Poco was one of the greatest live bands of the early ‘70s. Powered by angelic high harmonies, poppy upbeat songs full of lyrical twists and turns, and Rusty Young’s remarkable pedal steel guitar playing, the group didn’t sell tons of records at first, but it did ignite audiences from Boston to Boulder to LA.
“I couldn’t wait to go onstage,” Young told me a couple of weeks ago, “because I didn’t think there was any other act that could stand up to us.”
He’ll be here Sunday night when Poco is joined by current editions of Firefall and Pure Prairie League for a “Legends of Country Rock” concert at the Ferguson Center for the Arts. It’s an appropriate label for Poco. They were among the inventors of the genre when they first came together in 1968.
“There was a lot of that going on at the time in LA,” Young remembered, “but I think Poco galvanized it. Linda Ronstadt said that the first night we played the Troubadour was the explosion in everyone’s mind of country-rock. We were kinda the catalyst. Everyone was experimenting and thinking about it, but when they saw us do it that first night, they went, ‘Oh yeh, this is something that really works.’”
It was the dissolution of Buffalo Springfield that provided the prod for the creation of Poco (originally called Pogo). Richie Furay had been a charter member of Springfield along with Stephen Stills and Neil Young (no relation to Rusty), and Jim Messina had come in later. On the band’s third and final album, Last Time Around, Furay brought in Coloradoan Rusty Young to play pedal steel on one of his songs, “Kind Woman.” When Furay and Messina decided to start their own band mixing rock and country, they invited Rusty to join them.
“That was the reason Jimmy and Richie brought me into the band” he said. “I played banjo and mandolin and dobro and pedal steel guitar, all these country instruments. And that was the thought right from the get-go.
“When we started off, what we talked about was that we wanted to take the elements of country music—like Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, they were really a country-rock band. The original idea was to take country music instruments, but use rock-n-roll melodies, chords and lyrics to meld the best of rock-n-roll and country. We thought that would be something really special. That was our goal.”
It turned out to be something special indeed. But radio programmers didn’t get it, calling the band “too country for rock” and “too rock for country.” So while they built a sizable fan base with albums and live shows, early singles like “You Better Think Twice,” “C’mon” and “A Good Feelin’ to Know” stalled in the bottom half of the Top 40. Messina left in 1971 and went on to huge success with Loggins & Messina.
“Jimmy and Richie always butted heads because they’re both ‘in-charge’ people,” Young explained. “You can’t have two guys wanting to be in control of everything in the same band. It was really Richie’s band, but at the same time, Jimmy produced the records. They should have been partners, but it was difficult for them to do that.”
When Messina departed, he was replaced by Paul Cotton, a guitarist and songwriter who had released two albums with a band called Illinois Speed Press. Cotton brought a harder rock edge and a strong bottom end to the trademark harmonies of Furay, bassist Timothy B. Schmidt and drummer George Grantham. But when Furay left in 1973, fans wondered if Poco could carry on.
“It was a difficult time,” Young recalled. “If you really want to know the truth, David Geffen signed Richie to do another supergroup [Souther-Hillman-Furay Band]. Geffen wanted Poco to stop so that Richie could take the whole Poco audience with him. So he did things behind the scene to try and end the band. He called our booking agent and told him that if he ever booked another show with Poco, he would pull all his acts. Fortunately our agent told him where to go and there were people who stood up for us, or the band would have probably ended.”
The remaining quartet carried on. But Schmidt’s departure four years later to join The Eagles and Grantham’s exit shortly thereafter looked like the end of the road for the Poco brand. Instead, Young and Cotton regrouped to produce their most successful album ever, Legend.
“That’s the ironic thing,” Young said. “In 1978, it was just me and Paul, and the label really wasn’t interested in us making a record. But our managers said, ‘Why don’t you just listen to them? They’ll play you four or five songs and if you’re not interested, you can go ahead and let us go.’
“The label people came down and we played ‘Crazy Love’ and ‘Heart of the Night,’ ‘Spellbound’ and a couple of other songs, and they went, ‘We’ll make a record.’ The funny thing is that through all the years, I didn’t sing. I wasn’t a writer until Richie left the band. And for the band to have its first million selling record and first number one hit be a song that I wrote and sang is really ironic, you know? We sold a couple of million records on that, and that’s the reason we’re around today.”
Rusty Young and Paul Cotton have remained friends and musical playmates for 35 years. Though the band was inactive from the mid ‘80s through the early ‘90s except for a one-album reunion tour of the original lineup, demand for their music began to increase as mainstream country music took on more of the trappings of country-rock:
“An old manager of ours called me up and said, ‘I’m getting a lot of calls for Poco.’ And I said, ‘It’s just me, but I could call Paul.
“We’re playing almost more shows than I can deal with this year; I was home maybe four days in the last two months. And the band is as good as any Poco band. We’re all grown up now. Paul jokes that we’ve been together longer than any of our marriages!”
In many ways, country music has become what Poco was doing way back when.
“That’s really true,” Young agreed. “The ironic thing is that in 1985, after Legend sold millions of records, they wanted Paul and me to go to Nashville and make a country record with the Nashville label of MCA. So we went there, and the first thing Jimmy Bowen, the head of the label, said was, ‘In country music, you can’t have drums where you can hear them; you can’t have fuzztone guitars; you can’t have more than one lead singer.
“Today when you listen to country music, it’s the same as rock-n-roll. The only difference is they have a hillbilly singer.”
copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.