Jerry Garcia – Days Between Companions: New Riders Of The Purple Sage

Celebrate the life and career of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia on the days between his birthday on August 1 and anniversary of his death on August 9.

By Andy Kahn Aug 2, 2021 2:17 pm PDT

Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia had many collaborators outside of his work with the legendary band. Garcia was a co-founding member of the New Riders of The Purple Sage, whose lineup included David Nelson. Garcia and Nelson first met in 1961 and soon started performing together both as a duo and in folk/bluegrass groups like Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers, Hart Valley Drifters, Wildwood Boys and Black Mountain Boys.

In April 1969, Garcia purchased a pedal steel guitar and as explained on the official Jerry Garcia website, he “[J]oined his friend, rhythm guitarist John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson, who was writing and playing country songs in small club gigs. Before long, David Nelson on lead guitar, Bob Mathews on bass, and Mickey Hart on drums rounded out the lineup of the New Riders of the Purple Sage. The band was soon playing many shows with the Grateful Dead.”

Marmaduke discussed this era in a lengthy essay published in Instant Armadillo News #10. Part of Dawson’s retelling of the genesis of what became the New Riders further explained the circumstances of Garcia’s foray into pedal steel guitar, writing:

In May, 1969, I had got a job at a Little Hofbrau house in Menlo Park called the Underground. Every week on Wednesdays, I played my guitar and sang songs to the people as they munched their hand-carved roast beef or turkey sandwiches and drank their beer. One day I went up to Novato to visit the Dead at their practice hall. They had just got back from a road trip that included Denver, where Jerry had been to a store that sold them and had bought back a genuine Pedal Steel Guitar. Wow.

I asked Jerry could I see it, could I hear it? He said, no, ’cause it was at his house in Larkspur, but I could come over that evening if I wanted and he’d have it all set up. I went over to his house that evening with my guitar and we started out just playing country and western songs that we both knew. This was Jerry’s second pedal steel. Owsley gave him a Fender pedal steel when the band was all living at 710 Ashbury St. but he sold it within months. Now he had a much better one and he started to be able to do some of the stuff that he could hear in his head. When the evening got late, Jerry still wanted to play some more so we agreed that he would come down the next Wednesday and sit in on my gig at the Underground. We were a hit, sort of.

Using the band as an outlet for his newfound interest in pedal steel, Garcia joined Nelson, Dawson, Matthews (who co-produced Workingman’s Dead) and Hart at the first New Riders of the Purple Sage show in August 1969 at The Matrix in San Francisco.

The official Garcia website further detailed the evolution of the band’s lineup, explaining, “Bob Mathews stepped down in the fall of ’69 and [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh filled in until Dave Torbert joined the permanent lineup. Hart would eventually be replaced by ex-Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden and finally, in November of ’71, Jerry would step down, being replaced by Buddy Cage. This final move allowed the NRPS to untether from the Grateful Dead.”

While still a member of NRPS, Garcia played pedal steel on the band’s 1971 self-titled, debut album that also saw contributions from Hart and Lesh. Garcia played banjo and piano on a few songs on the 1972 follow-up, Powerglide.

Watch video of Garcia playing pedal steel while rehearsing with the NRPS on July 2, 1971 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco:

Listen to a show from the initial August 1969 run at the Matrix:

Hear one of Garcia’s final performances as an official member of NRPS from October 30, 1971 in Cincinnati:

NRPS continued after Garcia’s exit, undergoing many lineup changes, with Dawson and Nelson (who left for several years) the most consistent members (Dawson, Dryden, Cage, Torbert have all passed away). The cross-pollinating of musicians based in the Bay Area in the late-1960s and early-1970s often involved the various NRPS members. An issue of Zig Zag Magazine in 1974 documented the NRPS “family tree,” which is archived on the band’s old website.

Garcia and Nelson reunited in 1987 when the former assembled what became known as the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band. The short-lived group’s lineup also included Rothman, bassist John Kahn, drummer David Kemper and fiddler Kenny Kosek. Mostly opening for the electric Jerry Garcia Band, the acoustic lineup played roughly 30 shows, the last in July 1988.

Jerry, playing electric guitar, was a special guest of the NRPS at the Winterland in San Francisco on December 15, 1973. Watch “Glendale Train” with early-Garcia collaborator Sandy Rothman joining the band as well:

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New Riders of The Purple Sage (See 16 videos) and Jerry Garcia (See 31 videos)

Stream a Spotify Playlist featuring recordings of Garcia performing with the New Riders below:

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