The Rusty Young (Poco) Interview
I remember Poco as an antidote to the serious rock poets and hard core proto metal that I was immersed in in my teen years. In between letting my soul wander through the doors of perception with Jim Morrison, or bouncing off the wall with Grand Funk Railroad, I always found my way to those delightful Poco albums, and their toe-tapping pop energy filtered through old country and blue jean rock. This was the height of the Vietnam War and the country was politically and emotionally splintered. It was a tough time and Poco wasn't about to get wound up in the middle of it. They loved to play, entertain and spread a little cheer and they were damned good at it. And unlike most bands I liked back then, Poco's earnest, but never self-serious musicianship was all they had. No pretty faces or political revelations. No LSD induced insights. Just five (and later four) guys plugged in and singing their hearts out. Boy, could they sing! If the Beach Boys had listened to a lot more Ernest Tubb and Ray Price and if they had had the reverence for pedal steel guitars that they did for surfboards, I'll bet they'd have sounded like Poco. Like The Beach Boys, Poco has been around an awful long time. But let's allow sole original member Rusty Young to recollect one of the band's more critical junctures.
"I don't really remember much about it to be honest. Was that the first record we did without Richie?" What I had thought would be a smart question just blew up in my face. "I mean if you're asking me to recall the stuff we recorded 30 years ago, I'm afraid I'm not going to be much help."
Young was trying to recall the 1974 album Cantamos -- at my request of course. "You see, we rehearsed songs for days and played them over and over again in the studio. Then we heard them played back over and over again. You learn to hate pretty much everything for awhile, and then you forget the whole experience. On purpose."I 've been in the studio myself, and therefore I can identify. But this stuff is, um "classic," so surely you can't forget those great moments?? "Well, yeah you can," he quickly replies. "For the most part, I remember some of the songs and how to play 'em. All the other stuff has long since gone by the wayside."
It's a nice problem to have. Poco has made 20 albums, most of them on major labels of the time, ABC/MCA, Epic (now Sony) RCA and Atlantic. They toured relentlessly but only had three real hits. They are best known now, not for being stalwart road warriors who pioneered a gritty version of pop fueled country music, but for being a farm system for other more successful acts. Like the Eagles, Loggins and Messina and Souther, Hillman Furay. No less than two bassists -- Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmit -- have been pulled from Poco to populate the Hotel California house band. Guitarist Jim Messina hooked up with Kenny Loggins for a string of platinum records in the 70's. The band's songwriting wunderkind, Richie Furay bolted to join the short lived SHF supergroup and pick up a monstrous paycheck from record mogul David Geffen. Drummer George Grantham was out of the lineup to play with Ricky Skaggs when Skaggs dominated the country charts in the mid 80's.
Poco, itself, was seen as supergroup when it formed in 1968. Furay and Messina had completed a chaotic two year run in Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young and Stephen Stills. The band's original lineup only lasted halfway through the first record. Meisner became restless and briefly joined up with the late Ricky Nelson's Stone Canyon Band, before accepting an invitation to jam with two members of Linda Ronstadt's band: Glenn Frey and Don Henley. From there, the Eagles germinated. The revolving door continued and Poco was seen as one of those dedicated, but hard luck outfits that never lived up to its promise. "It is too bad you don't get a check when someone steals your bass player. That'd set us all up, I'm sure," Young laughs.
In 1978, with Meisner, Messina, Furay and Schmit having all departed -- one record company having given up on them and another label going south -- it would have been easy to hang it up. But that was never on Young's mind. "I can honestly say I never thought about quitting. Not at all. Paul (Cotton, the band's current guitarist) and I were and are best friends, and we knew we'd keep playing. We had plenty of new songs and people still showed up to hear us play, so what else were we going to do? It never crossed my mind to give up."
That combination of perserverance and optomism belies the essence of Poco's music. It's also the only thing that has kept Poco coming back after a series of frustrations that would have derailed most other bands. In 1979, with MCA having taken over their old ABC label, the band decided to freshen up their image and lean more heavily on their pop roots. The result was LEGEND, the record that broke Poco wide open. Young's own "Crazy Love" went to Number One, and the follow up, Cotton's "Heart Of The Night " also grazed the Top 10. Plus, the beefy guitar licks of title track introduced Poco to FM album rock audiences who were unimpressed with LEGEND's two easy listening style singles. Poco was selling records like the proverbial hotcakes and their manager's phone wouldn't stop ringing. "I love that record," Young says in hindsight. "Not just because it was a hit, either. All the well-known songwriters had left the band. I was just getting started as a composer. I'd lived in the shadow of some great writers who had not brought us a real hit. Now after everything and all the work and faded hopes I had one, and so did Paul. That's a wonderful record. It reveals everything we're good at." In 1980,as if to show they could not be held captive by record sales or radio play, the band tapped Heart producer Mike Flicker to nurture the slick, aggressive rock sound of UNDER THE GUN. Without a hit single, it used up the momentum created by LEGEND 's multi-platinum success and Poco settled in for a few years of less country oriented records and comfortable, but hardly superstar, status.
The disco era faded and as the mirror-gazing 80's dawned, Poco's simple, straightforward sound was soon on the Billboard back burner. Remember, Rusty Young plays pedal steel, mandolin and banjo. Is there any time when those instruments seem more out of place than the heyday of Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and Prince? "Until the roots country revival came around in the mid 80's, there wasn't much room for what we were doing. But we sold a fair amount of records and still had plenty of work. "The band did two records on Atlantic in that period that gave a few inches with the bouncy synthesized sound of the times. Yeah, we did what we thought we had to. I don't regret it and there are some good songs there, but it's not what Poco is really about." The band soldiered on, without a label, for a few years of touring.
Despite the fact that the original Poco lineup had been together barely a year and never managed to complete a record, reunion fever was dawning on a stagnant music business. In 1989, Poco was among the first to answer the call. RCA wanted to assemble the complete 1968 band for a record."I was a bit skeptical, not because I didn't want to do it, but I wondered who would show up. When we met to talk about the idea we all decided that unless everyone was on board, we wouldn't do it. No exceptions." With all of the musical firepower aboard, the LEGACY album could have been a micro-managed mess. "Paul was gone, of course, but it was great. We made a really good record with Meisner, Messina and Furay, George (Grantham) and I all working together. It didn't get the response I thought it deserved and that was a disappointment. But that record shows a cross-section of how rich this band was. Randy from the Eagles, Jimmy from L&M, and Richie's solo material. I'd had a couple of hits by then, so how could you ask for more?" LEGACY was awarded a gold record, which is peanuts these days, but it outsold anything Poco had done in 10 years. However, all was not well. "I found out that some of the things that caused trouble in 1968, were still causing trouble in 1989. Enough said about that." So, the experiment was over and everyone went back to their respective careers. And Poco took its first real hiatus. But not for long.
"Promoters kept calling and wondering if we'd be on the road. As long as I was there to sing 'Crazy Love' and Paul was there for 'Heart Of The Night,' they didn't care who we had with us." So, back on the job they went. In the interim, Cotton took some time off for some solo work and Jack Sundrud, a well-known Nashville songwriter, took Cotton's place. After concentrating on his own songwriting career, he has returned to Poco, this time as bassist. George Grantham also decided to answer what Young says is "his rightful calling. Something important is missing in this band without George."
As is true with so many classic rockers, the Internet has been a new lease on life to bands like Poco. They released a new CD in November 2002, but don't look for it in your local CD retailers just yet. RUNNING HORSE has been sold online exclusively through the band's web site (www.poconut.com) and a few other sites. "I never would have dreamed I'd be doing this in 2003. The major labels are the middleman and we've managed to go around them. We sell a certain number of discs online, and when it reaches a certain level..." As it is just about to do, Young assures me. "...We get a distribution deal and get it in stores, where it actually takes on a second life, so to speak. We don't need to sell many to make back our money. That's a far cry from the way it used to be." A fact that clearly pleases this veteran of four major labels. "We didn't make a penny from LEGACY. It was all soaked up by expenses. That's just ridiculous."
RUNNING HORSE, Young believes, "is a record any Poco fan should appreciate. It's got all the trademark things that have always made Poco great." But Young has one complaint with it that, usually, only musicians would understand. "It's beautifully produced by Mike Clute. He's been a great Nashville producer for years. We love his work..." You can hear the 'but' coming. "...If I had one problem with it...it's that its too perfect. Everything is exactly where it should be. If a drum hit was slightly off the beat or a vocal didn't quite get the note, we can fix it in seconds." That's a problem, Rusty? Doesn't a CD buying public expect technical excellence? "Yeah, I know and that's great but I'm talking from a musician's point. Next time we're going to do something looser and funkier." Maybe a live record? "Yeah, that could be it. Although we still have lots of new material to lay down."
To the long time Poco fan (like myself) RUNNING HORSE seems too middle of the road. Nice craftsmanship and all, but lacking those bursts of Cotton's snarling Gretsch White Falcon ("He doesn't play that anymore. He knows what airlines do with guitars and that's far too valuable an instrument to put into a baggage hold") and Young's overdriven pedal steel swirling through the Leslie cabinets; the stuff that made the 1971 live album DELIVERIN' such a "must have" disc. There's no high energy sing-alongs like "Good Feelin' To Know"-- possibly the best "should've been a hit " of the 70's. Young isn't fazed by my offering that I'm a little disappointed in RUNNING HORSE. "We don't set out to do a rockin' album or a mellow album. We just write what we write and play it best we can. But I'll say it's been a long time since I've had so much fun on a record. This band is as good as Poco has ever sounded." Really? That memory has already been tested once today, Rusty.
Speaking of how good Poco sounds, and thinking about the esteemed members it's had in its ranks, what's it like touring in 21st century as opposed to the 1970's? "Oh man, it's night and day. We used to load up 10 guitars, tons of drums and five amps into a truck and drive everywhere. Not now. We fly everywhere we go and that means traveling a lot lighter. You can't take a Leslie cabinet (that huge monolith with the rotating speakers generally associated with a Hammond organ) on a 757." That also means that since Young plays six instruments, some compromises must be made. "Yeah, I don't take a mandolin, banjo and resonator any where. I wish I could -- I love playing them. I just carry two road guitars." Less valuable models that Young says "'won't hurl me into a major depression if they get busted, as they eventually always do." They rent backline (drums and amps) at each stop. Just as the equipment and transportation has changed, so have the way tours are packaged and booked, and Young is quite happy about that. "Back then we never knew who'd we'd be on a bill with. We toured with (progressive rock icons) Yes. One night we opened for Mountain (a notoriously loud heavy rock band fronted by 400-pound guitarist Leslie West ). The thinking was that fans of both bands would show up, and just the opposite happened. Their fans hated us and ours left as soon as we played. It was an awful combination. Now, when we play with other acts it's like America, Firefall, Pure Prairie League…bands we have a lot in common with. They are great people, too."
Young adds that touring is much less stressful than it used to be;better hotels, much less time away from home and the days of the "entourage" and all its associated follies are long gone. "But there are some elements to the old tours I do miss." Uh huh. So, just how well do you remember Poco way back then, Rusty? "OK, I get you," he chuckles. "I may not remember making a lot of those records, but I remember when we played well and when we didn't." Then he pauses a second and adds: "More or less" and laughs again.
Like I said, Poco was the antidote for seriousness and the gloominess of the times. Looks like they still are…
POCO SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
on EPIC Records:
on MCA Records:
on Atlantic Records:
on RCA Records:
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