Buddy Cage, steelplayer par excellence
Interview done by Hans Hanegraaf during Blue Highways, Utrecht, Holland, March 23, 2002.
How did a little boy become a steel guitar player? And what did you do before entering The Great Speckled Bird?
"Before I played with The Great Speckled Bird I played for Ronnie Hawkins, a lot of studio work in Toronto, Canada for Anne Murray, George Hamilton IV, so a lot of work was coming my way.
But how I got started? Well, my mom and dad had this guy come through the doorstep one day when I was eleven, and he was offering guitar lessons. A salesman, and I tried to play that six string plectrum job, but it wasn' working, because my hand was too small to fit around the neck. He saw that and said: "Let's try this", and he put this other guitar on my lap. It was a very primitive steelbar. He put some plastic fingerpicks on me and again he said: "Try this". That I could do and made a note that didn't sound too unpleasant. So I thought: "You'll never know"...
Did you teach yourself?
"No, I got lessons and I had a marvelous teacher. He was a great guy, Ken Near."
When Ian Tyson hired you for The Great Speckled Bird, what did he have in mind? Had he been in California to see Gram Parsons? What made him wanna do something like country rock?
"He and Sylvia were coming to a fork in the road musically, folk singing wasn't the same as it used to be in previous years and he was interested in writing different tunes.
The folk thing drove him crazy after a while and he heard Crosby, Stills and Nash; that album really knocked him out. That really flipped him. Thinking we might sing along with those guys, maybe.
But I can't speak for him of course, but that might have been it. But he came up with the idea of assembling a bunch of rock singers and he thought I could be the one for him, because I was young and did what I was told. Probably not quite, but I worked with him and I owe Ian Tyson a lot. And Amos Garrett played guitar as he did on Maria Muldaur's "Midnight on the Oasis", famous part, that was him and I learned a great deal of guitar playing and being in a band, how to behave in general from him."
Why did Ian quit The Great Speckled Bird (after one album)?
"Well, I quit the band, I played like a house on fire when I heard the rumour that Amos was leaving and for that was: That's it, I'm done. When Amos was gone, I had enough. And I was looking for something else to do so it turned out to be that we played this gig, one of the last ones we played together, the famous train across Canada, where Ian and Sylvia got us on, called "The Festival Express", which had Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Buddy Guy, Sha Na Na, Tom Rush... an unbelievable amount of people. So Jerry Garcia and the New Riders were looking for a replacement for Jerry (Garcia played steelguitar for the New Riders in the beginning when they were opening for the Dead, and also on their first album) and they said: "Why don't you ask him?"
I don't recall anybody asking me that time in 1970, but they called me a few months later and said: "Hook up".
Amos was leaving and I was hooking up with the New Riders and the Grateful Dead, and that was fine with me."
So you joined the New Riders. Tell me how it was to open for the Dead, what you've done
"First it was all very 'family'. Back in those days we were all swarming around the stage while either band was playing, so it was like... very comfortable. It was mind expanding."
I first heard Garcia when I was with Ronnie Hawkins, I heard the Dead and it was terrible, I even walked out of the concert. And two years later I heard them and it was like .... these guys have been working and it's wonderful.I had a great deal of fun playing with and listening to them.
A steeler from Holland (Johan Janssen, ex Canyon Drive Band) once said that Jerry Garcia was an unusual steelguitar player. What do you think of that?
That's one way of putting it.He had a pretty mediocre technique but consider that, his imagination was at work. When you listen to Teach your children, I don't know how many takes he did on that song, it was ridiculous. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were drawing straws to see who'd have him shot. He would pick a note from here, two from there and marry them up in a mix so he did a great amount of work. His mind worked a little different from his fingers but that was Garcia.
You stayed with The New Riders for eleven years. What changed through the years and why did you leave?
What made me leave was that there weren' anymore songs written in there, and nothing original that worked. They started covering tunes and I wasn't interested in that. It was going backwards.
I guess you're talking about the MCA deal?
You're right. The MCA deal didn't bring the best New Riders albums. They lacked inspiration. I'd rather put my teeth in something original that I could do some work with. I was glad to do the other stuff too but as a carreer I wasn't going anywhere. So I wanted something different, something new. A lot more rock 'n' roll and I did.
What have you been doing after leaving The Riders?
What I have been doing after that? Sobering up. Until 1989 actually.
But in between you played on Tom Russell's Heart on a sleeve.
Yeah, right. I did something on that album. I came to New York in 1984 or 1985 and ran into Tom and he asked me to play on a couple of songs.
Why did you move from California to New York, to mee same place, crowded, crimes . What was the difference to you?
Whatever the town is, wherever the work is, that's all. I don't care if it's San Francisco, New York or Los Angeles. I would prefer the beauty of Frisco over LA but because of Leslie I prefer New York of any place. But if I had to go to Las Vegas to work, that's where I will go. Work a week in Nashville, work two weeks in ...
Let's get back to the New Riders. What was the wierdest place you played?
We played from hangars, airplane hangars, to the Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood Palace, UCLA, Stanford, all sorts of strange places, the train was very weird to be on and work from. Carnegie Hall was a strange one, and I do remember going to this place outside of London on the 1972 European tour on a mansion, where this guy had a soccerfield and a cricketfield in his garden. But we wanted to play baseball, all crewmambers being from Oregon and LA and wanted to play slow-pitch baseball, but in his heart he couldn't have us play baseball on a cricketfield, because to him that was holy ground. Baseball wasn't the real thing to him. He took us to the place where we should play and we passed a part of the house that was originally an 11th century chapel, and we got to play in there and that was strange too.
John Beland once told me that everybody wanted to see the countryrock bands but nobody bought the albums and that caused the end of countryrock. What do you think?
Well, you really have to be a succesful group, you gotta stick together and not feel the financial pinch too much, you have to be able to tour a lot and sell a lot of albums, that's all part of the formula. And yes, that might be a good observation but I can't think of that on a historical level when such things happen, but he may be right.
Nevertheless , I think the seventies were the most creative years in American music. Look at all the country rock bands, all have their own style : compare the New Riders with the Amazing Rhythm Aces , Pure Prairie League, Eagles, Gram and the Flying Burrito Bros or Commander Cody. They were all so different and look what's left now.
OK, but to me it's the sixties with the most creative band that ever existed and that was the Beatles. I was just a kid when I heard The White Album... Have you ever heard two Beatles tunes that were the same? Go back and think, listen from I wanna hold your hand to Live and let die... Where did they ever come up with this stuff? To me that started it all off, right there. When I was a kid I had a steelguitar with a head full of ideas and no place to go. I wasn't even sure of what ideas I had but I was sure that I wasn't gonna play trainwhistles for someone on a daily basis. That's no fun, no life, no future, no nothong in that. And it wasn't until Bob Dylan's Like a rolling stone was released that I thought: there's a place out there and I didn't know where but I knew there was a place. That was a hallmark to a certain point, and another one was Big Pink by The Band. And none of that stuff I was playing but it pushed me, and launched me into the freedom, that kind of ideas. You don't have to play trainwhistles, that western swing, those steelguitar instrumentals, you don't have to do those damned things, just do whatever you feel you wanna do.
Is that the reason behind your unique style? Because I can pick you out between a million steelguitar players (along with Sneaky Pete). If I listen to Brooklyn Cowboys with my eyes closed, I hear The New Riders and besides Dawson's voice and songs you made the Riders what they were.
We knew that. They were very proud of getting a hold of me in the first place. When I talk about John Dawson and David Nelson they are like brothers. They took care of me in the beginning and we also had a lot of fun together, we did a lot of great work together and had a ball. But Dawson and Nelson were always proud of my playing and what I added to the band, and how I made things fit. But we started to get reviews that favored the steelguitar and boo-ed the rest of the guys. It was embarrassing and not fun. When I walked off stage with the guys I knew what we had done; if we sucked, we sucked. And if we hit a good one it was a great night. I didn't need someone to tell me. I knew I played great and I knew Nelson did so I didn't need someone to tell us.
Although you don't like covers; the ultimate version of Dead Flowers is on Home, home on the road and finally on CD.
Home, home on the road has as much to do with Garcia as with us in the band. We came off of an eight-week tour and we took the Sausalito Record Plant truck, that followed us everywhere, for the live recordings and when we came back we were burned out, so we took a few weeks off, and we had this closet full with all the tapes, and no one had the stomach to go in and do something with them. We were so fed up that we could have taken a ten year vacation.
But, as nobody was doing anything, I called Garcia and asked if he could help us and he said: "No, I don't wanna be part of that anymore, there's so much shit going on with the Dead." He was doing funny about it, but it was true, he really didn't have the time. But I really got to him and said: "I only want to book some time in the studio and listen to what we'e got. We don't have any use of this, so listen to what we've got and pick what you think is good and throw away the garbage and give us a push, give us something we can work with and I said : After all Jerry, it's your God damned band, you started this thing." And he finally said OK. So we booked some time and him and me listened to some stuff after he already picked it over, then Nelson came in and made some real great decisions and I thought, that's the way we gotta pick some tunes.
A little later Skip Battin came. Was that good or bad in your opinion?
At first I was against him. I thought Skip's stuff was all kind of goofy stuff anyway but I was way behind. I hadn't caught up with his songs yet.I was still hanging on Torbert's way of doing things, you know. But after a year I started to like the stuff he was coming up with, real good. He was really an assett but then two years later he said: I have to leave the band, I wanna go back to LA. And we said: "Fine man, see you later." And that gave us the oportunity to find another great bassplayer.
Someone once told me that during Skip's last time withe New Riders he kept his songs for the Burritos where he'd gone to?
I don't think he ever felt that he was writing what was New Riders stuff. I think he never felt comfortable writing what we considered New Riders stuff and I'm sure that I helped with that impression but he stayed long enough and made us sounds great.. doing some neat stuff so we appreciated what Skip did.
What did you do for Stir Fried?
I played gigs with them for four and a half years but the point is that I'm an independant player; I'm not anybody's sideman. I'm making an agreement with someone for a job and that' s what I did with them and other groups.
What kinda music is Stir Fried in America?
Kinda New Orleans type, Louisiana feel to cajun in some ways, jam bands stuff in other ways and even funk because of the drummer.
Of course there's an audience for any kind of music in New York but how about for instance the Midwest?
Not really. I was supposed to be the drawer because of all New Riders affiliated things and the New Riders fan base.
How did you get involved with The Brooklyn Cowboys?
It was at a Stir Fried gig that Fred came one night and started talking about a group he was thinking of; writing songs and co-writing with Walter. He asked if I would be interested and I said yes. Just start playing and I'll jump in. And after Stir Fried crashed I walked into a Brooklyn Cowboys session, a fairly easy transition.
What happened to Stir Fried?
A few of them work some jobs. As a duo or something like that but no band, all done.
You've done some production work. Is that what you'd like to do if you're not on the road?
Well, I can't get involved in that, I mainly leave that up to the producer, but if the producer isn't any good and there are difficulties in understanding the concept I'm glad to lean a helping hand but I don't wanna be a full-time producer, that would just eat me alive because I don't have the patience for something like that.
But look at Roscoe Ambel. He does a lot of production work but also works on the road.
Maybe so but I'm more of a roadplayer/performer than sitting in a studio for endless hours. For the mixing of the Brooklyn Cowboys album I heard enough in ten minutes each song, everything more I was bored. They were changing bits here and there, all stuff I don't have the patience for.
So we're looking forward to the next album?
Yeah, and it'll be called Dodging bullets and it'll blow you away.
Did I forget to ask something?
No, you did not. Thanks for your interest.
Of course the pleasure was all mine