By MARTIN VENGADESAN
September 27, 2009
John Dawson, who died in July, was one of the country-rock pioneers
who founded New Riders of the Purple Sage, a splinter group of the
I KEEP hearing that "everybody's dying lately". I guess that means a
fair number of celebrity deaths ... with a range of people from actor
Patrick Swayze to celebrity chef Keith Floyd and Cuban revolutionary
Juan Almeida Bosque all passing in recent weeks.
The world of music has also seen a fair number of its lights go out
in 2009, with arguably the biggest musical icon of all, Michael
Jackson, being the most publicised death. The loss of Mary Travers of
Peter, Paul and Mary, Lynyrd Skynyrd's brilliant pianist Billy
Powell, legendary sessionist Larry Knechtel, sitar guru Ali Akbar
Khan and guitar maker Les Paul has also been keenly felt by the wider
One of the lesser known but no less impactful names to take a final
bow this year is John Dawson. A stalwart member of country-rock
pioneers New Riders of the Purple Sage, Dawson, 64, succumbed to
stomach cancer on July 21.
While he had long since retired from the music business and moved to
Mexico, Dawson and his bandmates provided some memorable music in the
fertile country-rock field of the early 1970s that also featured the
likes of Poco, The Flying Burrito Brothers, latter-day Byrds, early
Eagles, Gene Clark and Gram Parsons.
Oddly enough, when I first heard NRPS back in the early 1990s I was
sorely disappointed. Indeed, it was one of those rare instances when
I actually thought the band's name (which drew inspiration from a
1930s country band whose name was from a 1912 novel by Zane Grey) was
cooler than its music!
Sadly, The Best of NRPS, which also featured a mildly controversial
cover shot, consisted of a few tight numbers and far too much
material I considered to be a little too "yee-haw" with only Dawson's
compositions, I Don't Know You and Last Lonely Eagle, registering favourably.
Fortunately, a decade after giving up I was to discover that NRPS was
one of those groups with loads of hidden gems and that its "hits"
weren't really representative of the best material the group had to
offer. Of course, I fell into them the second time because I was into
the Grateful Dead in a big way, and NRPS actually got their start as
a Dead splinter group!
In fact Dawson and fellow NRPS founder David Nelson had played
sporadically with Dead frontman Jerry Garcia in the mid-1960s before
going their separate ways. After leading the Dead through a series of
psychedelic albums like Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa, Garcia
himself started returning to his country and bluegrass roots,
choosing to form a part-time band with his ex-colleagues.
For a while, an early incarnation of NRPS featured Dawson, Nelson,
Garcia and two other Dead players, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh, in
effect saving the band money by having half their members double up
as part of their opening act!
But Dawson's songs proved strong and the first NRPS album (entirely
penned by him) contained many fine cuts, not least of which was the
trippy yet countrified epic Dirty Business, the lazy Garden of Eden
and the aforementioned pair of I Don't Know You and Last Lonely
Eagle. It has often been cited as a companion album to the Dead's
classic American Beauty (to which Dawson also contributed) and I
won't dispute that.
Eventually juggling the bands became too much for Garcia, and a
line-up of Dawson, Nelson, steel guitarist Buddy Cage, bassist Dave
Torbert and ex-Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden coalesced.
Subsequent albums saw more "democracy" with Nelson and Torbert
contributing material and lead vocals, but still Dawson could be
counted on to come up with poignant material like Rainbow and the
anti-war epic Death and Destruction.
Over time, however, it seemed as if both the band and Dawson himself
were running out of juice. By the mid-1970s, their sound was more
mainstream, the material was too heavy on covers and new bassist
Stephen Love took over as principal songwriter. NRPS was to continue
in a variety of guises, but truth be told, never again did touch the
heights of the first album when the late, great John Dawson was at his peak.