By Andrew Gilhooley / 411
There are bands that claim long musical histories, and then there is the Riders of the Purple Sage. Formed in 1936 and named after the famous Zane Grey western novel, the Riders have become a true legend in Western music. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, their leader and founding member, Buck Page, now age 79, is still fronting the band, singing and playing his Gretsch arch-top guitar with as much power and vitality as ever.
The story of western music’s most enduring band began on Saint Patrick’s Day 1936 in Lost Cabin, Wyo. Thirteen-year-old Page picked up a guitar and began to play. Already working long, hard days on the family farm during the Great Depression, Page found he could bring in some extra cash to help make ends meet by playing music.
A few months later, he formed a band, which he called the Riders of the Purple Sage. Soon the Riders relocated to Pittsburgh and landed a regular gig on national radio. Playing a one-hour show five days a week, the band quickly achieved coast-to-coast fame and moved to New York, where in 1940 it got a gig at the Village Barn, the nation’s top club for western music. During the stay in New York, some Riders’ songs, such as “Ghost Riders in the Sky” “Blue Shadows on the Trail” and “Cool, Clear Water,” became classics of their genre.
From that point on, the Riders of the Purple Sage had its niche firmly carved in western music. Audiences loved the band’s energy and humor, and Page’s authentic compositions (he is still to this day a practicing horse rancher) captured their imaginations with tales of cowboy life.
In an interview Page once remarked that country music today “has too much rock, too many hats and too many ‘she-done-me-wrong’ songs.” By comparison, the appeal of the Riders has often been said to be its combination of old and new songs, telling stories about both the modern day cowboy and the way things used to be.
As well as working with the band, Page is an accomplished actor with more than 200 movie and TV appearances to his credit. He appeared in “Spartacus” and ‘A Star is Born” among others, and contributed lead guitar to the theme music of the much loved western TV series “Bonanza.”
“I worked with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and many of the great singing cowboys,” he said.
He also designed a guitar amplifier for Willie Nelson and plays a grand total of 21 musical instruments. Little wonder the North American Country Music Association presented him with its Country/Western Living Legend Award in March 2001.
The line-up of the Riders of the Purple Sage features some of country music’s top instrumentalists.
The band will make two appearances in the area. It’ll be at Henflings in Ben Lomond on Thursday then at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley on Friday Then the band heads to the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento for the weekend, showing that even after more than 60 years in the music business, Buck Page is still a long way from hanging up his spurs.
First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, May 30, 2002
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