Guitarist David Nelson has undertaken a variety of musical projects since the 1960s.
He played in the New Riders of the Purple Sage with
John Dawson and Dave Torbert, and was involved in numerous musical experiments
with the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia.
Nelson's eponymous band plays a wide variety of music, from the country swing of standards
"Panama Red" and "Diamond Joe", to the psychedelic flavor of new compositions like "The Wizard's Son."
Night after night, the David Nelson Band tempts each crowd with a musical vibe unlike no other. Nelson's
four decade love affair with music shows no sign of slowing down.
Digital Interviews: When did you first get interested in music?
David Nelson: I was always interested in music, even when I was real little.
My parents used to get me 78s in big cardboard envelopes, brown paper
envelopes. You'd turn the pages; you'd put them on a changer. I had
Tex Ritter, classical stuff, and it was a tradition at my age.
DI: When did you pick up the guitar?
DN: I was always interested in guitar. I heard Burl Ives and Tex
Ritter. I remember asking my mom, "What instrument is that?" I could
hear a guitar playing. Then when I was in second grade, a guy came
door-to-door selling steel guitar lessons. I didn't realize it was
a steel guitar. It was in a big black case. He took it out in front
of my parents and said, "Would you like to play one of these?" I didn't
notice it was a raised nut. It had the strings raised up for steel
guitar. I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah..." They signed me up. He put it
on my lap and said to my parents, "Let me show you how your son can
play right now, tonight!" I put on a thumb pick, and he puts it
down on my lap, and I went, "Uh-oh!" I remember thinking, "This isn't
right. This is just the sales pitch or something." It was pick,
strum, and he would hold the bar and everything. So I got roped
into taking steel guitar lessons in a class.
DI: How did you feel about that at the time?
DN: Well, I didn't like it because I kept getting promoted. You
have to go in with older kids. I had also worked it out so I didn't
have to learn how to read music. I would watch the teacher play, and
over the notes I would put what fret that was. He would ask me at times
what notes were there, and I would play them. He said, "No. I don't want
you to play them - I know you can play them. What are they?" Trying to
count the alphabet backwards is murder when you're nervous, down below
the staff. My parents would say, "We don't want you to quit now that
you've come this far." I begged my mom about the fourth or fifth grade
if I could quit, and she said, "Okay, if you'll just learn to play,
get a piece of sheet music every once in a while." I never did. It
went in the closet. Then in high school, Pete Albin, the bass player
in Big Brother, said, "My brother got a guitar from Mexico. You want
to come over? We'll learn how to play it." I thought, "Why didn't I
think of that?" Our way. Play it our way.
DI: So you started playing your own way, with people you liked to
DN: Yeah, bluegrass and stuff like that. The search for bluegrass.
DI: How did the Wildwood Boys get together?
DN: Rodney Albin, Peter's older brother, had this idea one
summer - I think it was the summer of '60 or '61 - to have a thing
up above Houchens' Bookstore. It was rare and used books, in San
Carlos. The guy would let us use the upstairs, and Rodney would set
up a microphone, and we'd have people come and play. Everybody would
take turns getting up and playing something. He says, "There's this
crowd of Beatniks down in Palo Alto called The Kepler's Crowd." Another
bookstore. In the early 60s, it was a literary scene. The hip scene
was more into literature than any other one thing. He took me and Pete
to find some musicians down there. There was Jerry Garcia playing a
twelve-string. I see this dark, surly guy with a wreath in his hair,
and we went up and talked to him a little bit. Groups would start out
of that scene. We'd do every Thursday night during the summer. There
are tapes around of that stuff, it's the early stuff that you might
have heard - they circulated around quite a lot for a couple of years.
DI: Even though you played every Thursday, did you play throughout
the week on your own?
DN: Of course. I practiced until my fingers were bloody. That was one of
my first intensive guitar things, pumping Rodney for all kinds of guitar stuff.
DI: How did you meet Robert Hunter?
DN: He was at the Boar's Head. He was a writer. He was writing a novel.
DI: What groups were you a part of during the early 1960s?
DN: That's the Wildwood Boys and the Black Mountain Boys. Sandy Rothman
played in the Black Mountain Boys and Eric Thompson, who now has the California
Cajun Orchestra. The depths of the music got bigger and bigger. I was in the
jug band which became the Grateful Dead, then I went and joined a group called
The Pine Valley Boys. That was a seriously good bluegrass band - real good
harmonies. I moved to Los Angeles with Hunter and a few other people for a
short time, and then came back up - that's where I met them. They came back
to the Bay Area and we played around. So, I did a few years with them.
Actually it seems like years, but when I really think about it and try to
date those things, they were shorter than a year.
DI: At that point in time did most musicians shift from band to band?
DN: Yeah. In '65, everybody moved into a place in Palo Alto. Jerry was there,
and Hunter, everybody living in the same place. I was playing with the Pine
Valley Boys, and The Warlocks were first performing, practicing, and me and
Eric would go down and see them practice. There was this interest in playing
electric instruments, and I was in this band called New Delhi River Band
where we played electric and blues and some rock 'n' roll. We did this
psychedelic thing - turned the guitars around to the amps and have them
feed back. We played in Scotts Valley at this place called The Barn. That
went on for a couple of years.
DI: You sat in on some Grateful Dead albums from 1968 to 1970. How did
that come about?
DN: Well, they just asked me if I would play some stuff on there. Jerry
asked if I would play on the records, you know.
DI: That first one, Aoxomoxoa, was a real experimental one. What was the
feeling as you were creating that kind of music?
DN: Just far out. [laughs] There was a lot of experimentation going on,
and the whole idea of writing a song was a new one. "Oh, now we actually
have to put this down on record." [laughs] Experimenting with multi-track
recording was completely wild. The imagination went wild.
DI: A few years later, you worked on American Beauty and Workingman's
Dead. Did you know at the time that the songs on those albums would become classics?
DN: No, not at all. I knew they were good songs, really good stuff, but
you never can tell. The New Riders would be practicing in Jerry's
living room, and then every once in a while Phil and Bobby would come
over and they'd go over the singing on these songs. Mickey would
already be there, because he was drummer for us. There'd be these
little ensembles, working out songs like "Brokedown Palace" and
DI: How did the New Riders of the Purple Sage start?
DN: The New Riders started in August of '69. John Dawson got back from
Europe, and he had written some songs. New Delhi River Band was pretty
much folding, and John asked if I would come help air his new songs.
Jerry wanted to learn to play pedal steel at the same time. We would
get pizza parlor gigs. It escalated very quickly because Jerry was
involved in it.
DI: Wouldn't you and the Grateful Dead play double-bills?
DN: The idea suddenly occurred to us that we could bring two guys - me
and John - and Phil and Mickey would fill out the band. We'd have a whole
band just by bringing two guys. It seemed real good to have an opening act.
It got bigger and bigger, and then Torbert got back from Hawaii - he was in
New Delhi River Band - so I brought him into the New Riders. The New Riders
started having their own material, besides just John's songs.
DI: "Panama Red" is probably your most well known song. How did that
DN: Peter Rowan was playing with Old and In The Way, and he said that he
had this song that might be good for me. He pitched it to me, the idea.
DI: How long were you in the New Riders?
DN: 13 years - I was there most all the time until everybody pretty much
quit, and then John sort of rebuilt the band back. It was a trio for a long time.
They would go out and pick up a bass player and drummer, a couple of extra
musicians. It's been changing like that now. John's been living in Mexico.
DI: After the New Riders ended and before the Black Mountain Boys
reformed - the acoustic band - what were you doing in that time, the early 1980s?
DN: I went on the road with Frank Wakefield, playing bluegrass.
DI: And how did the acoustic band get together?
DN: In '86, we started playing with Jerry again - me and Sandy. When he
got out of the hospital, the doctor said he should have something familiar
from the old days. We got together informally and played. Jerry played the
Benefit for Artists Rights, for Bill Graham, and said, "Why don't you and
Sandy come and play with me and John, and we'll play two or three of those
songs." We played a few songs, and Bill Graham comes into the back room.
He's saying "This is wonderful! I really love this. I can see the roots
of your music, and Grateful Dead music coming from this. All the way to
the Grateful Dead stuff - the full-blown stuff." We're going, "That's right,
Bill. That's right." [laughs] He says, "I've gotta take this somewhere - I
don't know where." Jerry said, "Ah, take us to Broadway, Bill!" The next
thing I know, we're booked 18 shows at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway.
It was incredible.
DI: You also toured with a Zydeco revue?
DN: In '88, I got involved in Zydeco music with Al Rapone and Zydeco Express.
In the summer of '88 I went all around the United States, playing Zydeco and
Cajun music with this revue - with "Rockin' Sidney" and Allen Fontenot and
the Country Cajuns - I played in all three bands.
DI: When did you start the David Nelson Band?
DN: In '94. Right after the Zydeco thing, a promoter called and asked
if we would do this tribute to the Grateful Dead called Gratefully Yours;
this little acoustic ensemble with Barry Sless, Fred Campbell and Barry
Flast. There was one tour, and Merl Saunders did the electric stuff with Steve
Kimock. Fred Campbell played bass on that, too. We wanted to continue doing
it, so we changed the name to Dead Ringers and kept touring. That's where we
met Arthur and Bill Laymon.
DI: So now you had your complete band.
DN: Yeah, we decided to play my material. I was thrilled that the band was
interested in that. That's when I really got serious about writing songs and stuff.
DI: Your band shifts from country style or bluegrass style to psychedelic
music so quickly.
DN: When I sit down and think of a musical idea, the stuff that comes out
of me never sounds like bluegrass. So I've got that as a base. But I have no
idea where that other stuff comes from. The stuff that I write, the changes and
everything, most all of it is not even close to traditional Appalachian music.
You can't really explain where stuff comes from, because you don't sit down
and try to write it, mold your idea before it happens.
DI: Tell us about your first album, Limited Edition.
DN: It was meant to just be a demo to give to promoters and club owners.
There's lots of different kinds of music in it. We did one day in the studio
up in Portland, and recorded three songs. Then we used a live tape of our
performance opening for Little Feat at the Fillmore. So we had a mix of
everything; had some Hunter/Nelson songs. Bob Hunter was writing words,
I was writing music.
DI: Then you came out with Keeper of the Key.
DN: We were going through some tapes, and found this one tape made in a
town near Baltimore that seemed to be pretty complete and pretty good quality.
We got Stanley Mouse to do the cover, and Hunter to do the liner notes -
really a nice product for just being a live tape of something.
DI: Tell us how you recorded your latest album, Visions Under the Moon.
DN: We rented the Aladdin Theater in Portland for a week or so, and we
set up this recording studio on the stage, and had a producer, Aaron Hurwitz,
who produces The Band. We couldn't even see him; he was all the way down at
the end of the theater in the lobby. He would talk to us through headphones
on the monitor speakers. We did it because we thought that the spontaneity
of playing live might be able to get on the tape. In the evenings, we'd
ask the audience to come in, so you're doing both a performance and a studio
recording. You have to say, "Now be very quiet after the song and then
later, clap." [laughs]
DI: You've also released a video?
DN: That was from our Japan trip in the Spring of '98. We played at On Air East
in Tokyo. It came out great. We had Zane Kesey do some fractals on it. It's really neat.
DI: The subtitle of your band is "Freaks of Nature". Where does that come from?
DN: We tossed around an idea and thought, "What would we name our band?" It
was kind of a running gag with us. Like, "The Simpletons" - okay, we'll be
The Simpletons for a while, you know. "Freaks of Nature" has been one that's
kind of stuck. We were going to actually get serious at one point about
calling the band "Freaks of Nature," but then we found there already is
a band called The Freaks of Nature.
DI: Tell us about the band's interest in hot sauce.
DN: Bill Laymon is mainly the guy that's keeping us in hot sauce, because
his mom is from El Salvador, and he's been eating chiles since he was a
little kid. He has this bandoleer, but it's got loops on it that are bigger for
bottles of hot sauce. He's got the hot sauce bandoleer because he got tired
of carrying his handbag with about 12 bottles of hot sauce into the restaurants.
We just bring the bandoleer in now.
DI: You take it on the road with you?
DN: Yeah. Billy will be glad to try it if anyone wants to bring their own
homemade hot sauce or chile peppers. He eats them right out of the jar. He'll
take sips to the lips, "nips to the lips" he calls it, of your hottest
sauce -- "Um, pretty good." [laughs]
DI: You recently played with Vince Welnick. How was that?
DN: That was really nice. We played at the Power House Brewing Company
in Sebastapol. We played "Minglewood Blues," and then we played "Standing
on the Moon." It was really sweet. We ended the tune, and there was this
hushed silence, and just before they could clap, the lights went out in the
whole town. The building went black. We looked outside, there were no lights
anywhere, the whole downtown street was out. It was incredible. [laughs] Somebody
mentioned that they had a generator, and we could take it there. About a
half-hour later, they came back on.
DI: What's on tap for the David Nelson Band?
DN: We've got five new songs. What we're working on now is putting together
the next album. We're going to go to Japan again; that's shaping up.
DI: What are some of your favorite venues when you're performing?
DN: We've always been pretty fond of the crowd at the Barrel House in
Cincinnati, the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta, the High Sierra Music
Festival, Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm Pignic in Laytonville...
DI: Did you imagine that you would have a 40-year and counting professional
career in music?
DN: I had no idea. The music business is so iffy. It never seems like you're
finally, firmly established. The same thing with learning to play music. It
never seems like, "Okay, now I know how to play." I always feel like I'm still
learning to play. I can do what I know a little bit, and I can wing it a little
bit, but as far as knowing how to play guitar, that's in the future...