terms of other promised gigs.’ I had to wrap up the Ian and Sylvia thing. I had a thing with Tommy James and the Shondells to finish up. I had an Anne Murray project. And all sorts of things that I really had to finish up. And he said, ‘It’s okay, man. We’ll call you in a little while and we’ll get it together.’

It was kind of left on the backburner until I started at this gig that I was doing with Ian and Sylvia. Amos came up to me and says, ‘Buddy, I want you to know I’m leaving Ian and Sylvia, but I thought I’d tell you first because I respect your playing.’ I said, Jesus Amos! That’s awfully nice of you, man.’ But, as soon as he said it, blink, I was gone. As much as I loved Ian and Sylvia and respected them, without Amos, there was just no there there. So I took care of all my gigs and stuck around for one last one.

JPG: Speaking of Festival Express, I’ve probably watched the film documenting that Canadian tour with you and the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band and others at least a handful of times. Did that experience touch you as much as it did some of the others interviewed in the film?

BC: Immensely! You’ll see a scene where Garcia’s sitting down in one of the bar cars and Sylvia Tyson was sitting beside him with her hands on her knees and she’s wearing this headband. Sylvia fucking Tyson never wore a hippie headscarf in her entire life except for that train. Her and Ian were already folk legends, but there were all these different bands of different musical strengths that were all over the place. Nobody knew each other. Jerry knew Janis. We knew vaguely of the Burrito guys [Flying Burrito Brothers]. And you knew Buddy Guy, and stuff, but nobody really knew each other.

So everybody was kind of scared of each other or at least cautious. But it was that moment when those two sat down together. He says, ‘Hey you want do a song?’ She’s a really incredibly intelligent woman. At that point, she just went, ‘Well, sure.’ It was kind of like a dare, you know? And there she was trying to fit in. But then he started doing ‘Going Down the Road Feeling Bad’ and that was the first thing that broke the ice on that train. It was such a spiritual moment. A lot of us were just sitting around drinking at the time watching this go down and it was a lovely moment. It really was, in the context of that actual train trip. Beautiful.

JPG: Back to New Riders, there’s this quote of David’s where he says, New Riders make country music okay for the hip community.’

BC: You know he’s so good about saying stuff like that, man. I’m so damn proud of Nelson. That’s funny. Yeah man, Nelson’s something else. That comes right off the top, man.

JPG: Did you see that way or were you just going to do what you were going to do?

BC: The latter of the two. That’s the way I saw it. But that’s funny how he happened to see that. That’s great.

JPG: Now, you’re touring again and put out Live New Year’s Eve 2006 last April, have you thought past that? I know that the live album has a new David Nelson tune on there.

BC: Well, I don’t have any plans for any other New Riders studio dates cause right now. Right now I’m working like a bastard promoting this particular New Riders thing (live album) that we have going right now. It’s really important because it came down to a time and a place and I never thought I’d be interested in doing any New Riders recording again except for the live stuff that’s recorded every night. But when Bob [Matthews] and Betty [Cantor] approached us I was like, Holy Shit!’ Yeah, yeah this might happen.’ It gave me and Nelson, in particular, I don’t usually speak for Nelson, but we both heartily agreed that Bob and Betty coming into our lives cause we just liked what we were doing. And it brought them back to things that they always liked doing and things that we all liked doing with Garcia and stuff like that. They had a good time out. Now, if Bob and Betty had a good time with it, it just adds more spice to what Nelson and I already do so we were just delighted to jump back into it.

JPG: It must be really nice to have those two involved.

BC: What it’s done for me is it reminds me so much of how much I love those tunes in the beginning and I still love ‘em. The tunes never went away. "Garden of Eden” is still as significant to me as it was 35 years ago. It’s really amazing and we’re gonna try and get John Dawson up on the west coast from Mexico this Fall. He’s in good health. If we can get him out there because, man, he’s just got to perform one of his tunes and listen to that response. How much people really love all the work he did in those years. He really deserves it. We owe it to him.

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