Panama Red picture sleeve
The roots of New Riders of the Purple Sage (NRPS) can be traced back to the early 1960s folk/bohemian/beatnik scene in San Francisco, where future Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia (then considered one of the best banjo players of the folk revival movement) often played gigs with like-minded guitarist David Nelson. The young John Dawson (nicknamed “Marmaduke”), from a well-to-do family in upstate New York, also played some gigs with Garcia and Nelson while visiting on summer vacation. Dawson went on to college, and Nelson moved to Los Angeles with future Grateful Dead/New Riders lyricist Robert Hunter and tape archivist Willy Legate, while Garcia went on to form the Grateful Dead (then known as the Warlocks) with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Nelson returned to the Bay Area in 1966, and the Grateful Dead briefly considered replacing Bob Weir with Nelson. When this failed to materialize, Nelson worked as a journeyman musician, playing anything from electric psychedelic rock to contemporary bluegrass.
Dawson returned to the Bay Area around the same time, where he worked as a solo folksinger for a time. Soon he decided it was his life’s mission to combine the psychedelia of the San Francisco rock scene with his beloved electric country music. By 1969, Dawson and Garcia (who by this time had taken up the pedal steel guitar) were playing coffeehouse concerts when the Dead was not touring. By the summer of 1969, it was decided that a full band would be formed to satisfy Garcia’s creative impulses in this outlet. Dave Nelson, who by this point was a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, was recruited to play electric lead guitar. Dawson would play acoustic guitar. Robert Hunter was recruited to play electric bass and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart rounded out the lineup on drums. Hunter was replaced by Bob Matthews, who did not last long – eventually Phil Lesh replaced him. Thus for the cost of two extra plane tickets, the cash-strapped Dead had a unique opening act.
The New Riders began to tour as the opening act for the Grateful Dead in May 1970. This relationship continued on a regular basis until December 1971. Before the New Riders recorded their debut album in late 1970, Dave Torbert replaced Lesh on bass. After Mickey Hart took a sabbatical from music in early 1971, Spencer Dryden (ex-Jefferson Airplane) replaced him, beginning a ten-year relationship with the band, both as drummer and eventually manager. Their eponymous debut album, issued on Columbia Records in 1971, was a moderate success. In November 1971, Jerry Garcia parted with the group and was replaced by Buddy Cage. With the last of the remaining Dead members now replaced, New Riders could tour independently of the Grateful Dead. Their second album, “Powerglide” (1972), was their first album with the Dawson–Nelson–Cage–Torbert–Dryden lineup, which is considered by many to be the classic NRPS lineup. The New Riders managed to nearly eclipse the Dead in popularity, thanks in part to rampant touring with the parent band. The band released their third album, “The New Adventures of Panama Red” in December 1973, and this became regarded as one of the better country-rock albums of the decade, and “Panama Red” became a staple of FM radio; it was also released as a single with “Cement, Clay And Glass” on the flipside. This is today’s featured single.
“Panama Red” is a Peter Rowan composition which features a relatively simple melody that utilizes a grand total of six chords (Bm/A/G/E7/F#/D) and drug-influenced lyrics (the title refers to a particularly potent cultivar of cannabis). We are informed that Panama Red will “steal your woman/Then he’ll rob your head”. He comes to town “[o]n his white horse, Mescalito” and “[h]e keeps well hidden underground.” There is a brief instrumental break 1 minute and 9 seconds into the song (lasting about 20 seconds) before Dawson sings the last verse, in which he delivers the ultimate double entendre, announcing that he’ll be “searching all the joints in town for Panama Red.” Clocking in at 2 minutes and 49 seconds, the song races along quickly, and soon we have reached the fade-out. Musically this is not an overly complex tune; it’s just the easy-going country rock that defined the early NRPS.
The B-side, “Cement, Clay and Glass”, is a Spencer Dryden/David Nelson composition that seems to be a musical diatribe against development. At least that is the initial impression I got from the opening lyrics: “I live by the side of Rolling Oaks Road/Tract 25, just like the man showed it to me/Nothin’ to hide it, nothin’ beside it/I really can’t fight it, the whole place is blighted/With cement, clay and glass”. The song opens with an acoustic guitar, and has a much slower tempo than “Panama Red”. In addition, the NRPS sound is augmented by a harmonica and a horn section (actually The Memphis Horns, whose claim to fame was their many appearances on Stax Records, and have been called “arguably the greatest soul horn section ever”). Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie is also on hand to provide backing vocals. The song amply demonstrates that the New Riders clearly understand that being purveyors of a more accessible brand of music than the Dead does not mean that they cannot add additional layers to their music to give it a more nuanced sound. In many ways, “Cement, Clay and Glass” is the perfect counterpoint to “Panama Red”, and it is perhaps telling that the band chose “Panama Red” to open the album and “Cement, Clay and Glass” to close it.
This single (catalog #: 4-45976) was issued on Columbia Records in November 1973 (in advance of the album). It was issued with a picture sleeve, and features the same cover artwork as the album, with the band’s name across the top and the track listing. The band would continue touring and releasing albums throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Dave Torbert left the group the following year, to be replaced by Skip Battin. Stephen A. Love would replace Battin in 1976. Spencer Dryden stepped down as drummer to become the band’s manager in 1978 and would be replaced by Patrick Shanahan. In 1982, both Nelson and Cage left the band, leaving Dawson as the only member from the band’s classic lineup remaining. For the next 15 years, Dawson and multi-instrumentalist Rusty Gauthier were the core members of NRPS, working with an evolving lineup of musicians. In 1997, NRPS retired from music and Dawson moved to Mexico to become an English teacher. In 2005, shortly after the death of Spencer Dryden, the New Riders resurfaced, spearheaded by David Nelson and Buddy Cage. An ailing John Dawson, too ill to participate in the reunion, nonetheless gave his blessing to the project. On July 21, 2009, John Dawson died of stomach cancer in Mexico.
The Dave Nelson Band performing Panama Red in 2004