The relationship between the Grateful Dead and the New Riders of the Purple Sage was truly like family. At different points, the two acts were sharing members, living spaces, stages, labels, and songwriters. Elevated by the communal atmosphere that followed everything the Dead did, the New Riders were an offshoot of that ethos in more ways than one.
Although they would eventually become their own separate entity, the New Riders were originally created to allow Jerry Garcia to indulge in his love for folk, country, and bluegrass music. The Dead had become highly psychedelic and quite heavy by the end of the 1960s, but a burgeoning scene of roots rock and country rock was beginning to emerge by the end of the decade. Like just about everything in the Dead’s world, the New Riders began casually, and then grew into its own enterprise.
Mainly rooted in the collaboration between guitarists David Nelson and John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson, the New Riders had a rotating cast of musicians that at different times included Garcia, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, and lyricist Robert Hunter on bass. The latter connection was important, as Hunter decided to bring one of his in-progress compositions into a New Riders jam session.
“We were sitting around practicing one night and I had ‘Friend of the Devil’ more or less already written,” Hunter recalled in 1978. “I said, ‘Try this out,’ and David Nelson and John Dawson helped by smoothing out some of the rough changes… Then we went down to get some coffee and Marmaduke said, ‘It’s a real good song but it has one repeating line.’ The line was, ‘It looks like water but it tastes like wine,’ and he asked me if I could get anything punchier. I said, ‘I got it’ and came out with ‘A friend of the devil is a friend of mine.’”
Hunter would later give Dawson credit for the title phrase, but his contributions were acknowledged when his name appeared in songwriting credits for American Beauty, the Dead album that featured ‘Friend of the Devil’. It was a rare instance of an outside musician getting credit on a Hunter-Garcia composition. So if Marmaduke was making important changes to the song, why wasn’t ‘Friend of the Devil’ a New Riders song?
Not for the first time, the decision ultimately came down to Jerry Garcia. Although the jam sessions featured the New Riders, it was Garcia who listened to the recording of the jam and found inspiration. “He had that funny look in his eye,” Hunter explained. “The next thing I knew, the Grateful Dead had snapped it up, much to the New Riders’ dismay.”
Check out ‘Friend of the Devil’ down below.