By Lee Zimmerman
Born from the wreckage of Buffalo Springfield, Poco can rightly claim the distinction of being among the first bands to cross over from rock to country.
While the term Americana is bandied about freely these days, in 1968, the idea of a group melding down-home sentiments with an upbeat attitude was somewhat revolutionary.
That’s when Poco — consisting of pedal steel player Rusty Young, singer and guitarist Richie Furay, singer and guitarist Jim Messina, guitarist Randy Meisner and drummer George Grantham — made its bow at The Troubadour, L.A.’s trendsetting club of the day. Poco was the forerunner to bands that scaled the charts by mining populist appeal, which was something the Eagles did with particular success. (Drafting Poco alumni Meisner and Timothy B. Schmit probably didn’t hurt the Eagles, either.)
Over the years, Poco’s members —including veteran singer-guitarist Paul Cotton — came and went. That left Young as Poco’s sole constant. Young was around for the band’s chart successes with songs including “Crazy Love” and “Heart of the Night.” Young was there to enjoy the attention of the band’s devoted fanbase, known as Poconuts, all of these years. Young was at every single gig Poco has played since its inception. And he was there with singer Jack Sundrud, drummer George Lawrence and keyboardist Michael Webb when Poco recorded its latest studio album, 2013’s “All Fired Up” — which will also be its last.
GOLDMINE: Rusty, you’ve been with Poco for 45 years now, ever since the beginning …
RUSTY YOUNG: It’s been 45 years. And I don’t know if you know this or not, but I’m retiring.
RY: Yes, our last shows are in February 2014. I have a book I’ve been working on for about 10 years that I really, really want to finish, and I can’t do it and tour like we do and do the other things that we do. So I’m going to take off starting in March and work on the book. We live in the Mark Twain Natural Forest here in southwest Missouri, and it’s beautiful. We built a log home here, and it’s very, very comfortable and I’m going to just give it a break.
GM: Can we assume the book is your memoir about Poco?
RY: Yeah, it is. It’s about what happened during those years. A lot of the most interesting stuff is about the ’70s. The business wasn’t like it is now. People didn’t have all the security around them. You’d be able to hang out backstage. You’d be able to walk in the studio and watch Dean Martin or Barbra Streisand record, as well as the other rock ’n’ roll acts like Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks (chuckles) or Stevie Wonder. So it’s all these stories about things that I think of as life lessons that I learned in music. We played with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Eric Clapton … I have a great Keith Moon story, and Elton John, when he was an opening act, and Peter Frampton. So all these anecdotes have little lessons in them, and if I can pass that on, it would be nice. Pretty much every book I’ve read, they sugarcoat things so much, and I decided I didn’t want to do that. I’m probably going to make a lot of enemies, but I’m intent on telling it like it really is. It’s almost finished, so it will probably take me only a couple of months to wrap it up.
GM: You were there at a crucial juncture, prior to Poco’s formation, in the final throes of Buffalo Springfield. Was that as divisive a time as its been described? What do remember of those sessions that they hired you to play on?
RY: I played on a song called “Kind Woman,” and because we got the notion that we wanted to start our band, I hung out and was there for a lot of it. Anytime you have Neil Young involved in anything, there’s going to be chaos. And there was chaos then, and there will continue to be as long as Neil Young is involved in it, I suspect. They had to finish that record, because they were contracted to Atlantic Records to give them one more album, and so they had to do it. But nobody really wanted to, I don’t think. I certainly got that impression. And Neil, just like he did with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, when he recorded with them, he would go off and do his own thing with his own musicians and just brought it in and said, “Here it is.” That’s the way he works — at least with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. So he wasn’t there. I only saw him one day when he came in and heard the final mix on “Kind Woman.” Stephen (Stills) was in a studio down the hall doing his stuff by himself, and Richie (Furay) and Jimmy (Messina) were by themselves working on their material. David Crosby was across the hall, producing Joni Mitchell’s first album, so there was a lot of interaction between those guys. It was an interesting time, yeah.
GM: Was your original intention to carry on with the Springfield’s legacy, but with the country-rock element?
RY: Richie had done it with “A Child’s Claim to Fame” and “Kind Woman.” That was the country part of the Springfield where Neil and Stephen were way more rock ’n’ roll. You have to remember that in 1969, there weren’t synthesizers, so if you actually wanted a certain sound, you had to have a real musician playing. So that’s why I got involved — because I could play steel guitar and Dobro and banjo and mandolin, and pretty much all the country instruments except for fiddle. So I added color to Richie’s country-rock songs, and that was the whole idea, to use country-sounding instruments. Also, I pushed the envelope on steel guitar, playing it with a fuzz tone, because nobody was doing that, and playing it through a Leslie speaker like an organ, and a lot of people thought I was playing an organ, because they didn’t realize I was playing a steel guitar. So we were pushing the envelope in lots of different ways, instrumentally and musically overall.
GM: Today, the term Americana is such a widely used term, but Poco was really the pioneer of that whole genre, along with the latter Byrds and the Burrito Brothers. Do you think that Poco truly got credit for that?
RY: Not really. It’s confusing. I find that with journalists, if someone tells a journalist something, whether it’s true or not and a journalist writes it down, and other journalists borrow it from that journalist, pretty soon, if a lie is told enough times then it becomes the truth. So the whole thing about Gram Parsons and The Byrds becoming the whole country-rock band … It’s just not really so. But you kind of had to be there to understand how that whole notion got started. I think things went the way they were supposed to go. We did have a big hit in 1978, and if it hadn’t been for Richie leaving the band, and Timmy leaving the band, and Jimmy leaving the band, I never would have been a songwriter or a singer, so those things had to happen for my life to be the life it is. So I’m really pleased.
GM: What was it like when Richie, in particular, left the band? That must have been traumatic, no?
RY: When Richie left the band, we flew out from Colorado to Los Angeles and we had a meeting in David Geffen’s office. I heard that Richie was leaving the band and he was going to do something with Chris Hillman, and so we pretty much knew that was going to happen. So I asked Richie, and he said, no, that wasn’t going to happen. So we fly out to this meeting with management, and Richie goes into Geffen’s office, and Geffen comes out and says, “OK, Richie’s quitting the band.” There were four of us sitting on the coach there in the waiting room, and he starts with Tim and says, “Now, Tim, you write songs and sing, don’t you?” And Tim says, “Yes.” So he says, “Well, don’t you worry about Richie leaving; you’ll be fine. And he looks at Paul, and he says, “You play guitar and sing and write songs, don’t you?” And Paul says, “Yes.” So he says, “Don’t you worry; you’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.” Then he looked at me and George, and he looked me in the eye, and he said, “Now, you don’t sing, and you don’t write songs, do you?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” So he said, “Well, you’re in trouble.” And that was the day I became a singer-songwriter, and if it weren’t for David Geffen saying that to me, it never would have happened, and I owe him greatly for that. And if it wasn’t for Richie quitting, I never would have done that, and my life would be totally different from what it is now.
GM: Speaking of which, what happened with Paul Cotton? He was in the lineup for a very long time.
RY: He got married, and his wife is his manager, and she decided he was better off as a solo artist.
GM: In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Poco had some chart hits with “Crazy Love” and “Heart of the Night.” Was that a deliberate plan, to remake yourselves into a radio-ready, hit-making band?
RY: No, I’ve just always written songs. What happened, in 1978 — actually the end of ’77 — Timothy left the band to join the Eagles, and of course that was a really cool thing, because how many times do you get to join a band like the Eagles? So that left me and Paul, and the record company was going to drop us. So we had written some songs — I had written “Crazy Love” and Paul had written “Heart of the Night” — and our management decided to invite the people from our label down to a rehearsal studio and we played those songs for them. We said, “These are the songs we want to record, and we think we will do well with them.” And they agreed, so we went into the studio and recorded them, and “Crazy Love” became No. 1 in Billboard for six weeks. It was our first hit record, our first gold album, our first platinum album and all that kind of stuff. The band didn’t need another singer-songwriter when Richie and Jim were in the band. My job was to play steel guitar and make the music part of it. So when my job changed, it opened up a whole lot of opportunity for me. So I liked the way things went.
GM: Were you pleased with the reunion album in ’89?
RY: It was the very beginning band, which was Jimmy, Randy Meisner, Richie Furay, Jimmy Messina, me and George. I think that it (“Legacy”) was a great record. Of all the records we’ve done, if I had to say one was overlooked — even though it went gold, I think it should have been bigger and more appreciated. On that one album, you have the Eagles via Randy Meisner; you have Loggins and Messina with Jimmy; and you have Poco with me. So here, on one album, you have three or four of the biggest bands in America that came from one band, Buffalo Springfield. These are the guys that started out playing at The Troubadour in 1968. I can’t think of another band that has that heritage. I think that was a great record that we made, and you can hear the Eagles, and you can hear Poco, and you can hear Buffalo Springfield and Loggins and Messina. You can hear all those elements in that record we made, and I think it’s a piece of history.
GM: Agreed. But out of curiosity, was there any thought at that point about doing another album or keeping the reunion going?
RY: Not really, because people don’t change. The same reason that the band didn’t make it even through the very first album we made, the same reason that it ended after that record, is that people don’t change. All the same bugaboos come flying back.
GM: And then you had that reunion gig at the Stagecoach Festival a few years back.
RY: Yeah, we did five or six shows, and that was one of them.
GM: So there was no thought given into going back into the studio at that point?
RY: No, not really. It’s that same old thing. You call up Timothy and say, “Hey can you drop that Eagles thing?” That’s not going to happen. It’s a personality thing, a love-hate thing. They love each other, but they have a hard time working together. And they all have their own thing. Richie has his family band. Jimmy’s doing well as a solo artist, and he’s doing his own thing. And Poco has been great for me over the years. But for me, it’s time to stop. I’m going to be 68 in February — 68 years old — and I think for me, it’s kind of silly to carry on. People say, “Well, look at Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney.” But the difference is, those guys have a private plane, a limo that takes them to the airport. They stay at a five-star hotel, they go down to the gig, and everything’s set up for them. I have to load up all my gear, drive to the airport, get on a Southwest Airlines flight, drive all my gear to the hotel and then drag all my gear from the hotel to the stage, spend all day setting it up, play a show, tear down all the gear, drag it back to the hotel. If I lived the life that Mick Jagger lived, then I might consider playing on further, but not with the kind of touring that we have to do.
GM: What about continuing to record? Have you ever considered doing a solo album?
RY: That’s one of the projects I just might do. I might just do a six-song EP, because I do have some songs. I love the songs on our new album, “All Fired Up.” Everyone has said it’s the best thing we’ve recorded in 25 years, and I agree. But everything has its time, and we had our time, and it was great. I just really want to end on top, and for me we are ending on top, because our band is really, really good. It’s one of the best Poco bands we’ve ever had and maybe even the best. So I feel like we’re going out on top. If the record sells 100 copies or a 100,000 copies, it’s a work I’m really proud of, and I think it’s the record to end on. It’s time. GM