Although he started his musical career playing folk and bluegrass music (most notably as a member of The Wildwood Boys with Jerry Garcia) Nelson is possibly best known as one of the original members of psychedelic country rock band the New Riders of the Purple Sage. After playing lead guitar with the New Riders from the late sixties until the early 1980s, Nelson left the band to pursue other musical opportunities which included a stint on Broadway as a member of the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band and some time touring with Al Rapone and the Zydeco Express.In the mid 1990s, Nelson formed his own group, the critically acclaimed David Nelson Band (aka DNB), whose original members included Bill Laymon (New Riders, Jefferson Starship,Harmony Grits, Gypsy Cowboy Band) on bass, Barry Sless (Cowboy Jazz, Phil Lesh and Friends, Kingfish) on lead and pedal steel guitar, Michael “Mookie” Siegel (Kingfish, Phil Lesh and Friends, Kettle Joe’s Psychedelic Swamp Revue) on keyboards and accordion, and Arthur Steinhorn (Cowboy Jazz) on drums. Later on, drumming duties were shared by Charlie Crane, Greg Anton (Zero) and Jimmy Sanchez (Flying Other Brothers). Currently working under the name David Nelson Band, the lineup now includes Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship, Hot Tuna, Rod Stewart) on bass and keyboards, and John Molo (Phil Lesh & Friends, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, John Fogerty) on drums.Along with noted steel player Buddy Cage and guitarist Michael Falzarano, Nelson re-formed The New Riders of the Purple Sage in 2005. This band is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity, due not only to the veteran performers who front the band but because of the energy provided by drummer Johnny Markowski (Stir Fried) and Ronnie Penque (Ripple, Neon Gods) on bass.
In addition to NRPS, Nelson still performs with his own group the David Nelson Band as well as with The Papermill Creek Rounders, a bluegrass group he co-founded with his long-time friend, Lowell “Banana” Levenger (formerly of The Youngbloods).
During the summer of 2006, Nelson was asked to contribute to an album of Grateful Dead songs being made in Nashville by Jesse McReynolds. While in Nashville for the recording sessions, Nelson appeared on the Grand Ol’ Opry and played “Ripple,” the first-ever Grateful Dead song to be performed on the Opry.
In addition to his work in his own bands, Nelson has performed as a guest artist on recordings by many other artists, including three Grateful Dead albums: Aoxomoxoa, Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty. He is well known as the lead singer on The New Riders of the Purple Sage’s 1973 countercultural anthem, “Panama Red”.