10 Questions with…Bobby Lee Rodgers

Inspiration is passed to us through the bloody sweat of nobodies and the quiet dignity of underground artists whose trials and tribulations allow them to grow and to understand themselves, and for those who remain stout upon their principles, to become one of those all important shards of porcelain, glass, or pebble.


As eras pass they will be studied via the few surviving tales that remain intact.  And while the mystery of life requires that a few pieces be missing to keep we troglodytes interested enough to hold our attention upon advancement, it is the shattered puzzle of mosaic stories that form our cultural icons. Icons raised by a collection of individuals and not those raised by the mobs at market are strong enough to test time’s degrading march, able to be passed down to the minds of the next generations.  Enter The New Riders of the Purple Sage, a band known by the shard-missing story of Grateful Dead coat-tailer.  But layers are still unfolding, because David Nelson and Buddy Cage linger upon the adventure.


The known legend begins in the summer of love when musicians were as faithful to their bands as they were to their lovers.  Luckily, open jams were even more acceptable than free love.  Jerry Garcia was looking to solidify his pedal steel guitar playing and friend John “Marmaduke” Dawson needed a vehicle for his songs.  After a few gigs, guitarist David Nelson hopped on lead and the rest of the band was occupied by Grateful Dead members, with Mickey Hart on drums and Phil Lesh on bass until the end of 1970 when Dave Torbert took the bass and Spencer Dryden of Jefferson Airplane stole the sticks. 


The band attained an instant audience touring with The Dead, but gained respect the old fashion way, earning it through solid musicianship and meaningful yet fun lyrics.  In the fall of 71, after being discovered on the Festival Express through a dueling pedal steel jam between the two guitarists, Buddy Cage ratified the line-up with the replacement of Garcia. 


The ever evolving band saw Nelson and Cage leave in 82, while Dawson kept his songs and The Riders playing into the 90s.  Now Nelson and Cage have rekindled the literally trade marked name to ride across the country in an attempt to lasso a new generation of music lovers.  The nation that just may believe that alt-country is a recent invention. 


But what makes a person or posse legendary, whether they are willing to admit to the status or not, is simply the doing of what has to be done.  It is the times lived in and the myth spreading masses that add the title of legend.   Sitting down with a 40 year music veteran a person should expect some illumination of the reality behind the scenes.  What he had to say in an interview, which transpired in the comfortable green room of Charlotte, North Carolina’s Neighborhood Theatre while the opening band vibrated through the wall, is layered with the straight-to-the-point insight that spawns from a cynical mind that has seen mainstream fame come, and go.  The mind of the nimble-fingered pedal steel guitarist is wrinkled with the common sense that most young musicians refuse to believe when holding on to the pyrotechnic fantasies of rock-n-roll.


The band started their latest string of mini-tours in October 2005 and with 18 members having already moved through the band’s line-up it is no surprise that this new version is finding success.  The line-up now includes Michael Falzarano of Hot Tuna and Johnny Markowski and Ronnie Penque of Stir Fried.  By January, the fourth month of touring, the band’s comfort in each other’s musical wake was evident.  Speaking to the Charlotte audience after the first song, Cage’s tone seemed to shout, “wish you were here,” as he explained that John Dawson was missing because he “wasn’t up to it,” adding, “we’re looking into future stuff.”  The opinion can be taken that Cage wanted his old band mate to take witness of the new fellas as well as the more obvious wish of well being.  As for the near future there will be no Dawson, but the tour highlights include the 21st Annual Jerry Garcia’s Birthday Bash held at Sunshine Daydream Music Park and a throwback to the band’s original era with the Concert for the Vietnam Vets of America, to be held at Turkey Trot Acres in Candor, New York.


The new New Riders came about through the connection of Johnny and Buddy.  “Ask any musician, you’ll hear one word— GIG.  It’s all about a gig.  It’s all about playing your music or whatever skills you’ve learned to do and going to work with them; creating a job area and going to work.”  This is the first answer Buddy Cage shed, and it reeks of plain truth.  Buddy had already toured with Stir Fried on a few occasions and was set to make another go, until, in a phone conversation with Johhny Markowski, percussion and founding member of Stir Fried, the two realized that they had a chance to bring back a lost wonder.  The idea manifested in a simple conversation, like penicillin on toast as it is with many great ideas.  According to Buddy the conversation sounded like this:  “It was brought up that Nelson is going to be around.  It was going to be a bare bones session, strictly acoustic.  So Johnny called me back and said, ‘You know if he’s going to be out here why wouldn’t we just get together with you, and I’ve got a guy (Ronnie Penque) I play with in my band that sounds just like fucking Marmaduke, man.” 


The band may have reformed as happenstance of convenience and common desire, but the authenticity of the band was never to be questioned.  Johnny explains, “When we did play together it had those tones of what it used to be just by us being ourselves, which makes the chemistry of why we’re still doing it, and why [Cage and Nelson] are still interested in playing it, because it still has that integrity.” 


Cage knew what he was getting into with the group of musicians that had come together for the New Riders tour.  What he wanted was for “these guys to know what it was like to be a New Rider, not to play like the New Riders or work in a cover band doing New Rider material.”  They managed this by keeping the same open atmosphere that encompassed the original New Riders, defined by Buddy as: “there was never anything written down. There were never any rules.  The only rule was you couldn’t tell the guy next to you, ‘alright your smoking to much, your drinking to much’ or ‘hey why don’t you get a fucking hair cut.’  Those were things you never did, but musically everybody did what they wanted, you know, there wasn’t any band meeting saying, ‘we should be going in this direction.’”   


The path of life makes its way upon a chaotic carpet, swaying and bucking through the dense clouds of the form-following function.  In speaking of style and what is happening in today’s subcultures Cage mentions the very birth of the jam-scene, “I don’t live exactly in their world because I live in the original world of what they now call jam bands, and all we were doing was trying to not take breaks between songs.  Cause we were playing in front of 12 to 25 hundred people high on lsd…you stop the music and then you look out there and they’re all kind of going [conveying with a comically intense stare], you know, faces are distorting and things are going melting and you know you can’t do that. That’s why that kind of extended playing came about.” 


This ability to describe nature by the pegs and holes it supplies could be considered the theme of real art.  And an argument can be made that if function is to follow form then the product is merely a meaningless blob of colors.  Without mentioning discipline, the auspicious career meets at the crossroads of Chance and Scruples.  Buddy Cage has been a freelance musician since the age of fifteen, calling The New Riders a “good, solid, great segment” of his career, and credits what success he has enjoyed to his mechanical ability to remain himself.  Defiantly saying, “I was not going to be some sort of rubber stamp steel guitar player.  It just wasn’t going to happen so I played whatever the hell I felt like playing and I went from place to place to place trying to fit that steel guitar into whatever music I was involved with.”  Reflecting on his early career Cage remembers playing wherever he could and his motivation remained even after people started paying attention.  Reciting a story of the first time that he was asked if he could play in an Indian melodic form, or raga, Cage admits jumping at the opportunity while omitting, at the time, the fact that he had no clue as to what a raga was. 


The roles of influential people tend to change with the times, and Buddy believes that the role of the modern artist is that of the educator.  Not implying that rockstars should be responsible for the knowledge that is passed, but that they hold a special duty, one that appears with the search for the truth or deeper meaning.  Career Undergrounders live in danger of being forgotten, their chips in life’s mosaic becoming covered with dust or broken off all together by the constant force of big business re-crediting for profit.  And for the sake of honesty some stories must be told many times, such as the story of the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Alternative Country.