Riding The Trail With David Nelson
If there were ever going to be a Mt. Rushmore for the Jamband world, who would you consider as founding father candidates to have their likenesses chiseled in a mountainside? Jerry Garcia, certainly. And its hard to imagine Jerry without longtime friend/lyricist/co-pilot Robert Hunter, right? Well, if you trace the Hunter/Garcia relationship back to its California beginnings, youre going to find another set of roots entwined with theirs: those of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter David Nelson. And not only was Nelson around for the bluegrass-fueled beginnings of the psychedelic music scene in the early 60s, he and the New Riders of the Purple Sage (founded in 1969) are still making their own kind of music today. The New Riders Renaissance of 2005 brought original NRPS members Nelson and steel guitar monster Buddy Cage together with longtime jam scene veteran Michael Falzarano (guitar/vocals) and drummer Johnny Markowski and bassist Ronnie Penque of Stir Fried. With the blessing of co-founder John Marmaduke Dawson (retired from the music world due to health reasons), the New New Riders hit the ground running, breathing new life into old classics such as Dirty Business and Panama Red and taking the music to levels the original NRPS lineup never reached. The bands recently-released Where I Come From not only features strong songwriting from Penque, Markowski, and the Hunter/Nelson team, it is also a fine document of off-the-cuff, from-the-heart live studio jamming living proof that this isnt some oldies band going through the motions, folks the Riders are a creative, fiercely jamming rock and roll band.
We recently caught up with David Nelson at home in Petaluma, CA during a break in the Riders current touring schedule. Even though the focus of the interview was meant to be on the new album, it was impossible to talk about the songs without talking about Robert Hunter; and once you mention Robert Hunter, you have to talk about the old days with Jerry Garcia and well you get the picture.
Hey, my friends theres lots worse ways to spend your time than talking with one of the founding fathers.
Enough of all that – saddle up, pardners, and lets take a ride with David Nelson and the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Part I: Hunter and the Devil
BR: You must all be really tickled with the new album, David. It definitely sounds like the New Riders, but youre blazing new trails, too.
DN: Oh, yeah, man were so happy with the way it came out. We had fun doing it, too just playing live in the studio.
BR: What got you guys on track to record a new studio album?
DN: Back in 2006 we recorded a show for a DVD up at Turkey Trot Acres in upstate New York. It went really well we loved the hall. Once we found Turkey Trot, we figured wed have it as a woodshed for new material; a place to go play and work out new ideas and see where they went. At that point, Michael Falzarano had several new songs and both Ronnie Penque and Johnny Markowski had new ones for us to work on, too. I was thinking about some ideas, new arrangements, covers stuff like that, you know? That was about the time that I came home off a tour and Hunter had sent me an e-mail with song lyrics.
BR: Just out of nowhere?
DN: Yeah, as it turns out, Hunter was up in his cabin retreat where he was writing songs. He sends me another e-mail the next day with more lyrics. I finally talked to him on the phone and he said, Its your turn.
BR: Your turn
DN: For him to write a bunch of songs for me.
BR: Ahh – cool.
DN: Oh, yeah of course, were old friends. Hes had it in the back of his head to write a bunch of songs for me for a while. I have a couple Hunter/Nelson songs that we play in the David Nelson Band Long Gone Sam is one of them. Hunters always there, you know and whenever we can, we work together. This time, though, it was an intensive thing and he really started cranking. I ended up with like, 9 or 10 songs.
BR: So all of a sudden you have a bunch of new Robert Hunter lyrics – whats the process from there?
DN: I started looking at them, not trying to force anything. Id look at the lyrics and then just go about my business, which I think is a good way to do it. If you sit down and labor over something too long, you get numb, you know? You start thinking of all kinds of other variations on it; and variations on variations and they arent necessarily anything youre going to want to keep, you know?
BR: You lose the emotion.
DN: Yeah, exactly. So Ill just read the words to myself start saying the words in my head and then I go do the dishes or go rake leaves and suddenly Ill get an idea thats like, Oh yeah! and Ill run inside and grab a guitar and strum a little. Ill do that same thing over and over again; and thats how the songs for this album came out. Most of them Where I Come From in particular just jumped off the page.
BR: Do you primarily write on the acoustic or the electric guitar?
DN: Whatevers there at the moment. It could be an acoustic, but if the electrics there, its more compact, you know? I have a little studio room where its really quiet and I can tell what Im doing I dont even plug it in when Im just working out ideas.
BR: Thats a cool image: hearing these tunes now and thinking of you just sitting there plinking them out on an unplugged Tele.
DN: (laughs) Yeah, the only problem with that is, you never know what key is good for that particular song until you get on stage with the band and really belt it out, you know? Like, Where I Come From started out in A and when I first tried it out during a soundcheck, I said, Oh, man, thats way too low. I was just growling I had to put it up a couple keys to sing it. Most of the songs are that way, actually.
DN: Oh, yeah I just finished off four new songs that we brought with us on this most recent tour and every single one of them had to be raised up a 4th or a 5th. Im saying to myself, What was I thinking? Why did that sound good in the little room? (laughter)
BR: Sounds as though your quiet voice is pitched differently from your singing voice.
DN: Its the truth your loud voice is different than your quiet voice, man. Remember that, kids. (laughter)
BR: So none of these new songs were tunes that were waiting for words, then?
DN: Thats right and its interesting you should mention that: back in the 90s when we did tunes together for the DNB, I used to call Hunter up and say, How about a new tune? and hed say, Well, send me some music. Id do something, just my guitar with maybe a bass line or some sequencer parts or whatever. Id make a little cassette tape of just music and send it to him. Its uncanny how he exactly duplicates the syllables of the music, man. I would just sort of have an idea and say, Okay – this part will be a singing verse. Maybe Id do a flute part on my sequencer with no words in mind just a lah dah dah dah dah, you know and he would send back the song with lyrics and duplicate those syllables exactly it was scary. It was eerie.
BR: We saw Hunter in 2003 when he played between sets at the Other Ones show in Boston – prowling the stage, just him and a guitar. He had the whole Fleet Center spellbound.
DN: Oh, I know
BR: Hell make you laugh and hell make you cry.
DN: He can weave a spell, man.
BR: Im remembering a quote from Hunters liner notes to your Keeper Of The Key album something about Jerry, Hunter, and you sitting around your parents living room figuring out bluegrass licks back in the, what, early 60s?
DN: Oh, yeah, man. I remember some of those nights in Palo Alto in the car that Hunter and Jerry used to live in this old abandoned car that was sitting in a vacant lot. Wed go up there and get a little high and Hunter would be in the back seat strumming a guitar, you know? I remember just being amazed at how he could take you away, you know singing some old folk song or his version of it. I loved it, man it was just great really great.
BR: So, Hunter was certainly around for the early days of the New Riders
DN: Oh, yeah – Hunter was there in the beginning. He was the one that said How about Riders of the Purple Sage? and I said, No, theres already a Riders of the Purple Sage how about New Riders of the Purple Sage? And thats how we got our name.
BR: Perfect. (laughter)
DN: You know, Hunter intended Friend of the Devil to be a New Riders song. He came over to our house in Kentfield one evening John Dawson and [original New Riders bassist] Dave Torbet and I had a place together and said, Ive got a song that might be good for you guys. We go up to my room with a tape recorder and some acoustic guitars. Hunter and John start playing while Im setting up the tape recorder it was reel-to-reel, so it took a minute, you know? Theyre halfway into the song when I pick up my guitar Oh, theyre in G so I play a descending G scale. And Hunter stops and says, Yeah! Thats the intro right there! Im like, Wait a minute, Ill think of something wanting to come up with some real clever lick, you know, but Hunter liked that one and it stuck as the intro to Friend of the Devil. (laughter)
BR: Thats great
DN: Oh, yeah but heres the rest of the story: we finished up the basic song, the basic verses. John had some lyric ideas and it really started to sound like a song, you know? So Hunter goes back to his house in Larkspur where hes living with Jerry – and Jerry meets him at the door: Where have you been?
BR: Oh, man I have this vision of Jerry in housecoat and slippers hands on hips, hair up in curlers Where have you been? (laughter)
DN: Right! Right! (laughs) And Hunter says, I was over with the New Riders and we were writing this song – and Jerrys like, Lemme see it, lemme see it. Hunter goes to bed Jerry stays up all night. By morning, he had the bridge: Got two reasons why I cry and when I heard that, I said, Ohh-kayy, its yours, man. (laughs) I mean, anybody that could add that to it
Part II: Jams of (Pedal) Steel
BR: Back through the years, no matter how theyve tried to tag the New Riders psychedelic cowboys or whatever it seems to me that youre more of a jamband now than you ever were. These songs on the new album are good songs all on their own you could boil them down to 3- or 4-minute tunes – but in the earlier days, a lot of your tunes were 3- or 4-minute songs. Its an interesting evolution.
DN: Thats right we had a few songs that we considered stretch-out songs. Dirty Business, Garden of Eden, Portland Woman – those three especially could be as long as we wanted them to be. But before the New Riders renaissance, there were 12 years of the David Nelson Band, and that was definitely a jam-oriented band. Thats what we did and that kind of altered my approach a bit, saying to myself, Loosen up, man any song can be what it wants to be, you know?
Id say [DNB pedal steel guitarist] Barry Sless is the one most responsible for loosening me up to the idea of listening to each other he was always so encouraging. Barry is great, man. I cant say enough good about him; his playing is so there.
BR: And your feelings these days about a good song making for a good jam?
DN: It all depends on the people playing it and when youre playing it. If you get an idea or a feeling or hit on something, thats where jamming is at. You listen to the other players and you play off them. And you leave holes. You dont try to cover everything you play a little bit and you leave a hole there a space nothing and then a few more beats later, you play and what you begin to do is interweave ideas. Its like finishing each others sentences but you have to be listening to each other.
BR: Well, theres my next question the way you and Buddy play off each other. Your work with the B-bender Telecaster is immediately recognizable thats part of your voice.
DN: (laughs) Cool thanks.
BR: But thats also one of those things that can be neat to listen to in the hands of someone whos tasteful about it or it can one of those things that after a while, the listener says Okay, okay I get it.
DN: Yeah thats right. You have to use it for your music, rather than let it use you.
BR: And then Ive heard people play the bender or slide guitar especially against the pedal steel, and that can be an absolute train wreck –
DN: Oh, yeah (laughs)
BR: – because its all in the intonation and youre counting on two peoples ears to be in tune with each other.
DN: Thats right exactly.
BR: Which is the long way of getting around to talking about your relationship with Buddy. We were joking about Jerry and Hunter being like an old married couple earlier, but you and Buddy have been doing this for awhile, too and the sounds still evolving.
DN: We just hit it off the first time we played together back in 71, you know? I always loved Buddys playing. When we got to the point in the New Riders where we knew Jerry wasnt going to be able to keep on playing pedal steel with us, Buddy was the logical choice. It was good for everybody: Buddy was such a killer pedal player and Jerry was just getting burned out trying to cover both the Dead and the New Riders gigs.
BR: And sometimes the Riders were the opening act for the Dead
DN: Right and you have to figure those nights the guy was playing for like 5 hours, you know? And its two totally different things, playing pedal steel and regular guitar. He finally said, I cant keep doing this, man Id love to, but I just cant. And it was better for the band, too when you have somebody huge like that in the band
BR: But from what Ive always heard and read, Jerry never wanted it to be Jerry Garcia and the New Riders he just wanted to be the pedal steel player in the band, right?
DN: Exactly, man. He came down to Palo Alto when John and I were hanging there and said, I want to learn to play the pedal steel would you let me be a sideman? Those were his exact words. Of course, the promoters and club owners wanted to bill the first few gigs as Jerry Garcia and Friends. After that came the scene when we were pacing around the living room, saying What are we going to call ourselves? Garcia actually suggested Murdering Punks (laughs) and it went downhill from there. Thats when Hunter came down from his room and suggested Riders of the Purple Sage.
BR: Who knows what it might have been if it hadnt been for Hunter
DN: (laughs) Right, right
BR: Its hard to imagine the New Riders without the steel guitar
DN: And it also makes excellent toast. (laughter) It looks like such a contraption on stage, you know? And youre playing with your hands, your feet, and your knees, man.
BR: I have a friend I play music with whos a pedal guy and hes just amazing to watch, let alone listen to theres a lot going on.
DN: Thats right and Buddys a master.
Part III: New New Riders
BR: I think we could keep talking about the old days of the New Riders all night, but I guess I need to be a responsible journalist
DN: Thats right be responsible, man. (laughs)
BR: – and get us onto the new album. We talked about you getting the e-mails from Hunter with a bunch of new lyrics
DN: Remember, kids: take a little break and do your chores go rake leaves or wash dishes or whatever. (laughs)
BR: And the music will come.
DN: Thats right. (laughter)
BR: So you had the basic arrangements to give to the band where did you go from there? You guys worked out a lot of those songs in a live setting, right?
DN: Yeah, what happens is, you get a basic skeleton, a basic structure for the song and youll take it to soundcheck. At that point it may not be fully developed, but you play it at soundcheck and itll feel a certain way and then you play it live in front of an audience and thats when it takes on a certain personality and the things like the intro or a signature lick really make themselves known. Thats how it seems to work for me when you play by yourself, you might have hundreds of ideas in 15 minutes, but then youre saying, Well, which one? Decisions, decisions, you know? But with the band, the song seems to just take on an identity.
BR: The band setting gives it something to stick to.
DN: Thats right.
BR: So once you had some stuff worked out and were ready to record
DN: We did it in I think four different sessions while we were out on the road on days off between gigs.
BR: Youd never know you were traveling it sounds like one really good-sounding room and you guys were just camped out and cutting tracks.
DN: Well, of course, recordings not like the old days where you had to lug around the big reels of tape, you know? You can simply bring it in on a hard drive and just continue on.
So wed just go into a place, make an evening of it, and just start playing. We took the approach of Well try a song and if we dont get it in three takes, then well move on to another one.
BR: And ?
DN: As it turned out we got most of them in two takes and a couple of them in one.
BR: Wicked. Well, this seems like as good a time as any to run down through the cuts on the album
DN: Sounds good. Lets go for it.
BR: To my ears, the lead-off track, Where I Come From, couldnt have existed as anything else but a New Riders song.
DN: Thats true. I didnt really realize it at first, but it really is just a New Riders song.
BR: And was that one of the early ones from Hunter?
DN: Yeah, there were four in the first bunch he sent: Where I Come From, Down The Middle, Ghost Train Blues and Rockin With Nona.
BR: Thats pretty good for an e-mail just out of the blue. (laughs)
DN: Yeah I think thats a full house right there, isnt it? (laughs)
BR: For sure for sure. The second song, Big Six I know there may be a difference between what Hunter was thinking when he wrote the words and what you were seeing in your mind when you read them, but to you who or what is Big Six?
DN: Were always talking about that and we have a lot of ideas about it. The first one that came to my mind is the big six questions: who, what, when, where, why and how and theyre all mentioned in the song. But Im sure there are other things, too Hunter is such a multi-level writer.
BR: Barracuda Moon isnt a typical Riders song. The rhythm, the feel of it its a different animal.
DN: And thats one of the songs we nailed in one take.
BR: Wow how much road time did you have on it?
DN: None, man. (laughs) Wed never played Barracuda Moon through from beginning to end as a band. Wed tried it up at Turkey Trot, got three-quarters of the way through and said, Okay thats it. Never played it at a show nothing. We just decided to do it in the studio one night and, man, it was amazing. We never did another take just once and that was it.
BR: Next is what Im predicting is going to become a classic New Riders sing-along: Higher.
DN: Yeah one of Johnny Markowskis songs. That gets a lot of response at the shows.
BR: Which is cool, because that one and Ronnies tune and Michaels songs all fit well with the stuff you wrote with Hunter.
DN: Oh, absolutely, man.
BR: Had Higher been around for a while?
DN: Yeah, wed played it a few times and every time we did, it just got more and more rocking.
BR: To me, Down The Middle has that same sort of sweetness as the Deads Black Muddy River.
DN: Well, thank you. Its about being on the road and driving forever and thats the way you get, mesmerized by the white lines down the middle of the road.
BR: Them Old Minglewood Blues I know its based on an old standard, but that arrangement is no old standard, man.
DN: (laughs) Thats one Ive been doing for years I even did it in the New Riders back in, like, 79 or 80. Its always been one of my favorites; Gus Cannons Jug Stompers did two versions of it one was called Minglewood Blues, the other was called New Minglewood Blues. Different singers on each; and kind of a different feel. I always loved that version always wanted to do it and get those licks in there, you know?
BR: Wow Gus Cannons Jug Stompers?
DN: Yep. I think they recorded it back in the 30s, maybe?
BR: Well, there; youre expanding my horizons.
DN: Oh yeah expand your horizons its good for ya, son. (laughter)
BR: Theres one of those cool live-and-going-for-it moments right in the beginning of Minglewood when the thing is just beginning to take hold and either Buddy or Michael bellows out Yeah! – you can hear it off mic. The song just catches fire and goes.
DN: And the funny thing was, we werent planning on using it for the album. It was just something to warm up with Lets do Minglewood – and then we get in the middle of it and its working, you know?
BR: And fortunately, the tape was rolling. Of course, nowadays, you dont get to say that, do you? Theres no tape.
DN: (laughs) You know what, though? We still ask, Is it rolling?
BR: Ah you done my heart good. Same thing as saying someones got a new record out.
DN: Exactly I was going to say, I still think of CDs as records. Theyre recordings, theyre round, and they spin theyre just tiny, man. (laughter)
BR: I know Something In The Air is one of Michaels, but Ronnies bass just owns that song that slinky bass line sets the mood.
DN: That song was pure magic. We were just warming up, fooling around in the key of A, right? Nobody was thinking we were recording there were no words, there was no song. Later on, Michael was doing some mixes and looking at Pro Tools and saw this one track sitting there. Whats that? he says and the engineer plays it. When the jam got to the part where it really gels, Michael just sat down and wrote some words to it and put a vocal on it. When he played it back, we all said Yeah thats got to go on the album, man.
BR: Olivia Rose sounds like it couldve put a lump in your throat the first time Ronnie shared it with you.
DN: Oh, yeah what a sweet song, man. Amazing.
BR: Is that one that had been around for a little while?
DN: Wed played it some here and there but we didnt want to do it too much.
BR: Blues Barrel cool picking on that one.
DN: (laughs) Thanks, man. Hunter sent me that one said he was thinking of Muddy Waters and those old blues masters. I listened to it and went outside cleaned a heater grate or something (laughs)
BR: Did your chores
DN: Thats right. Thats where the basic structure came from, but its also one of those songs that came alive by playing it with the band, you know? You just haul off and play it.
BR: Ghost Train theres a cool modulation in the jam
DN: Right, where it goes from E minor up to F thats a funny chord change. I wanted something weird and, well. ghostly. (laughs)
BR: The whole song is the vibe is right there.
DN: Thats one where Johnnys drums set the tone right from the beginning. His drums make the whole thing possible. He just drives that song.
BR: How much will you and Buddy work out the jam on a song like that beforehand?
DN: A little bit mostly its just look at each other, nod, and say Play, you know? Sometimes its like, I got nothing, and Ill just look at Buddy and hell come in like a champ (laughs) and save me.
BR: Carl Perkins Michaels too cool on that one.
DN: Classic Memphis sound, man.
BR: Its fun watching Michael in a live setting hes like the quiet commander.
DN: Right yeah, exactly.
And his rhythm work is so tasteful; you hear him, but hes never over the top.
DN: Michaels really got that roots sound. I love his playing.
BR: Does he ever take a lead with the New Riders?
DN: Now and then, now and then. I keep telling him, Go for it, man step on me! (laughs)
BR: And then Rockin with Nona just sounds like fun like a good ol Saturday night tune.
DN: Tried it a couple different ways, but once I got that chordal variation thats a little different than the 12-bar blues, it started coming together. It sounds something like Six Days On The Road and for a while I was concerned about plagiarism – but you know, Dylan says, Plagiarism is absolutely necessary. (laughs) To have something resonate, it has to grow out of something else you know?
BR: Roots run deep, man.
DN: (laughs) Absolutely.
BR: David, theres a few hundred more questions Id like to ask you the old Jerry and Hunter stories are classics but Im going to sign off for now and let you go. Thanks for taking the time to do this, thanks for all the tunes over the years and congratulations to all of you on the new album. Its a great piece of work.
DN: Thank you, man this has been fun. BR: Keep on doing what youre doing.
DN: We will, man. We will. (laughs)