LET'S GET ONE thing straight: David Nelson is not Ricky Nelson, the 1950s pop icon. Nor is he one of the Nelson Twins, sons of said '50s pop icon. David Nelson did cover Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou" in the '70s with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, but otherwise he has little in common with Ricky, and even less in common with his poster-boy sons.
Take a closer look, or even a passing glance, and the differences are evident. David Nelson, who brings his band to Nimbus Brewing Company on Friday, March 31, is no all-American boy, and certainly has gotten little interest from modeling agencies for his looks. Nelson's fashion sense has more in common with the ruffled style of Jerry Garcia.
And that's not all he has in common with the late Grateful Dead guitarist. A close friend of Garcia's, the two played together in various bands dating back to the early '60s.
"I started playing bluegrass in '62," Nelson relates. "We had a band with Jerry and (Grateful Dead lyricist-to-be) Robert Hunter called the Wildwood Boys and the Black Mountain Boys in Palo Alto, Calif. We were always interested in traditional forms of American music like Appalachian music and country blues and jug band music."
Garcia, of course, went on to develop an electric guitar style that is often emulated, sometimes mimicked. Nelson, on the other hand, stuck closer to his acoustic roots. He formed the New Riders of the Purple Sage with Garcia and a friend named John Dawson.
"Dawson had gone to England and came back to Palo Alto. He had written some songs and he wanted to try them out on an audience. Jerry wanted to learn pedal steel guitar and the three of us went down to pizza parlors and started playing."
The resulting New Riders -- or "Nerps," as Nelson calls them -- went on to forge a new sound which brought country music lovers into the rock fold, and conversely brought the hippie generation under cowboy hats. Merle "Okie From Muskogee" Haggard certainly never expected that. As he sang back in '69, "We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy, like the hippies out in San Francisco do."
With Nelson and Dawson as the core members, the New Riders became the official opening act of the Dead in the early '70s, and thereby became beloved siblings of the Deadhead family. The New Riders often joined the Dead onstage and in the studio; Nelson appears on the Dead's "Aoxomoxoa," "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty."
The Dead likewise joined the New Riders for their studio projects. Songs like "Glendale Train," "Panama Red" (penned by Peter Rowan) and "Henry" never found themselves wedged between the Captain and Tenille and the Bay City Rollers on the pop charts, but nonetheless cemented the New Riders' status in the alternative/hippie culture. They were a bit wild and unwholesome for country radio (particularly their songs about marijuana) and a tad too country for rock radio, but a whole generation of music fans grew up smoking pot to the New Riders...and some still do.
"I get a check for $1.83 every once in a while," jokes Nelson, referring to lingering royalties.
As time passed, the New Riders and the Dead veered apart, but Nelson and Garcia remained close friends. Garcia, of course, went on to have the greatest commercial success of his career in the '80s, while Nelson worked as guitarist-for-hire. He worked with bluegrass mandolin legend Frank Wakefield for a while, resulting in the Garcia-produced CD Pistol Packin' Mama, released on Grateful Dead Records. Nelson also played simultaneously with three zydeco bands. He toured with Al Rapone and the Zydeco Express, Allen Fontenot and the Country Cajuns, and Rockin' Sidney and the Toot-Toot Band, the guy who did "Don't Mess With My Toot-Toot."
"The zydeco crowd is a different crowd," Nelson says. "They are everywhere. We played Alaska, Detroit, Minneapolis; those Cajuns just come out of the woodwork."
Somewhere in there, Nelson also found enough time to relearn "Panama Red," albeit in a dramatically different fashion. He took a recording and played it backwards, then learned to play and sing the song backwards. Today, the backward version makes a wacky but entertaining between-song diversion during his performances.
In 1987, Hunter spent Thanksgiving with Garcia and another old musical friend from Palo Alto, Sandy Rothman. "We really had fun playing that old material so we played a benefit for Bill Graham's poster artist," Nelson recalls. "Bill got real excited about it and came into the back room. He said, 'I gotta take this somewhere,' and Jerry said, 'Take us to Broadway, Bill!' "
"The next thing we know, we had 18 shows at (New York City's) Lunt-Fontanne."
Billed as the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, those shows yielded a CD called Almost Acoustic, which has since become a special gem in every Deadhead's CD collection.
But the Dead beckoned and Garcia turned to his usual gig. Nelson, on the other hand, turned inward. He started writing his own material and started collaborating with Robert Hunter. "Garcia liked my songs," Nelson says. "He had expressed that I should do something with them. I wasn't ready for writing in the '70s. I'm a late bloomer I guess."
And so for the first time in his long career, Nelson started the band that bears his name. Today, in the post-Garcia world, the David Nelson Band is one of the most popular satellites within the gravitational field of the Dead's universe. While audiences get to hear Nelson's witty and twisted but still-traditional songs, they're also treated to incredible musicianship and adventurous improvisation from Nelson's hired hands of 'Heads.
Lead guitarist and pedal steel standout Barry Sless, formerly of Cowboy Jazz and Kingfish, recalls Garcia's best tonal years. Bassist Bill Laymon, formerly of Kingfish, the New Riders, Jefferson Starship and Maria Muldar, rolls out fat and meaningful bass lines à la the Dead's Phil Lesh. Keyboardist Mookie Siegel also lent his talents to Kingfish, as well as Bob Weir's Ratdog.
Like the Dead, the Nelson Band uses two drummers: Arthur Steinhorn and Charlie Crane, both formerly of Cowboy Jazz. Unlike the Dead, both drummers rarely play at the same time. Steinhorn typically takes the West Coast tours, while Crane usually covers tours of the East. The two, however, shared studio time on the band's latest release, Visions Under the Moon, released last year on the band's own label.
While some labels expressed interest, no offer was good enough to suit the band, so they took the album's release upon themselves. But that's not to say they'd turn down a good offer. "The thought of having the record in stores is a wonderful one," Nelson says.
Instead, Visions Under the Moon, as well as the band's two previous releases, are available via Grateful Dead Merchandising, various online sites, and the band's shows.
Drawing from his diverse background in American music, Nelson's songs mix elements of bluegrass, folk, zydeco, rock and psychedelia. "No Souvenirs," from Visions, is an extended country tune which, replete with a beautiful pedal steel solo from Barry Sless, would have fit perfectly on The Best of the New Riders.
"The Wizard's Son," from 1997's Keeper of the Key, is an apt example of the band's ability to stretch a traditional-sounding song into a psychedelic excursion, lasting over 12 minutes.
One of the best examples of Nelson's ability to mix diverse influences into a unified whole is "Yvonne," from the band's first release, Limited Edition. It benefits from good ol' country twang, a zydeco two-step groove, a few bars of odd time signatures, and Garcia-like singing.
"I really wonder where this stuff comes from," Nelson muses. "When I sit down to write a song or a piece of music I think of myself as a bluegrass person or a traditionalist or something."
Typically, Nelson writes the music first, and gives it to Robert Hunter to wax poetic. The exception to their partnership is the down-home psychedelia of "Born Sidestepper," also from Limited Edition.
"He dreamed that these little elves where playing this song," explains Nelson. "He said he woke up and remembered the words but couldn't remember the melody. So I wrote the music to it, put it on tape with words and everything and showed it to him. He liked it."
If Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia liked it, you knew the Deadheads would too.
The David Nelson Band performs at 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 31, at Nimbus Brewing Company, 3850 E. 44th St. Tickets are $8 in advance at Nimbus. They'll cost $10 the day of the show. Call 745-9175 for details.