By Mike Greenblatt
Rusty Young is the heart and soul of Poco. And he’s still at it. It will be Poco’s 50th Anniversary in 2018. The band that pioneered country-rock in 1968 out of the ashes of Buffalo Springfield still tours today with co-founding member Rusty Young supplying the kind of stringed steel prowess that inspired Guitar Player magazine to list him in its “Gallery of Greats” alongside Hendrix and Clapton. But it took Blue Elan Records to convince him to finally make his debut solo album. Waitin’ For The Sun is exquisitely crafted and although it is filled with contributions from some of the musicians who Young has been performing alongside since 1968 — including Eagle Timothy B. Schmit, Jim Messina, George Grantham and Richie Furay plus the current members of Poco — it is indelibly, undisputedly, decidedly and organically Rusty Young. His 10 songs, his voice (a cross between Don Henley and the late Glenn Frey) is a heretofore undiscovered instrument miraculously coming to the fore after all this time. And his compositions are so good, they’re amongst 2017’s best. People just have to hear this thing!
We spoke with the man who kick-started country-rock in his New York City hotel suite.
GOLDMINE: So might we expect a big time Poco reunion with a lot of the former members, 21 in all?
RUSTY YOUNG: I can’t say yes or no. Poco will be doing some shows with Jimmy (Messina) so that’s a start. If the other guys want to join in, great. There is talk. Everyone is talking about it. So we’ll see if it happens.
GM: Or even just one all-star, one-night-only gala at The Hollywood Bowl!
RY: That would really be a jam for the ages. Get Bernie Leadon and JD Souther too!
GM: Why not? You would do that, right?
RY: Absolutely. It would be fun. When I wrote the lines (for “My Friend”), “Times may change/You know they do/But life’s been good/For me and you/After all that we’ve been through,” I was writing about Poco but, after performing the song I realized it’s really about all of us from Buffalo Springfield, Poco and the Eagles to Loggins & Messina and also, very importantly, the audience. They’ve always been there for us. And we’ve been there for them. So yeah, that song is the most important song to me personally. I really think it has something valuable to say.
GM: I interviewed Furay and he told me the great story about how he was so sure “Good Feelin’ To Know” was going to be a huge hit but as you were on the road supporting that album, all you kept hearing on the radio was the Jackson Browne song by the Eagles, “Take It Easy.” He was so pissed!
RY: We did only one more album with Richie after that (Crazy Eyes, 1973). He was very discouraged that it wasn’t a hit because all the record people kept telling him it would be huge… and it didn’t even chart.
GM: That amazes me because it’s such a good song, maybe Furay’s greatest tune.
RY: Sure, it’s a great song. And he quit the band over it. Actually, the real reason he left is because David Geffen told him that the rest of the band “was holding him back.” It was a constant struggle for Richie. I think he had the hardest time of any one of us because he was the main Poco singer-songwriter at the time. The fact that he didn’t write a hit song weighed so heavily on him. Back then, we were a big hit on FM radio only while AM radio had only the hits. That’s where the Eagles really scored because they had hit after hit. If they couldn’t write one, they’d go to Jackson Browne, JD Souther or Jack Tempchin. They didn’t have to depend upon writing hits themselves. And they were smart enough not to be stubborn about it. Poco, on the other hand, was. We were a self-contained unit and we refused the help of outside songwriters. We never really had a big AM Radio hit until “Crazy Love.” David Geffen was managing us at the time. He was hot to put together another Crosby, Stills & Nash so he got Richie to quit just so he could put him with JD and (former Byrd Chris) Hillman in the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band so they could be Crosby, Stills & Nash…but it doesn’t work like that. Then Geffen tried to end Poco completely. He went to our booking agency and told them if they kept booking Poco, he’d pull all his acts.
GM: Why would he do that?
RY: He thought if Poco ended, Richie would take all our fans with him.
GM: How Machiavellian of him.
RY: It was not a good thing, but Richie was part of that, so it was an interesting development. But Richie didn’t do it to be mean to us or hurt us, at least I don’t think so. He had a drive to be successful. The poor guy came from a band with Neil Young and Stephen Stills. Then Jimmy left for Loggins & Messina. So you could see how these other guys who had been in Buffalo Springfield with him all went on to do really, really well. Hugely successful! And here was Poco plodding along not at all at that level. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we were doing okay, just not to the level of those other guys. He felt it deeply, deeper than any of the rest of us. I understood that. Richie always did things that he felt was best for everybody so maybe he thought by leaving, it would, indeed, be best. I don’t know.
GM: Then he found God.
RY: Yes he did. Or maybe God found him. SHF had initial success but didn’t go all the way. He’s a great guy, a real people person. He did what he felt he had to do. As it turned out, it was the very best thing he could have possibly done for me personally.
GM: How so?
RY: When he left the band… we all flew out to Los Angeles to meet with our manager David Geffen. When we got to his office, he called Richie in while the four of us were sitting on the couch. It was Timothy B., Paul Cotton, George Grantham and myself. So Geffen says to Timothy, “You write and sing, don’t you?” Timothy goes, “Yes.” Geffen explains how Richie is leaving the band so Timothy will be just fine. Then Geffen looks at Cotton and asks him the same question. Cotton says yes so Geffen explains why Richie is leaving the band and promises how Cotton “will be taken care of.” When Geffen turned his attentions to me, knowing I had already been on the cover of Guitar Player, and having been as successful as one could be playing steel, he goes, “You don’t sing or write, do you? I said no because at that time I hadn’t. He looks me right in the eye and goes, “Well, you’re in trouble.” And, y’know what? That was the day I became a singer-songwriter. So if it weren’t for that, if Richie hadn’t left, if Geffen hadn’t scared the bejesus out of me, I probably wouldn’t have been the singer-songwriter I am today. There just wouldn’t have been room in Poco for another singer-songwriter unless Richie left. So his leaving made room for me to grow as an artist. I owe Richie and David Geffen a big round of applause.
GM: Listening to your amazing vocals throughout “Waitin’ For The Sun,” despite being practically a lifelong Poco fan, I swear I do not remember hearing you having this kind of a voice!
RY: I didn’t sing in Poco until 1978. Timothy used to sing my songs for me. “Crazy Love” was actually the first time I sang.
GM: So who’s on the new album and who’s backing you on tour in support of it?
RY: It’s the guys in today’s Poco. They’re the best musicians I know. We’ve worked together long enough for them to know when I bring them a song, they know what I’m looking for. I could’ve hired session guys in New York, L.A. or Nashville but I really felt that working with Poco would give me the best chance to make the record I wanted to make. They’re all session guys anyway in Tennessee and they told me to record at the Cash Cabin, a room that has a certain feel. It’s Johnny’s old place. On the road, we do half this album and half Poco songs.
GM: I keep coming back to your voice. How in the hell did you keep this voice silent all those years? You sound like Don Henley and “Waitin’ For The Sun,” to my ears, is as good as any Eagles album.
RY: (laughs) I had great teachers. Richie has one of the best voices ever. Timothy and Paul Cotton, too. Gerry Beckley, too. All the guys in his band, America, are great friends of mind. I’ve been lucky to have known great singers my whole life.
GM: You’ve got this soulful, late-night voice of experience that no one could teach. Did you even know you had this great voice and, if so, did it not frustrate you that you weren’t using it?
RY: I believe things happen for a reason and they happen because they’re supposed to. I wasn’t a very good songwriter at the very beginning. It took me awhile to learn how to write. But I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity and the experience to make the move. You’ve got to remember back in the day, Poco was Furay’s band. He’s got a great sense of melody and he writes great songs. I love Richie’s stuff. I was so sad to see him go.
GM: But you stepped up.
RY: It opened a door, yeah.
GM: Your solo album is so good it might thrust you back into the hub of the bub. You ready for that?
RY: I really want people to hear it, so yeah. I love “Sara’s Song,” too. I wrote it for my daughter on the occasion of our father-daughter dance at her wedding. She asked me to pick a song for that dance and, like a fool, I said, “How ‘bout if I write a song?” I still can’t sing that song without crying. The first line goes, “Had my mind made up/Wasn’t gonna cry/When I walked her down the aisle/Daddy’s little girl.” But I’m an old softie. I cry at Roadrunner cartoons when the piano falls on Wile E. Cayote. I wrote this record between 4:00 and 9:00 in the morning. I’d get up in the dark with my legal pad and a strong cup of coffee, go out on my back porch and eventually the sun would rise and inspire me further. “Honey Bee” is a tribute to my grandparents who were musicians in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
GM: That’s why it sounds like a swing tune.
RY: “Down Home” is about my cabin in the woods. It’s a hard place to leave. But I’m in it for the long haul on this project.
GM: You started a new genre of music when you started Poco. Country rock didn’t exist or at least wasn’t thought of as such. Like Bill Monroe inventing bluegrass, you, sir, and your mates, invented country rock!
RY: Rick Nelson had a lot to do with that as did The Everly Brothers. But it had died out. The British Invasion killed it all off. In 1968, though, it was time for it to start again. When we used to do shows at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, in the very beginning, comedian Steve Martin was our opening act. Rick Nelson would come see us every night and he’d bring his dad Ozzie and his brother David. That’s when we got to be good friends. His band, with James Burton playing that great guitar, really jump-started country rock. That Stone Canyon Band of his were my friends in Colorado who came out to the west coast to make it big. I got Rick his steel player, Tom Brumley, a guy I knew who had just quit Buck Owens and the Buckaroos.
GM: It’s such a shame how he died. Rumor has it Rick was free-basing when his airplane went down.
RY: I know but I’ll never believe that. He was flying a DC-3 made in the 1940s.
GM: What about today’s crop of country rockers?
RY: I love Sturgill Simpson. He blows my mind. I dig Eric Church, too. I don’t like a lot of formula country stuff. But I understand the appeal. Hey, I’ve done my fair share of session work with everyone from Three Dog Night to Gladys Knight, and in Nashville these days the same musicians play on everybody’s records. That’s one reason it all sounds alike. My good friend Vince Gill and I were grousing about how real country music just doesn’t exist anymore.
GM: Except in the Americana format.
RY: Look, we’re living in an age where even James Taylor doesn’t have a record deal. It’s tough out there today. I’m just glad that someone like Van Morrison can still make records. I think he makes them just for me. Bonnie Raitt, too. God, I love that woman! I’m excited to go see Steve Earle soon. I used to love a duo called Dillard & Clark. Michael Clarke was from The Byrds and he was a fighting, gambling, crazy man! The three of us would hang out at The Troubadour with Hoyt Axton, another wild man. I remember partying with Gregg Allman and Gram Parsons, too. In fact, Gregg Allman was in Poco.
RY: Yup, Gregg Allman was in Poco at the time we were putting the band together. He lasted a few months of 1968 with us. We had Furay, Messina and myself. We needed to figure out what the band was going to be and what elements would work. I immediately called (Randy) Meisner because I had always wanted to work with him. And I had already played with drummer Grantham in Denver. So I got them to be our rhythm section. Richie, though, wanted a Stephen Stills type that he could sing with like in Buffalo Springfield. We thought of Gram Parsons but Gram had a higher calling. I wound up seeing Allman at a club called The Hullabaloo in a band called The Allman Joys. We ultimately became great friends but at the time, I invited him to join Poco. He came down and we worked out some great arrangements so Richie could have his second singer like he had in Buffalo Springfield. We kept at it with the thought of him joining but with Gregg every rehearsal would turn into a jam session.