Buddy Cage says it was easy filling Jerry Garcia’s shoes on pedal-steel in New Riders of the Purple Sage


By Steve Newton

As the story goes, Jerry Garcia had only been experimenting on pedal-steel guitar for two weeks when he played it on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s 1970 hit “Teach Your Children”. Garcia’s licks resulted in the most widely heard pedal-steel performance ever, but that doesn’t mean he became particularly adept on the instrument.

According to Buddy Cage—the seasoned veteran who took Garcia’s place in New Riders of the Purple Sage when he left the Grateful Dead side project in ’71—it wasn’t difficult filling the Dead man’s shoes on-stage.

“Aw, fuck no!” proclaims the 60-year-old picker, “it was the easiest thing in the world! But the point is you’re not just filling his shoes as a steel player, you have to fill his shoes as an artist, as a musician, as an arranger—as an integral part of a band. To replace him musically is way huger than just coming in as a steel-guitar ringer.”

The Canadian-born Cage, who’d honed his licks with Canuck acts like Ian and Sylvia and its backing band, Great Speckled Bird, helped the New Riders become one of the top country-rock acts of the ’70s. Their career was given a major boost by the reefer-ready number “Panama Red”, one of many NRPS tunes to originate outside of the group itself. Songwriters like the Dead’s Robert Hunter and Country Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish submitted material for the band, as did their old friend, cult country-bluegrass artist Peter Rowan.

“Peter came into rehearsal hall one night with these two incredible songs,” recalls Cage. “I mean, ‘Panama Red’, with its triple entendre, and then also ‘Lonesome L.A. Cowboy’. We jumped on both of them. Eventually that particular album got called The Adventures of Panama Red because we thought so much of the song and so much of the way we arranged it.”

Cage contends that the current NRPS lineup—which also features founding guitarist-vocalist David Nelson and long-time Hot Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano—isn’t just touring to stir up dusty memories.

“Some people obviously come in as old New Riders fans,” he relates, “and want to hear ‘Panama Red’ and a few other things that bring them back, but I don’t play for nostalgia, I play for every working day in front of me. And because of what the Grateful Dead have done over the years, the jam-band scene is huge, man, and we have come into that scene.”

Leave a Reply