New Riders of the Purple Sage

The Adventures of Panama Red

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One has to wonder if 1973 was the year of drug references in songs...never mind. In any case, The Adventures of Panama Red established the New Riders of the Purple Sage as something more than a Jerry Garcia side project -- which they never were. John Dawson, Spencer Dryden, David Nelson, and Dave Torbert along with pedal steel ace Buddy Cage -- replacing Garcia -- and producer and multi-instrumentalist Norbert Putnam crafted a smoking, hard country-rock and bluegrass hippie record. Also along for the ride were guest vocalists Donna Jean Godchaux from the Grateful Dead and no less than Buffy Sainte-Marie and the Memphis Horns. Trad country it ain't, and dated it is; but nonetheless, Panama Red has considerable charm as a relic from the era. Nelson, Torbert, and Dawson were decent songwriters and enthusiastic performers, and Columbia knew a good thing when they saw one and got behind the album -- which was a minor hit. The title track and "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy," with Cage's whinnying steel, carry a lot of the band's weight and separate them from virtually every other West Coast outfit trying the same thing. The Flying Burrito Brothers were more country and Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen swung harder, but one thing the New Riders were more of than anyone was stoned, and these songs with titles like "Important Exportin Man" and "Kick in the Head" and lyrics like "I've been smokin' dope, snortin' coke/tryin' to write a song/forgettin' everything I know until the next line comes along" only underline this. The freakiest thing is that the record segues together so beautifully and the songs are so tight with nothing extra between, it feels like it's a lot longer than the mere 29 minutes it is. The listener feels satisfied that after 11 songs it's all been said done in a delightful way. This endures despite its obvious lyrical stupidity. Musically it can do a lot to teach modern-day alt-country cookie cutters something about knowing the rules before trying to break them.

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