Remembering Rusty Young & The Magic of Poco

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Apart from the time the jazz band Hiroshima called me at 7:00 from Japan, the earliest interview I ever did was with Rusty Young of Poco.

“Rusty likes to get up early,” his publicist said, assuring me he had cleared it with Rusty’s wife Mary. But when the phone rang in Young’s house in the Mark Twain National Forest of Missouri, it was 7:30.

“Who sets up interviews this early?” Young started the conversation by asking me. Mary, who managed the website for Poco’s ardent fans known as Poco Nuts, was camping in the Red Bluff. I offered to do it at a more convenient time but Young said no, let’s get it done. 

When news hit this last week that Young had died from a heart attack, I thought back to that morning and how Young’s voice lit up for an hour as he recalled the last fifty years –and everything that happened since Richie Furay invited him to play steel guitar on Buffalo Springfield’s “Kind Woman.” It was the end of Buffalo Springfield and Furay, Young and Jim Messina set out to popularize a new form of California country rock with their new band Poco.

When Young led Poco through a set at the famed Birchmere Music Hall three years ago, I’d seen first hand the lives he’d affected. “Here we are still together,” he said with emotion rising in his voice. “All of us and you.”

At their tables people gathered like they were at a class reunion, a little grayer and polder but joyous as songs like “A Good Feelin’ To Know” and “Crazy Love” evoked life’s memories flashing before their eyes. Young described it as the feeling of history going by while you’re playing. “We’ve all grown up together. We’ve all grown old together.”   

Young seemed proud about the number of people who had come up to him at shows and told him he was their inspiration to play. Dan Dugmore from Sturgill Simpson’s band told Young he took up lap steel because of him. In the days after Young’s passing, pedal steel guitarist Dave Van Allen of the Washington area band Last Train Home reverently recalled on Facebook Young’s impact: “If not for the serendipity of hearing POCO’s first album at a party in Bladensburg, MD as a teen, my life would have been entirely different. I heard a “sound” that prompted me to seek out the album cover and discovered it was someone named Rusty Young playing something called a “pedal steel guitar.” A switch flicked in my brain, and from then on I had no choice but to try and make that sound myself.”

Young tried retiring once but it didn’t quite work out. He made a solo album Waiting For The Sun but that just led to that led to more shows. There was always the lure of playing with old buddies like Buffalo Springfield alumni Jim Messina who Young told me was going gangbusters. Young wrote the song “Hello Friend” born out of a reunion with old Poco friends Richie Furay and Timothy B. Schmit. Young characterized  them as friends that drop in and every now and then and they once stood together reunited together at Coachella.

In Young’s later years, he balanced planning ten to twenty or so shows a year against the realization he never expected to be still working into his seventies. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” he told me that morning, “but I know I can’t do it forever. Time is getting short.”

If you close your eyes listening to  Richie Furay’s new album you can imagine Young’s steel wafting through the grooves of 50th Anniversary Return To The Troubadour. Recorded a few years ago during a show commemorating Poco’s original appearance at the famed club in Los Angeles,  Furay’s solo band recreates Poco’s seminal live album Deliverin’ from start to finish. But in the first part of the live set, he also sings a song about the history that gave birth to Poco in “We Were The Dreamers.” 

“It’s the story of Poco,” Furay said in an interview with Billboard a few years ago. “Not that I sit around and dwell about Poco, but the lyrics began to tell that story and I just went with it. It was one of those natural things that just had a flow to it, and the (music) reminded me of what we were trying to do back in 1969. We wanted to bridge that gap between country music and rock ‘n’ roll music. The Byrds were doing it. The (Flying) Burrito Brothers were doing it. And Poco was certainly instrumental in creating that country-rock sound in southern California. So there was the song.”

When Buffalo Springfield was the house band at the Whisky a Go Go, a woman stood in front of Furay on the bandstand. They caught each other’s eyes and Furay wrote “Kind Woman” for her. They got married and it’s endured for more than fifty-four years.

On the new album and DVD release, Furay’s daughter bolsters the rich harmonies that make for Poco’s unique vocal sound. Furay also covers Jack Sundred’s harrowing “Hard Country.” Apart from Young, Sundred was the longest tenured member of Poco.

Rusty Young had his own take on history and it was pretty funny. For years, everyday people as well as famous rock stars would come up and start talking about his famous brother named Neil. After years of interviews and radio personalities assuming the two were related, Young put pen to paper and set the record straight. The playfully tongue in cheek song “Neil Young” from Poco’s All Fired Up takes a fun jab at the notion of the supposed Young family tree against the best Crazy Horse impersonation you’ll ever hear.

Donning a harmonica in character onstage, Rusty Young was never sure Neil Young heard it and only wished he’d written it thirty years earlier. When Buffalo Springfield reunited, Rusty Young told Richie Furay he should play it for Neil but laughed when he thought Furay worried about it and never did.

Furay’s new chapter of Poco history reminds how long it’s been since he (and later Schmit) left the band. Unintentionally it pushed Young to be the band’s frontman. When you hear Young’s steel against the cinematic Western backdrop of “Rose of Cimarron” and his instantly recognizable voice on “Crazy Love,” the magic of Poco endures to this day. For many of us, Rusty Young played on the songs that were a soundtrack of our lives.

 

 

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