Buddy Cage: Still Steeling Away
With a career that spans well over 40 years and name-drops folks from Bob Dylan to Rick James to The Band to Sly & The Family Stone, it’s safe to say that pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage has been there and back. Currently enjoying the rebirth of the New Riders of the Purple Sage [which will release a new studio effort in June, stay tuned for additional coverage], Cage may be one of the “elder statesmen” of the scene originally based around the Grateful Dead, but he chooses to be a spokesman for no one but himself. When you talk with Buddy Cage, you’re going to get the real deal as Buddy sees, thinks, and feels it. The following conversation, recorded just as the New Riders were gearing up for a string of East Coast dates in late February/early March, is classic Buddy. A word to the uninitiated: no doubt, you may read something below that you don’t agree with, but don’t touch that dial. When you take in a full-circle sit-down with Buddy, you realize that for all the no-holds-barred opinions, there’s a level of heart and soul that many never take the time to see.
Jam On/Jam Off
BR: Hey there, Buddy, thanks for taking the time.
Buddy: Sure, man, no problem let’s go. What do you want to talk about?
BR: How about we start with the Sirius radio gig?
Buddy: Oh, sure.
BR: Well, this past November you disappeared from your morning slot [Cage hosted a show on Sirius Channel 17 Jam On from 6:00 AM to noon weekdays] without a whole lot of warning; all of a sudden, it was like “Where’s Buddy?” I’m sure there are still plenty of Sirius subscribers who are wondering what happened. How about giving your side of the story? From a listener’s standpoint, it seemed the show was going well.
Buddy: Oh, yeah. I’d done the show from the road with the New Riders for about 6 months it was wonderful. We had a lot of fun doing it from the bus, man. Plenty of action around the gigs to feed to people on the air it was great.
BR: To give them a taste of life on the road?
Buddy: Well, there was that but, also, things would come down musically on the road when all of us were together. Little vignettes; ideas about other forms of music and things that you could share on the air with the audience. And I was getting nothing but great reports from Sirius that they loved what was going on with the shows from the bus everything was cooking along. At the same time, though, the merger was happening with XM. I know several people with the FCC tried to get me placed in the lineup more permanently which was nice – but that was just lobbying. When it all comes down to it, it’s Mel’s [Sirius XM Radio CEO Mel Karmazin] decision. Then, in the last couple months before the November elections, I was getting extremely political, you know?
BR: (_laughs_) Not you!
Buddy: Oh, yeah. So I got kind of a warning from the format manager she was getting orders handed to her, you know? “Be careful on that political grind.” “Leave the political stuff for the stations that specialize in that sort of thing.” And me, I was like, “Fuck you. This is too important and I’m using my space for this. It’s my goddamn program and if you take it away from me, it’ll be your program.” So that’s pretty much how that all got decided.
BR: And you were on the air up until the elections, right?
Buddy: Oh absolutely we were on the air the week of the elections and it was great fun, man. And then the director of programming told me (with great regret) that we were going off the air it was a tough one for him, but he was a good guy in a tough spot. So I was able to complete what I knew were going to be my last two shows. I closed the final one with “I regret turning anything in that isn’t perfect.” You can’t say “goodbye” and end a thing like that on the air it’s not the way broadcasting works. So that was just kind of a coded message to everybody.
BR: I don’t think anyone knew-
Buddy: Oh, you wouldn’t have it was designed that way.
BR: So, did you have a final song that you signed off with?
Buddy: Yeah, I did, but I can’t remember I mean, to tell you the inside of the thing, the format manager programmed all the shows, okay? They don’t pay the kind of money it would take to cover the time and effort of programming your own shows. You know I’d have my own format and that would be it. But what gets played all comes under the so-called masturbatory “jamband” umbrella. It’s like, “Come on more fuckin’ Phish? Are you kiddin’ me? More Dave Matthews?” (laughs) I mean, the format was horrible. The director of programming was very good to me, though he spoke up on my behalf: “You’ve got to trim it to Buddy.” He knew we should be playing some New Riders, some Dead, some associated things like that.
I mean, I’ve been in the middle of this stuff for almost 50 years; the whole open-ended thing was what the Dead was doing a long time ago, man. So many of these newer bands, even though they don’t want to be identified with the Grateful Dead or be referred to as a “tribute band” or anything like that understandably that’s where it all comes from. It was done 10,000 years ago, man. (_laughs_) Having said all that, even though I was barely, barely able to tolerate the “jambands” format, I still felt it was better than a lot of the other stations, which were geared to all sorts of other bullshit, you know? I mean, hey: it’s the way that records and airplay go. We all know that. But if you really want to be thorough and find out what young people are really listening to, call the colleges. Call the college stations, okay?
What I felt was happening with the so-called “jambands” scene was just the same shit – on and on and on. “What else can I do? What other kind of arpeggio runs can I plug into this endless form?” Totally self-indulgent. So, eventually, what I saw happen over the four years I was with Sirius, was a lot of the young people who had just gotten through college or were in the middle of college were getting tired of this “jambands” scene and were looking for something else. And I don’t know if it was from old records of their parents, or older brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles whatever but they’d see like this old New Riders album with the cactus on the front and say, “That’s cute” and when they’d play it, they’d find that they liked just good songs again. So it was a renewed energy for us as a band and a lot of the listeners but that didn’t work with the whole format thing of the station.
BR: I remember some of the early FM radio around here when I was in my teens that was some pretty free-form stuff.
Buddy: Oh, absolutely, man absolutely. There was so much enthusiasm and new stuff happening at the time it was a great conduit for the new stuff. Young broadcasters were just getting whacked-out turned-on by the new stuff that was coming out and wanted to share it. That’s what it was all about.
BR: So if you were going to tell somebody, “Hey, if you’re going to bother to turn on the radio, this is what you should be listening to,” what would you tell them?
Buddy: I wouldn’t tell them anything (_laughs_). I’d tell them to get out some old Joni Mitchell get some of the old stuff out and listen to it.
But hey things are going to perk up sooner or later.
BR: Having said all that, apart from the rebirth of the New Riders, you’ve been playing music with some younger bands of late Boris Garcia and the Ryan Montbleau Band come to mind.
Buddy: (_laughs_) Oh, yeah, man good sessions.
BR: Well, let’s take one at a time how did you make the connection with the Boris Garcia boys?
Buddy: We were always in the same kind of place because [longtime Dead scribe/ publicist] Dennis McNally was interested in those guys and he was doing publicity for us as well. It was Dennis who said to them, “You ought to get Buddy in on this.” They’d never thought it was an approachable subject, but when Dennis mentioned it, they were like, “Jeez yeah!” Donna Jean Godchaux was on the album, too. It was great to be part of it.
BR: Were the Boris sessions the first time you’d worked with Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth?
Buddy: Yeah, Tim was the producer. He and I ended up in the studio together in lower Manhattan and he got me on a couple of tunes. One of them was the song “On The Other Side” – when I heard it, I said to myself, “That’s about Jerry, man.” You never try to nail a songwriter down by asking, “What does that mean?” you know? You’re usually not going to get much that’ll satisfy your curiosity. But hearing the lyrics, “Thanks for everything; I’ll see you on the other side,” I said “Holy shit!” I even talked to Bob Stirner who wrote it and he said, “Well, I guess it is ” (_laughs_) But both Tim and I heard it that way and we really enjoyed the hell out of it. I was very sick at the time of those sessions, but we were able to get a good take. Tim pulled it off, made it all happen, got all the good parts in the right spots, and put it all together. Tim knows how to serve the song, man that’s what makes him good.
BR: How about the Ryan Montbleau Band how’d you connect with them?
Buddy: With Ryan Montbleau, we ended up being booked together the New Riders and his band at a couple places. One gig was in Wilmington, NC and then we ended up in Colorado with them opening for us again. I was like, “Jesus, how in the hell can this opening band afford to do gigs from Wilmington to Denver,” you know? But they did and when we heard these guys, we were stunned by how good they were. When they got into their own recording situation up in New York, they called me in to lay some tracks down.
BR: “Shine A Light” was the first cut I heard. It made the hair stand up on my arms.
Buddy: That was a good take that’s the one that jumped out at me. In fact, both the Boris Garcia and the Ryan Montbleau Band albums came to me packaged and ready to go about six months after I’d recorded with them. I popped those into my player and said, “Holy shit” I’d forgot how great that song was. The whole album’s amazing.
BR: Well, both albums are getting played and both bands seem to be gaining audiences all the time.
Buddy: I’m delighted to hear that they deserve it.
Frontman / Sideman / Jerry, man
BR: Here’s a question: in a guest spot like that, how do you approach the session? I guess I’m thinking in terms of the whole ensemble instrument vs. lead thing the role of the pedal steel.
Buddy: That just comes out of me in the way I hear the song there’s no formula for it. Consider this: I played with my last country-western band as a sideman back in 1967 when I was 21, okay? I realized I’d much rather be doing other things and the whole sideman thing just sucked. One should be able to mold into some other form, some other presentation that didn’t involve frontman/sideman bullshit, you know? I was the one pedal steel player that was just never going to be labeled it was just never going to happen. Nobody was ever going to say to me, “Oh, why aren’t you in Nashville?” because I’d tell em to shove Nashville up their ass I didn’t want to work under that kind of a format.
We played the Festival Express in 1970, a mere three years later but a lot had happened in those three years, man. [The Trans Canadian Pop Tour, otherwise known as the Festival Express, was a weeklong train tour across Canada featuring whistle-stop concerts along the way. Performers included Ian and Sylvia, Great Speckled Bird, The Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, and the Grateful Dead.] I was able to play for some producers during that period of time who knew they wanted to use me but they weren’t going to tell me what to. It just wasn’t going to happen. The result was, they were much more pleased at what I was able to pull out of my own feelings at the time that went a long way. Everybody was real experimental in those days.
BR: And for those that don’t know the story, the Festival Express was where Jerry Garcia got you connected with the New Riders, correct?
Buddy: Yeah, Garcia was looking for someone to take his place on pedal with the New Riders. He heard me play with Ian & Sylvia and said (_does a bad Jerry Garcia impression_), “Hey, man you really should take this gig.” (_laughs_) You know, Jerry always said, “I’ll never be a pedal steel player, man I’d like to be, but I just ain’t there.” Of course, he had his own ideas about playing on his own like some of his studio stuff. He was never going to be an out-front kick-ass pedal steel player and he just knew it.
BR: You know, I can think of a bunch of studio stuff, but I can’t really come up with a good example of live Jerry pedal steel off the top of my head.
Buddy: I think it’s pretty rare. There’s a YouTube thing that somebody sent me from 1970 where he’s on stage at Winterland during soundcheck that’s pretty interesting. As a matter of fact, someone sent me that YouTube and said, “Buddy, here’s the real thing – take a look at this and clarify what’s going on here.” I saw what he played, I heard what he played, and I know what he was playing through, okay? And there was a group of players on the online Steel Guitar Forum who just hated Jerry for not being a traditional pedal steel player, you know? I just set them on their asses and said, “Here you go – here’s a YouTube you can watch. You can tell what he’s playing through for gear and he’s playing well. So fuck you!” They posted that on the Steel Guitar Forum and the site crashed in about 20 minutes (_laughs_).
BR: Overloaded with responses?
Buddy: Oh, you bet it was overloaded, man it couldn’t handle it. (_does a bad Jack Nicholson imitation_) “You can’t handle the truth!”
BR: Did the two of you ever play pedal together?
Buddy: No. Not at all. But Jerry listened, man. He was aware of what I was doing like with Ian & Sylvia on the Great Speckled Bird album he was aware of everything! Ahh, Jerry an amazing guy.
BR: We talked about some projects with new connections how about some of the recent projects you’ve been a part of with old friends? Michael Falzarano’s solo album We Are All One, for instance.
Buddy: Cool album!
BR: I’ll just say that what struck me right off the bat when I first heard it is, although it’s a revolving cast of characters throughout the album, it ties together really well do you credit that to Michael’s ability as a bandleader?
Buddy: Oh, yeah and as a producer. No question. And he was able to jump in with me, call me into sessions depending on where we were at a given time, and plunk down a couple of tunes. He did the same with everybody. There’s a whole bunch of great people on that album.
BR: That album was one of Vassar Clements’ last sessions, right?
Buddy: Absolutely. And his playing was just absolutely wonderful, man.
BR: You and Vassar had a number of opportunities to play together those last few years of his life.
Buddy: We hadn’t really hooked up for a long while until after Jerry died there was no more Old & In The Way, there was no more New Riders at the time that scene was quiet. The two of us didn’t get any chances to play together for quite awhile. Of course, his table was always pretty full everybody wanted to play with Vassar and he was working a lot. It ended up that we were both hired by the band Stir Fried to play a gig with them Vassar and I got to hang out and talk about how the ranks were thinning and Jerry was gone and so forth. So we got to relive some old memories and play together again – it was really a lot of fun. From there, we ended up playing in various formats we got an awful lot of things done between the two of us. It was great. He was great. I cared very, very much for Vassar Clements.
BR: I know Vassar passed away in 2005, so those sessions for Michael’s album had been in the can for a few years.
BC: You know, I heard that collection of tunes for the first time last year just about a year ago today. What had happened was, [longtime Dead lyricist] Robert Hunter had written a bunch of tunes for the New Riders and sent them to David Nelson. We got Nelson out here and headed to a private lodge in Binghamton, NY to rehearse. And during a break, we were just taking a breather and Michael says, “Hey, do you remember this?” and brings over his laptop. He starts to play these tunes we’d done and I was just flattened. Michael knows me so well, man he knows what’s hot and what’s not and he knows when and how. He just blew me away with that stuff with Vassar and me on it just unbelievable. I was happy that he finally got the album out last year between touring with the New Riders and doing sessions with us on the road, laying down those new Hunter tunes. It’s wonderful to be doing this new stuff with old friends, you know?
BR: Well, that’s a good segue into what’s ahead for 2009: “new stuff with old friends.” What have the New Riders got planned?
Buddy: We’ll start the festival scene in April but we’re not looking too far into the future because of the economy, but everything in our world seems to booking along at a normal clip people still want to come out and see The New Riders. Hey, man if it’s a lift for them, it’s a lift for me, too!
BR: And the upcoming New Riders album?
Buddy: We had taken a few dates in between the mini-tours we did last year and put in some studio time. That’s the beauty of digital recording you can do it almost anywhere almost everybody’s got the gear you need to take in the data. By the end of November/early December, we finished off with a couple studio dates in Sacramento and Michael had everything he needed, including the new Hunter tunes. Now it’s stuff like cover art turns out Stanley Mouse has offered a piece for us another old friend. He’s sent us something that’s really neat kind of a rock-candy version of the first New Rider’s album cover. We’re going to name it for one of Hunter’s tunes “Where I Come From.”
Let me stop right there for a minute and put this into perspective: the reason why Dennis McNally is onboard with us; the reason why Robert Hunter has written new tunes for us; the reason why Annette Flowers from Hunter’s Ice 9 publishing company is doing bookkeeping for us; the reason why folks like Steve Parish and Rock Scully and Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor-Jackson are around all these great people, old friends of ours from the Grateful Dead – is because we were up and going with this New Riders thing.
The catch phrase these days is shovel-ready and they were looking for something to come along after the ghost train of grieving for Jerry. You need to move on, you know? Jerry’s gone; we miss him, man – but you got to get a life and move on. There was just no there there anymore. A lot of people were in limbo for a while; nothing exciting was going on; nothing was happening. All these people were old friends of ours since, like, 1969, for Chrissakes and when we got the New Riders up and going again, they felt something. We all did.
One by one, one way or another they got on board with us and got interested in doing things again. We all got back into it together.