July 19, 2008
Aspen Times Weekly
CARBONDALE The pedal steel guitar, a staple of the country music
sound, is a staggeringly complex instrument. Although the numbers
vary from instrument to instrument, the pedal steel generally
features two necks, 12 to 20 strings, 10 foot pedals and 13 knee
levers, which are used to alter the pitch. The strings are typically
plucked with finger picks on one hand, while the other hand is
occupied with maneuvering a slide across the strings. It is one of
the most versatile instruments in popular music, and is often said to
be the most difficult to master.
"So many people have tried it and said, 'What the f--k?'" said Buddy
Cage, a master of the instrument. "You sound like a 4-year-old kid
learning to play Bach." Noting the number of strings and pedals, Cage
added, "It gets exponentially complex. And when I say exponentially,
I'm not kidding. It gets into that territory."
Rarely does a musician dabble in the pedal steel. So when a guitarist
and former banjoist named Jerry Garcia not only tried his hand at it,
but also helped form a high-profile band, the New Riders of the
Purple Sage, around the instrument, it sent at least one more
accomplished pedal steel player reeling.
"Jerry wasn't doing anything that turned my head," said Cage, who,
when he heard Garcia try his hand at the pedal steel, had put in more
than a decade learning the instrument. "Yeah, I could blow them all
off the stage with my pants tied."
Garcia had founded, with singer-songwriter John "Marmaduke" Dawson,
the New Riders to satiate his enormous capacity for music-making.
Formed in 1969, the New Riders featured two additional members of the
Grateful Dead, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart, and the
band regularly played its psychedelicized take on country-rock as the
opening act for the Dead. But after a year or so, other demands
overwhelmed the trio of Lesh, Hart and Garcia, and the part-timers
gave way to a new lineup of New Riders. Garcia hand-picked Cage to be
"Garcia said, 'There' the ringer. There's the guy you need,'" said
Cage, who was, in turn, knocked out by Garcia's guitar work in the Dead.
Cage was happy to take the reins. Though he wasn't floored by the
band's playing to be fair, Lesh and Hart were in over their heads
playing country-rock he saw the possibilities. The lead guitarist,
David Nelson, who had played in folk/bluegrass groups with Garcia in
the early '60s, was an impressive instrumentalist. And Dawson was
emerging as a unique and interesting songwriter, mixing traditional
folk themes with tales of the hippie experience, especially
adventures with drugs.
"Dawson had written all these exquisite tunes," said Cage. "He'd
written them in an attempt to copy all these country songs, people
like Buck Owens, that was the new thing that was coming. His stuff,
though, came out of his imagination, truly fragile and beautiful."
With Dawson writing and singing, Nelson playing electric guitar, and
Cage doing virtuosic, groundbreaking work on the pedal steel, the New
Riders rounded out with bassist Dave Torbert and former Jefferson
Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden finally became a proper band, and
recorded a self-titled debut album in 1971. Two years later, they hit
paydirt with "The Adventures of Panama Red." Packed with drug
references, and featuring inspired takes on two songs by bluegrass
musician Peter Rowan "Panama Red" and "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy" the
album went gold.
Through much of the '70s, the New Riders were as busy as a band gets,
averaging more than one album a year and touring often. Aspen played
a prominent part in their schedule: After recording an album of new
material, they'd come here for a week or so of gigs at the Gallery, a
nightspot at the base of Aspen Mountain, and figure out how to turn
the studio songs into live versions.
The New Riders also helped put Cage himself on the map. One time in
the mid-'70s, the band was leaving a studio session in Cage's
hometown of Sausalito, Calif., when Cage was drawn aside by a record
company executive working for Bob Dylan. Cage was notified that his
services were requested in a New York studio to play on Dylan's next
album. The work would turn out to be Dylan's forlorn masterpiece,
"Blood on the Tracks," and while Cage scoffs at the idea that it was
a "comeback" for Dylan he maintains that Dylan even in a creative
lull was a phenomenal talent it was hailed as a peak of Dylan's career.
The road to pedal steel
Buddy Cage was surrounded by music as a kid; his parents' radio was
on constantly, dialed into Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby and Gershwin.
In 1956, though, a new sound came over the air, and Cage, 10 years
old at the time, knew this music would stir things up.
"When I first heard Presley, it was a scorcher," he said by phone
from the Pocono Mountains, in Pennsylvania. "My older cousin and my
dad and I were sitting in the machine shop when I heard 'Don't Be
Cruel,' and I said, 'Well, life is about to get different. And a
whole lot better.' I saw the future. I'd liked music, but this really
got into me."
Not all things got better immediately. When little Buddy was 11, his
parents got him lessons on Hawaiian slide guitar, to keep him out of
trouble. Cage was highly motivated to learn to play expertly; he
noticed that the girls in the class paid particular attention to
whoever absorbed the lessons best. But he also discovered that there
were better means to keeping the girls' interest than the Hawaiian guitar.
"You discover you're only playing Hawaiian music, from the '40s,"
said Cage. "And that didn't scratch me at all."
Cage tried Presley's instrument, but found his preteen hands too
small to properly play the good ol' six-string guitar. So he made his
way to the pedal steel, a descendant of the Hawaiian slide guitar.
There were two challenges with the pedal steel. One was that the
instrument was damn hard. "There's all these techniques right hand,
left hand; then the foot pedals; then knee levers added to that,"
said Cage. "You look at the pedal steel players for the country stars
they're so busy. They look like they're setting type for The New York Times."
The other hurdle was that Cage had no stomach for country music.
"Johnny Cash that just irritated me," he said. "But that's where
the licks were. You had to listen to Ernest Tubbs' band, or Ray
Price's band, or George Jones' band, because they were the only
playing the licks that killed me.
"I wanted to play Presley. I was a punk with manners all dressed up
with no place to go."
But the San Francisco Bay area in the '60s was an ideal place for
someone on the hunt for new ideas. "I ran into other people in that
new mindset. And they used me," said Cage.
"They'd say, 'Can you play that sort of thing in raga music?' I'd
say, 'Does it pay? OK!' And I just played to serve the song, whatever
minimal things would help the song."
Cage found his way into singer Ronnie Hawkins' band, which had a
standing gig at Hawkins' own club in Toronto. From there, he made his
way into the Canadian folk group Ian and Sylvia, and the duo's
subsequent country-rock project, the Great Speckled Bird. As part of
the Great Speckled Bird, Cage boarded the 1970 Festival Express, a
rock circus that trekked across Canada by train. Among Cage's fellow
travelers were Janis Joplin, the Band, Buddy Guy, and the Grateful Dead.
New Riders ride again
Cage's main gig until 1982 was with the New Riders of the Purple
Sage. But with country-rock being pushed to the side, drugs taking
their toll on the band, Cage included, and with the New Riders sound
and image being so tied to the early '70s, their fortunes sank. Cage
left, Nelson left, and Dawson stumbled along with replacement
players. "Weirdly, and horribly enough, they went out for 15 years,"
Cage said of that New Riders lineup. "It wasn't all that neat."
Cage took to playing pick-up gigs, session work and regularly
turning down invitations to rejoin the New Riders. For 10 years, he
played with a country-ish jam band called Stir Fried. On tour with
the band in Ohio a couple of years ago, Cage ran into former Grateful
Dead producer Bob Matthews, who was anxious to see the New Riders
back in the saddle.
Cage made a deal with Matthews: If Nelson could be persuaded to do a
few dates, then Cage was in too. Matthews knew that Nelson was an
easy mark; several members of Nelson's band had recently left to join
Phil Lesh's Phil & Friends, leaving Nelson without a group.
The New Riders, with Hot Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist
Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski joining Cage and Nelson,
played a short run of East Coast dates in 2005. "After it was all
over, we were all smiling. It was too neat, playing those old tunes,"
said Cage, who has been sober for 19 years and lives in New York's
East Village, his on-and-off home for the last 15 years.
The newest version of the New Riders haven't stopped; their latest
tour brings them to a free show on Sunday, July 20, at 6:30 p.m. in
Carbondale's Sopris Park. They have added new songs to the old ones,
including a handful that Nelson co-wrote with Robert Hunter, famed as
the Grateful Dead's primary lyricist.
In addition to being one of the greats of the pedal steel, Cage also
is a historian. He traces the instrument back to the orchestral harp,
a distant relative. A key moment came in the '50s, when a Grand Ole
Opry player named Bud Isaacs adapted banjoist Earl Scruggs' technique
for altering the pitch of a note after the string was plucked,
leading to the signature pedal steel sound. "I swear to God,
heartaching, country-loving truck drivers were pulling off the side
of the road, saying, 'What the f--k was that?' It changed country
music completely," said Cage. By the '60s, the pedal steel was the
lifeblood of country music.
Cage, who readily offers uncompromising opinions on most every topic,
stopped short of calling the pedal steel the most difficult of instruments.
"I don't know. Have you ever spoken to any French horn players?" he said.