Interview with New Riders of the Purple Sage

NRPS and their Tour Manager agreed to an informal interview; we talked over brunch the day after their Charleston show. There’s plenty of historical information about NRPS at their official website,, so the interview primarily focused on their latest adventures and future plans.
Interviewer: Jenn A Mahoney

New Riders of the Purple Sage:
(DN) David Nelson - guitar, vocals;
(BC) Buddy Cage - pedal steel guitar, vocals;
(MF) Michael Falzarano - guitar, mandolin, vocals;
(JM) Johnny Markowski - drums, vocals;
(RP) Ronnie Penque - bass, vocals; and
(MT) Mark Topazio - tour manager.

HGMN: One of the things I think that is most exciting about what you guys are doing is that y'all have your own other musical endeavors, but you're getting a chance now to play out with different people and play out different tunes, and that's gotta be really cool, so I'm just wondering how it's going and what you're liking about it?

(BC) I've been a hired gun since I was about 15 years old. I'd take whatever jobs I could take, so it's not like I went and got some other kind of gig or whatever, so there's no one gig, it's like everything together. That included New Riders, that included whatever session work... it was always just freelancing. You gotta be crazy to play the kinda stupid instrument I'm playing...

HGMN: That's not a stupid instrument!

(BC) I mean that in a... well, whatever. We don't need to editorialize my randomization.

(DN) He means it in the best way.

HGMN: Does somebody want to tell me how this incarnation got together?

(MF) That would be Johnny, Johnny will help you out with that.

(JM) Well, we got a call from David Nelson; he was houndin' the sh*t out of us.

(MT) It was really the spark plug, my buddy Johnny Markowski over here, ya know, that put the vision together.

(JM) It happened over a round of golf. It did, really. I was playing golf with Buddy Cage and ah, we talked about making a record with me and Buddy and a couple of friends and I asked who he wanted to get on guitar and he said, how about get David Nelson, and I said, uhm, if you're gonna play out with David Nelson again, let's put my project on the back burner and you ought to play as New Riders of the Purple Sage. That's pretty much how it happened.

HGMN: That's awesome. OK, so what's the most fun thing about the tours and how are the crowds and turnouts?

(RP) Crowds and turnouts are great.

(DN) The crowds and turnouts have been the most fun thing about the tour.

(JM) There ya go... ching!

[band] Ching!

(RP) We get taken out to lunch.

(DN) That's right, yeah.

(JM) It doesn't happen everyday.

You know how often that happens?

(DN) Never.

HGMN: All right, I want you guys to know that everybody I've talked to has said that hearing New Riders play out in this incarnation is like "church." That's how they're describing it, like it's a very spiritual, moving experience, like a reckoning, and I think that's really cool, fans are lovin' it, and so I'm wondering what the future holds for you guys? Like, do you have any new songs in the works? Are you planning anything to keep touring?

(RP) We're still embryonic, I mean this is like what, our fifteenth gig so far?

(JM) Let it grow, Let it grow, Let it blossom, Let it flow...

(RP) Like we just popped outta the seed bud and got sun light

(MF) Just taking it as it comes.

(DN) We try to pull out a new tune at least every tour.

HGMN: Well, you know I wanted to ask you about that because some of the tunes are really timeless, you know like Garden of Eden or Last Lonely Eagle... I mean they may have been penned decades ago,

(DN) Yeah, I know...

... but they're timeless and they're still relevant today, so I'm wondering, do you guys have... Is there any one that you really, really love to play out or is there a favorite that you have?

Not really a favorite, no, cuz if I picked a favorite, then I'd be cheating all the other ones.

HGMN: OK, fair enough.

Yeah, I'd be neglecting the others ones because of my favorite.

(RP) They're like children.

(DN) Yeah, they're like children.

(BC) We got together to do this, Nelson and me were talking on the phone about, oh really, ya know, yeah, it's something to do... but we didn't want to disappoint ourselves in trying to perform these tunes badly. So if we could just get it up, so to speak, pardon the expression, Jenn...

What? Get it up? I don't have a problem with it.

HGMN: I don't have a problem with it either.

(BC) OK, then. You know, for the first five dates, these guys booked road gigs pretty much where they live, and if we could, I mean, if he [Nelson] and I could just sit there and smile at the end of it, it'd be OK, because we got into knowing how good that these tunes really are.

(DN) Yeah, we're happy.

(BC) Yeah, we just wanted to make them faithful, you know, present them in a fashion they deserve, that they've earned over the years.

HGMN: And indeed, you guys are doing a great job with that.

Well, we're still smiling. It was really fun to do and like you said, they are timeless.

HGMN: I'm curious what was your first instrument and how did you acquire it?

(BC) My first? The one I'm playing right now. I got guitar lessons when I was like eleven. Essentially to keep me off the streets, out of girl's underwear, and that kind of thing. You know, a hobby. Parents think they're doing the right thing. Oh, music lessons... Little do they know... [laughter] but ah, just like every other guy who plays guitar, I wanted to impress the girls, I wanted to be the kid in my class who played his lessons best. Girls notice those things.

HGMN: Yeah, we do...
What about you David, what was your first instrument and do you still have it?

A steel guitar when I was about eight. Guy came to my house when I was walking home from school and I see a big black guitar case. I ran into the house, a representative had come from the Guild to the studio. I didn't get it that it was a steel guitar, cuz it was an acoustic guitar, you know, with the nuts and strings and stuff ... but all I saw was that. He was talking to my parents and said, "Would you like to play one of these?" And I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" [laughter] Next thing I know, he's got it on my lap and I was like, wait a minute, this is not... he puts his thumb picks on and went plink plink plink while I strummed. He held the bar, waved Aloha Oy or something like that, see how the steel feels, I'm going, "Uh-oh," [as in, this could be really good...] and my Mom's going... [Nelson makes a wide-eyed facial expression.] And that was it, I was roped in. I couldn't back out then.

HGMN: Indeed not.

I also... the same thing happened to me.

Exactly the same thing.

(BC) That was a scam. All those things were. "It seems to me that your son has a certain aptitude for it."

(DN) Yeah...

(BC) And then you start at the introductory class and you walk into it...

(DN) I hated being promoted too, in class, cuz you had to get up with these older kids... and then here comes the little guy, I was like half the size of anybody else in the class. It humiliated me. I'd walk in the room and everybody would look up.

HGMN: Yeah, but look at you now.

(DN) You don't wanna be with bigger kids when you're young, when you're a kid. That's horrible; it's a fate worse than death. And I scammed not learning how to read music. I would watch the teacher, I'd listen to the tune, and I would put little marks on the music. When I saw the 7th fret, instead of 7 fretted slant, I'd put 7 slash 6, then go home and quickly try to remember the tune. Then come back and the teacher got hip to it, he got wise to it after a while, so in front of the whole class he'd say, "What's that note?" And I would go [mocks playing it on the table] "No, I didn't ask you to play it, I wanna know what note it is." Most notes for guitar are below the staff, so think quick, quick, count the alphabet backwards from "E," backwards... C'mon...


(DN) Very good! Well, I wasn't that fast. I was paralyzed; I just sat there, turned red. He actually used me to scare everybody else. You better keep tuned in, this might happen to you, kid.

HGMN: And what about you, Michael? What was your first instrument? How'd you acquire it?

(MF) My first instrument... well, I wanted to play the guitar, I was about seven or eight years old, and my father took me down to the local music store, and the music teacher there said, well son, you wanna play the guitar? First, ya gotta learn how to play the accordion. [laughter]

(BC) ... arrest this man!

(MF) So there I am, I got the accordion, I spent a year doing this, I was learning the accordion, and finally to make a long story short, years later I was taking lessons from a real guitar teacher and I told him this story and he just started laughing, he goes, I know that guy, he just didn't have any guitars to rent you! [laughter] And that's how it started.

HGMN: And that's how it started... and what about you, Ronnie? What was your first instrument, do you still have it?

(RP) I think it was a six-string guitar; my father bought for me and my two brothers all this band stuff. He bought a drum kit for my younger brother, a guitar for me, and a bass for my brother.

(JM) Like the Jackson 5.

(RP) Yeah, you know the Partridge Family and all that stuff goin' on and ah, I think that was it. And then I wound up playing bass a year later.

HGMN: And you got his bass, like you told me about last night...

(RP) Yeah, yeah, I got it. That was many years later, actually.

Very nice, well you earned it. So what about you, Johnny? What was your...?

(JM) Drums. My brother's drum set; I confiscated it from him. Go to his bedroom and move it politely into my bedroom.

HGMN: But now, am I mistaken or on Last of the Blue Diamond Miners, were you playin' guitar?

(JM) Umm hum. I play guitar, too.

HGMN: Because I didn't see drums credited to you there... OK.

(JM) Yeah, that guy looks just like me. [laughter] Tattoos are a little different.

HGMN: Is there anything anyone wants to share about any upcoming endeavors? Like I noticed that you have a British tour with Banana coming up [Nelson]. That's gonna be exciting.

(DN) Yeah, getting ready to get myself over to London. February 22nd. You should go.

HGMN: I wish I could, because you're gonna be in London on my birthday. I wish I could be there.

(BC) I just got an Email last night from the director of Rock Programming at Sirius Radio. And he had just, funny how these things happen,

(JM) Oh yeah, man...

(BC) Well, funny how these guys, when they get an idea, it's their idea, but anyways, because of some persuasion on my part, you know, he said what we should talk about is doing shows on the road. Well yeah, I thought of it, but it was their idea. Well, I love it when it's their idea. Yeah, I emailed him back that we'll sit down and talk about it. I just finished the JAM Cruise with Toast. Toast got the idea to put me on that thing and do my radio shows from there. And that worked enough for the guy and then he heard the results and he said, "Yeah, this is great." I mean, you got some DJs out there saying, well, you know, Paul Simon had a hit with this in 1967. For fourteen weeks it was number one. Who gives a f**k? What about the kinda stuff that we play? I mean, you guys are part of that show, too.

HGMN: I agree, and I think also, you know, free form broadcasting is so rare these days that you gotta love satellite radio for that.

(BC) It is rare because of the FCC. And with satellite, guess what? No FCC.

HGMN: Exactly, which makes it beautiful, and you have a lot of latitude...

(BC) We figured out the bane of all radio listening over the decades was commercials. Worthless commercials. We figured out how to beat 'em. Just the way we beat the Russians: buy 'em out.

(DN) Yup, buy 'em out.

HGMN: Buy 'em out, and do your own thing ...

(BC) right, so we don't need the commercials.

Does anybody have a favorite memorable musical moment that they might like to share? Anything that stands out to you?

(DN) [laughter]

(BC) Yeah, there were a couple chicks in the club last night. [general concurrment]

Welcome to the South. The guys in the Caboose, they always said that about the South, just something about the water down here. I don't really know what they meant by that, but it worked for them!

That's sorta like the pizza dough in New York, something about the water just makes it better.

HGMN: I heard that about the bagels, too. But I was kinda wondering, any one venue, any one crazy moment, anything like that?

(JM) My favorite time was the first gig. Playing the first time with this lineup. You know, having David turn around and just being like "YES!" ... stuff like that and no moments are better than other moments. You know they're just... Like last night was special. We talked after the show and said the audience last night was like the sixth member, and that was really cool about last night [The Pour House; Charleston, SC].

(DN) Yeah they were really cool last night...

(RP) Very much so.

...very much right with us the whole show and that was cool.

You guys had the place packed. I've never seen it so crowded in there and I'm not just saying that. You had a really full house and it's a pretty new venue.

Oh Alex and Vanessa, more power to 'em. Man, we had us a great time last night. [Alex & Vanessa Harris own Charleston's Poor House; coincidentally, "Vanessa" is also the title of the first track on Stir Fried's Last of the Blue Diamond Miners.]

HGMN: Yeah, they're good folks.

(MT) I'd have to say, Jenn, that I think my favorite moments are the ones coming up with this band as we really hit the festivals this summer and take it out on the road to California and on up to Portland. I'm really looking into swinging into Portland town with these guys; it'll be a fun ride.

HGMN: I wanna be there when you play Portland Woman.

(JM) That'll be so hot!

(BC) I hope we still remember it by then.

HGMN:  Well, you guys played my favorite last night, or one of my favorites. I love, "Rainbow," and I was so happy to hear that. Thank you.

(JM) Michael does a great job, doesn't he?

[band] Yeah, great job, man.

And so, festivals? What can we expect coming up? You guys got some good stuff lined up?

(MT) Jerry's Birthday Bash in August at Sunshine Daydream Campground in Terra Alta, WV. I think our first festival's probably gonna be SmileFest, comin' up, with a lot of friends and family there, the Stir Fried family, hopefully the Tuna family, the David Nelson family, the New Riders family. And we've got some other city festivals, and balloon festivals, and hippie festivals, you know, which I can't let out of the bag yet, but ah, it's gonna be a great festival year.

HGMN: Excellent, I'm sure everyone will look forward to that.

(JM) I wanna fly to Amsterdam and play the World Cannabis Cup.

As per Nelson's quote from Garcia last night about if you got into this thing for money, you came to the wrong decision or you made the wrong choice...

You're in it for all the wrong reasons.

(BC) All the wrong reasons, yeah. But make no mistake. Any professional musican just wants to make a decent dollar for the amount of work that they do. And a festival is a good way to do that. Talk about a fest situation. It brings in more for the player and costs the audience less overall to be part of it.

HGMN: You get more bang for your buck cuz you get to hear all your favorite bands and have a little mini-vacation. It's great.

(MF) And the artists get to play to more people.

That's nice, and spread it around. Great. Well, what about songwriting? Do you guys have any new songs in the works? Any aspirations for that?

Maayy-be. I'm not telling.

HGMN: I know it's a very personal process, but I'm just kinda curious, do you all write songs?

[band] Maaayyy-be. Maybe. Mebbe.

HGMN: So what's that process like for you? Is it different every time? Do the words come first? Does the music come first? Do you have a favorite place or time to do it?

(DN) It's unpredictable.

(MF) It's unpredictable, that's a good way to look at it.

You just never know.

(BC) Yeah, you can't make that happen. You can work on it and try to make the song work better, take advantage of what's happening, but you can't plan, " I'm gonna write this song today..."

(RP) No, that doesn't happen. You thank the Song Gods and they show up and someone whispers in your ear to remind you of an event or something like that...

  I really appreciate you guys being so hospitable and lettin' me do this. I'm gonna put this together with basically a review of last night's show, and Timmy... you guys switched up the set lists but that was really cool, and Timmy made sure I had it all straight before I left. And there are some nice shots, too, some very nice shots, so I'll be sharing all of that with all of you. Thank you.