Buck Page,
Right Place to Start
(RPS, 2005)

Today the Riders of the Purple Sage are little more than a -- literally -- colorful name from the early history of country music, rendered obscure by the more celebrated Sons of the Pioneers, at their peak home to cowboy star Roy Rogers (born Leonard Slye) and songwriting genius Bob Nolan. Probably some of you who read these words will recall, even if only hazily, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, formed in 1969 as a country-rock offshoot of the Grateful Dead and for a time its opening act. The New Riders live on in their most famous song, "Glendale Train," preserved in the repertories of various bluegrass bands over the years.

Complicating things, Riders of the Purple Sage (from the title of a novel by a once-popular writer of Western potboilers, Zane Grey) was a name that more than one band took. Buck Page, however, was with the first of them, created in 1936 as the "western" was being put into "country-western." It's a phrase still used by those who don't know that it's just "country" now, "western" having faded from Nashville's memory long ago, except marginally in the comic act Riders in the Sky.

The "western" music did not consist of authentic frontier ballads, of course. These were pop songs, sometimes mildly swing-inflected, inspired by Hollywood cowboy movies, in style more like the Mills Brothers than a rough-hewn high-plains string band. The lyrics, usually celebrations of a highly idealized vision of cowboy life, conjured up tumbling tumbleweeds, prairie moonlights, saddle pals, pretty but chaste Mexican maids and friendship between man and horse. Some songs bore more standard pop themes, "western" only in the sense that the singers happened to be wearing cowboy hats.

In recent years the genre has undergone a small renaissance on the Western poetry-and-music circuit. Nearly all of the first-generation performers are gone, of course; Rogers died in July 1998, Gene Autry in October of the same year. One of the rare survivors, Page -- who now lives in southern California -- steps forth with his first CD, an enjoyable collection of tunes from his days as a youthful Sage, with titles like "Colorado Memories," "Montana Sky" and "Ridin' on the Last Trail Home." His easy-going, weathered baritone warms western-swing numbers such as "You Pop My Corn" and "Keeper of My Heart." A wonderful small band backs him with a sensitively updated take on the old sound. There are even some unexpected bluegrass and rock touches to enliven Page's arrangement of the Stan Jones classic "Ghost Riders in the Sky."

Even if one were so inclined (and why would one want to be?), I can't imagine how one could find anything to dislike about Right Place to Start. Its ambitions are modest, and it lays no claims to anything other than what it is: a happy reminder of another time far removed from ours, and of a music that beautifully dreamed of a West that never was.

by Jerome Clark
10 June 2006

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