Onstage at the Birchmere Music Hall across the river from Washington, DC, Rusty Young had something to share. “Here we are still together,” he said with emotion in his voice, “all of us and you.”
After 50 years, the band Poco and their fans reverentially known as “Poco Nuts” gathered like they were at a class reunion, a little grayer and older but joyous as songs evoked life’s memories flashing before their eyes.
Young had a new song to celebrate called “Hello Friend,” one born out of a reunion with old Poco friends Richie Furay and Timothy B. Schmit. Young characterizes them as friends that drop in and every now and then. The song, featuring Youngs youthful voice, came out last year on his solo album “Waiting For The Sun.”
“Here we are/After all these years/Still the same/As we were back when/Oh so long ago you know/My friend”
“A lot of it is the feeling of the whole history going by while you’re playing,” Young reflected later from the log cabin he built in the Mark Twain Forest in Missouri. “At this point in my life I do it for the audience and for the fun. We’ve all grown up together. We’ve all grown old together.”
Young, who just released a new version of Poco’s seminal song “Crazy Love,” had the fortuitous experience of playing on Buffalo Springfield’s final album, Last Time Around. The band had technically disbanded. Neil Young and Stephen Stills had left. Young was asked to play on “Kind Woman” and out of the ashes of Buffalo Springfield, it led to the formation of Poco. Or as Young describes it, the fateful session that led to the beginning of Poco and what became known as California country rock.
Flash forward to the present. Young was at a show in Santa Monica with good buddy and ex-Buffalo Springfield mate Jim Messina when he was approached by the owner of Blue Elan records. He was asked about joining a label with old friends Gerry Beckley of America and Jack Tempchin, best known for his writing credits on the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
Young was at a point when, in his words, he was shutting up the shop. The steel guitarist was trying to retire in 2013 and limit his performing to special shows like his annual visit to the Birchmere and shows with friends Jim Messina and Vince Gill. The thought of a solo album intrigued him. Many of his contemporaries and collaborators like Messina, Paul Cotton, Richie Furay and Timothy Schmidt had all done solo albums but he hadn’t. Instead of retiring, he thought to himself, maybe this is what I was meant to do.
Since Waiting For The Sun came out in 2017, it’s led to a run of shows that continues to this day. If Young tried retiring, he hasn’t been too successful. “What I found is that you can’t do a solo album and retire because you’ve got to do shows. I’m doing more shows than I have in twenty years.”
On the morning we spoke, Young’s wife was camping in the Red Bluff. The singer loves the plethora of outdoor activities like fishing and floating and the friends and life he has made here. But being a musician, the call of the road beckons. Young admits the adrenaline is still there.
Young has a four hour rule that he and his wife Mary have to leave the cabin four hours before they board a flight out of St. Louis. For their summer sojourn to the nation’s capital, the couple’s flight was delayed ten hours. The hours in air and traffic on the ground made it a long day’s journey into night.
That’s a far cry from Poco’s heyday when they travelled in two planes, one for the band and one for the crew. Back in the day they were a large enough draw to carry their own sound and lights. Now he and his wife Mary who manages the website and fan community reverentially known as the Poco Nuts, pack up four suitcases of merchandise and guitars for every show. It includes shirts and hats with the instantly recognizable drawing of the horse that graces the cover of Legend and has since become Poco’s trademark logo. It was designed by comedian Phil Hartman whose brother John managed Poco, America and CSN.
“People say we’re professional travelers and we play music once in a while. That’s pretty much what it’s like. It’s like a small army moving. To do that it takes a lot of effort to get anywhere we are on the tour. Once we get onstage and are playing music and see people smiling, it pretty much makes it all worthwhile.”
Onstage the song “Rose of Cimarron” evokes the old west, living history from the days of country’s rocks great era. It is widely recognized across the world. Poco, which helped usher in the commercialization of country rock, was almost broken up in the late Seventies. Then the record company heard a few new songs called “Crazy Love” and “In The Heart of the Night.”
Young recently cut a new version of “Crazy Love” that you can find on Spotify. Before introducing the song onstage, Young told the audience it had 1.5 million downloads before saying deadpan “What is Spotify?”
Onstage, Young sat center stage with his lap steel providing the atmospheric backdrop against his youthful voice in “A Little Rain.” As Young told me after the show, every now and then people will tell him they were influenced by Poco or his steel guitar playing. Dan Dugmore from Sturgill Simpson’s band once told Young he took up lap steel because of him.
At the Birchmere Poco was the opening act and Young had to quarterback through seventy-five minutes. How do you compress all that history in a little more than an hour?
But all wasn’t nostalgic. When bassist Jack Sundrud took to the mic, he sang “Hard Country,” a song about the devastating environmental and economic toll on family farms. Sundrud has the distinction of being one of the longest tenured in Poco with over thirty years of service. A more comic moment came when Young donned a harmonica and told a story of how famous people and rock stars come up and stay talking about his famous brother Neil. After years of interviews and radio personalities assuming the two were related, he said he thought it was time to set the record straight. The song takes a fun jab at the notion of the supposed Young family tree.
“I wish I had written it thirty years ago,” says Young who isn’t sure if Neil has ever heard it. “I told Richie when they were doing that reunion that he should play it but I think he was worried about playing it for Neil.”
On this morning, Young was sitting in his cabin looking at the bookshelf. On it were titles by Eric Clapton, his old buddy Gregg Allman and Neil Young’s Shakey. When I asked him if he has thought of a book, he responds that he’s nearly done and just has to finish the last chapter.
It’s over one hundred stories Young describes it as a collection of snapshots. Some are just a few paragraphs. Others are ten pages. They will be accompanied by photos he shot with his pocket camera back in the day. Young promises he will be truthful in his memories.
Now Young is faced with a dilemma. Having failed at retirement he is staring down time.
“I’m trying to find a way to end it,” Young offers. “If I did a dozen or twenty shows a year that would be perfect.”
“The road’s been long/The road’s been rough/Upside down/Enough enough/But we never gave it up my friend”
But a lifetime’s profession still calls. Young still loves the music and the people who come back Show after show. His buddy Jim Messina is still going gangbusters. They will have played five shows together this year. Poco has shows booked through next Spring. Young has a three-album deal though he’s not sure if or when he will do another.
“I’m 72 years old and I never thought I’d be working at this age,” he reflects. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do but I know I can’t do it forever. Time is getting short.”