Saturday, March 7, 2015

Richie Furay: A New Understanding

Richie Furay
photo by Shanna Lemke
An extraordinary gift was placed in my hands a few weeks ago, while researching the life and career of an artist whom I was about to interview. This research resulted in a profound change in perspective on a band that I thought I understood completely. Through a most unexpected manner, I had achieved a completely new way of understanding the familiar. That the medium in which this experience occurred was music struck the deepest of possible nerves, imparting a life-changing aspect to the experience, given how my mind works. Deep thoughts, perhaps, but they are as accurately as I can convey some of what has been coursing through my mind since the interview took place; here you have it!

The Buffalo Springfield, an integral contributor to my life’s soundtrack, was—up until a few weeks ago—projecting the dual-polarity between Stephen Stills and Neil Young to me as the main musical force in the band. Richie Furay’s contributions always stood apart as unique, even as he was masterful at the subtle art of the blend, but never before as noticeably influential to my ears since spending three weeks hyper-absorbing the sounds of his subsequent musical journey: Poco, the archetypical country-rock band Furay founded with Jim Messina and Rusty Young in 1968; the streamlined songcraft of Souther/Hillman/Furay; and a series of compelling, highly personal solo albums, beginning with 1976's I've Got a Reason, culminating in Hand in Hand, Furay's first release in eight years, due out on March 31st.

What I understand now about the Buffalo Springfield is this: Richie Furay was an enormous influence upon the group’s sound, equally as much as his friends Stills and Young. To the same degree, I feel that Furay’s influence upon music has been profound, yet in his unique way, masterfully subtle.

In addition to his music, Furay experienced a deep spiritual awakening decades ago and has been the pastor of a small Colorado church for the past 33 years. He is happily married to the same woman for nearly 50 years, has four adult daughters and nearly a dozen grandchildren, and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (for the Buffalo Springfield) and the Colorado Music Hall of Fame (for Poco). His new album, Hand in Hand, represents a man whose voice contains the strength of his convictions—about life, love, family, and country, richly infused with spiritual awareness.

Currently on tour to promote Hand in Hand, Richie Furay and his band come to New York City on March 18th for a performance that evening at City Winery. I had the opportunity to speak with Richie by phone a few days before the tour’s launch, and immensely enjoyed spending time with this friendly, unassuming, deeply spiritual soul.

Roy Abrams: Congratulations on the new album! I love it!

Richie Furay: I’m really proud of it too, man! Who would have thought that, at this age, man, I’d come up with some more songs? [laughs]

RA: It’s a timeless–feel collection of songs, centered on a familiar theme for you (love) but also, given its position in the track listing, non-partisan patriotism (“Don’t Tread on Me”). What was the inspiration behind this one?

RF: You know, Roy, I really have a love for our country. I just see us, for whatever reason—I don’t know, I don’t want to put my finger on anything that would be offensive, but I just see so many people today who are disillusioned, they’re hurting, they’re out of a job. People are just hurting, and plus we’ve got all these other entities coming in from all around the world, and it’s just … This is a great country, and I don’t like any idea of belittling this country in any way, shape, or form. Do we have flaws? Absolutely, we have flaws. There’s no doubt about it. There are things that I think we need to work on, and that’s really the thoughts behind the song. I just want people to know that we’ve got a great country here, and we should be proud of this country, and we should stand up for it in all ways that we possibly can, and try to bring some unity back to what I really see as a divisiveness in the spirit of America right now. I want to see it be unified.

RA: How have you reconciled your love of rock 'n' roll, which when it started was branded the Devil’s music by some, and your religious faith?

RF: You know, Roy, I don’t have a problem with it at all. I remember the Apostle Paul, who said, “It’s a very small thing to me that you would judge me.” Not speaking of you, but others who come from that perspective. Usually, it’s a very legalistic Christian perspective that would say [adopts outraged voice] “You can’t do that and still be a Christian!” You know what? I can, and it’s my life. The Lord has given me gifts, He’s given me talents, I think He knows my heart; He’s the one who looks on my heart to see where I’m at and what I’m doing. I want to share this gift, and I don’t think it offends Him at all that I would share my gift in a secular way as well in a way where maybe I would write a devotional song or something that is very specific toward my love for Christ. Believe me, Roy, early on after I became a Christian, people were very much throwing these kinds of things at me, and I didn’t know quite how to deal with them then. I just kept pressing on, thankful that I had some good friends who were other pastors, who said, “You just keep doing what you’re doing.” So it’s just my life. I just write songs that are about my life and there’s nothing wrong with that.

RA: Your love of God is reflected in your songs in a manner that strikes me as quite similar to George Harrison’s. What is your opinion of George’s faith-oriented songs?

RF: Well, I think that certainly we had a little different perspective on our faith, but I think he again was just expressing his life. He was expressing the things that he learned in life and he was trying to share the same things that I was sharing. You know, I’ve been really blessed in all that I’ve done. I’ve been able to see my dreams fulfilled as far as being a rock ‘n’ roll musician, and I’m still able to make music and have a great band to play the music. I’ve got a family … all of this has to be taken into consideration. My wife and I will be married 48 years on March 4th. That’s just like unheard of. I’ve got four great daughters, one of them sings with me today, and I’ve got eleven grandchildren with one on the way, I’ve got a great little church here that supports me. As I look back on my life (and as I look forward, too), it’s just like, wow, I’ve just been blessed. So I can’t really get hung up on people that would have any kind of opposition to what I’m doing. I’m sure that George Harrison felt the same way. He wrote songs about what was on his heart, and I write songs about what’s on my heart. It’s just where I’m at!

photo by Shanna Lemke

RA: Speaking of George, did you feel a Harrison-like scenario unfolding in the Springfield where the other two songwriters crowded you out, so to speak?

RF: You know, I didn’t think about it at the time, but certainly in years past when people have made that comparison. You’ve got these two guys (Stills and Young) who are, like you say, very prolific songwriters—they were at that time, and I think that Neil still is prolific, but I didn’t think about it at that time, you know, Here are these two guys, am I going to find a niche to be able to get a song recorded. Over the years, people have said, “You know, you’re like the George Harrison of the Springfield!” I understand what they’re trying to say, though! [laughs]

RA: Music journalist Terry Roland, in the May 2014 issue of Americana Music, said of your singing: “In his own unique way he is as much a soul singer as country.” It’s a statement I completely agree with. I’d like for you to talk about your singing style. Early on with the Springfield, I think what set you apart was your phrasing. In an era where many made being indecipherable their stock-in-trade, you paid such close attention to the detail of each syllable. Where did that come from? What singers influenced/inspired you?

RF: I’ll tell you right off the top I got a lot of that influence from Stephen (Stills). And Stephen was influenced by a guy named Tim Hardin. Tim had interesting phrasing as well. I really respected Stephen at the time, and I think it just evolved to my own style. And I am, I’m very conscientious about phrasing and how words and phrases fit together and how they flow melodically. I’m very concerned with that, even today, and I want that to be a part of my legacy, I guess, part of what really is important to me. It’s how I have a phrase that can melodically just kind of flow without feeling awkward or having a staccato to it that doesn’t belong there.


RA: With Poco, your voice seemed to get much bigger and rounder. Was it just a matter of confidence? Did you go for any vocal training? What was going on at that time?

RF: I agree with you and I think that over the years, even today, that it seemed to develop a sound that early on, it was an immature voice; I think it has matured. I tried, when I moved to Colorado, to take some voice lessons because I would end up losing my voice because of not singing maybe “properly.” I tried to do it, and you know, Roy, I couldn’t hang into it, you know. It seemed like they wanted to change so much about what the characteristic of my voice was, I just couldn’t adapt, and so I just kind of let it go. I like the way my voice sounds better now than it did early on in the Springfield days, and I’m not sure that everybody can say that about the way they’re singing at 70!

photo by Rebecca Sapp

RA: What do you do to keep your voice in shape? Your voice sounds so youthful. Why do you think that is?

RF: There’s nothing in particular that I do. It is my instrument, I’m very well aware of that. I try to take care of the best I can. When we were doing the Springfield tour, Neil was running around doing these little exercises with his voice. Timothy (Schmit), when he came out for the Colorado Music Hall of Fame show that we did, has these little exercises that he does. I know that Timothy had some serious situation with his throat which has prompted him to do this. I’ve never been able to do too many exercises. I’m like the old guy that back when we were going to school, in gym class, you didn’t do a lot of stretches, you just got out and played ball. Now, you’ve got to stretch and do all the things to prepare you, but I just hit the floor running! I’m not going to change anything right now, though!

RA: How was it doing those Springfield shows a few years back? It certainly seemed you were all enjoying it. Seeing the YouTube clips, it’s immediately apparent that there was a sound between the three of you that was distinct and separate from CSNY, Poco, etc., in both the vocal blend and the instrumental sound. Your three guitars never get in the way of each other. It seemed like you were just getting warmed up. How was it? Was there a possibility of working on new material?

RF: Well, that’s where some of my album came from, to answer your last question. I had these guitar riffs and little pieces of thoughts and ideas that were running around in my head—some of them, Roy, for years! And when the Springfield got together, I just got motivated, you know, that there’s a song here, and I have to get it out now. I started writing all of these songs because I did believe, as I think Stephen did, that there was going to be a follow-up with the shows that we did. As it turned out, we only did seven shows, and that was it. Everybody, from my perspective, had a great time doing it, and when it was over, it was over. I guess it was just the way that it was over. There wasn’t a discussion. I was put in a position during the Springfield tour that I became the spokesman because Neil wasn’t going to talk to anybody, and Stephen didn’t have time or whatever, so I was told, “Tell everybody you’re going to do thirty shows.” And so I’m the guy that got stuck out there to tell everybody that we’re going to do thirty shows after these first ones that we do, and then all of a sudden it was over. You know, that’s the way it goes. I was just as glad, because when it came time, these songs were still there, and I said, well, you know what? I’m going to record them regardless. I think they’re good songs, I think they’re strong songs, and I’m going to go and record them.

RA: Speaking of the Springfield, It’s unique how the Grateful Dead had the foresight to document every one of its concerts from early on, as they had a reputation of being a live band. But as great as the Springfield’s records were, you guys also had a reputation of being one of those “You have to see them live” kind of bands, and the few shows that do exist bear this out. They’re a glimpse into this whole other side to this band that we barely have any of.

RF: Yeah, there’s not much documented, that’s for sure!

RA: Didn’t anybody think, “You know, we should turn on a tape recorder!” Is there some secret treasure trove of pristine live Springfield soundboards?

RF: Not that I’m aware of. I don’t think it was until after the Springfield broke up that Neil really started to document everything that he did. But we certainly didn’t. It could have been because, Roy, we just weren’t really sure who was going to be in the band and when! There were (so many) people in and out of the Springfield in two years and so it was kind of a difficult situation to keep forward momentum going. So it probably wasn’t in the forefront of any of our minds at that time.

RA: How did you feel about David Crosby joining you at the Monterey Pop Festival?

RF: Well, it was nice of David to step in for Neil. That was one of the times that Neil decided that he wasn’t going to be in the band, so it was nice of David to come and kind of fill that void, and I think that started a really good friendship between him and Stephen that went on to include Graham Nash. (At) Monterey, I was kind of sick during that period of time; I had tonsillitis, and I wasn’t really 100%. I don’t look back on that experience—at least our performance—as one of the more memorable ones. I think playing at the Hollywood Bowl with the Rolling Stones would have been one of the highlights. But, you know what? I loved that period of time when Bruce (Palmer), Dewey (Martin), Stephen, Neil and I played at the Whisky a Go-Go. We were like the house band there and shared the stage with Love and with The Doors and with the Grass Roots, and different L.A. bands at the time. I think it was there that the band was the tightest and I that’s where I have some of my fondest memories. Once we left Sunset Boulevard, things began to change and it was just different.

RA: One more Springfield-related question: The song “It’s So Hard to Wait” from Last Time Around is a Furay/Young song, the only one. Who wrote what? Why weren’t there more collaborations?

RF: I think I had the idea [sings] “I just can’t seem to get movin’” and Neil came along and added just a few little parts. I think I had most of the song already written, and he kind of completed the circle, so to speak. It wasn’t something (where) we sat down and said, OK, we’re going to write a song together. It was something that I had that he heard and identified with and added his part, and I’m trying to go back even much further than that, just to think in my mind that maybe he did really contribute to it, but we certainly had that as a collaboration.

RA: One thing people tend not to know about is how hot a band Poco was. All one has to do is listen to Deliverin to hear what a high level of musicianship—not to mention singing—you guys are playing at, with a high level of communication. What can you tell me about being onstage with that band throughout the time you were with them and what was the main difference between playing with Paul Cotton versus Jim Messina?

RF: I have to look at it in the early stages, anyway, as my band. It was a band that there was a lot more of a sense of family, even though we went through a few changes, as families do go through changes, but  more so than the Springfield. Paul brought a little more rock ‘n’ roll to the overall picture, where Jimmy was very stylized. Paul had just a little more of a straight rock ‘n’ roll feel than I think Jimmy did, at least at that particular time, and that’s what we wanted to capture when Jimmy decided he was going to leave and we wanted to get another guitar player. Roy, we were feeling like we were between a rock and a hard place. We were too country for rock and too rock for country, so we had to kind of make some adjustments to where we could get accepted in our natural element and then move on from there.

RA: Regarding the second Poco album, was the second side all cut live ("Nobody's Fool/El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa")? It sounds like it’s recorded onstage.

RF: Most of it had to have been. The instrumental track laying-down was recorded right there in the studio, pretty much live. We were also a band where we kind of worked things out so we kind of knew where we were going; it wasn’t so much ad-libbing as it might sound on that particular recording, but it was done live, if you will.

RA: Souther/Hillman/Furay had an abundance of talent and the records hold up really well. There seemed to be lots of potential there. Your voice seemed to hit an even higher peak with them. “Believe Me” has a two octave range and you’re not even singing falsetto. [Furay chuckles] What are your memories of that band?

RF: I don’t know what to say. Souther/Hillman/Furay was an interesting band. It was an interesting concept. I was frustrated with Poco, not so much with the guys, but the way Poco was being accepted out in the world. The Eagles had just come out and had a big hit, we’d already been working for four or five years, trying to get a hit, and in that particular time you needed the AM radio to really move you to a higher level of places where you could play; from clubs or college campuses to some other venues that were more large theater-type places. It just seemed like Poco wasn’t going to happen, so I actually got a hold of and talked it through with David Geffen, and David’s the one who put J.D. and Chris and myself together. It was real interesting because David said, well look, I know that Chris is looking for something to do right now, and this other songwriter who writes for The Eagles, he would be a great asset for a band, so why don’t guys get together, and we’ll just put together another Crosby, Stills, and Nash? Well, that sounds good, and it looked good on paper—the musicians that we had and all. But Crosby, Stills and Nash got together because they really knew each other and enjoyed playing with each other and they were friends. When Chris and J.D. and I got together, we were acquaintances and we were just putting something together, and it was a little more difficult. We’re still friends today. I’ve done several tours with Chris and see him a lot, and I haven’t seen J.D. quite as much, but we’ve reacquainted ourselves over the last couple of years, and so it’s really a good friendship. It was something that really didn’t come from our hearts; we were just hand-picked by somebody else who thought this would be a good idea, and gave it a try, and it didn’t really work to anybody’s expectations, plus I was starting to have some things happen in my life that just didn’t quite fit in with everything else that was going on.

RA: To move into the present, I love the fact that you’re working with your daughter Jesse; that has to be such a gift for both of you, and I’m wondering what that relationship is like. What’s the onstage relationship like—not just between the two of you, but between your band mates?

The Richie Furay Band

RF: My band is so unique in that it is a multi-generational band. My lead guitar player, and the partner I write with somewhat, his son plays bass with us, so he has a son and I have a daughter who’s in the band. We have Alan (Lemke) who’s the drummer, we just added a new guy, Jack Jeckot, who Scott Sellen played with years ago, back in the Philadelphia area, but you know what, Roy? I think it gives excitement to Scott and myself that our kids are musicians that can really do (it), and they’re not full-time musicians at all; everybody has another job in our band. You know, when we step on stage, I think we can stand up and play with anybody, anywhere, anytime. They are so professional, and yet the kids bring that young, youthful vitality to the band, which I think makes it fun for Scott and myself. I know personally that if Jesse wasn’t in the band, I’d probably have more of a difficult time going out on the road now. It’s much more fun having her in the band, going out with me. Our voices, they blend so well together. On “Hand in Hand” we’re the only ones who are actually doing any of the singing. On some of the other studio projects that I’ve done since I left Souther/Hillman/Furay, I’ve had other people singing on some of the songs as well, but on this particular album or CD or whatever they call them these days, I don’t know, Jesse and I do all the vocals, and our voices just can tell we’re family!

RA: Final question:  on your website, this phrase appears: “The God of the Bible is the God of Second Chances.”  If you had the opportunity to speak directly with each person who will eventually read this interview, how would you reinforce this message?

RF: That message that you just spoke to me? That’s the heart and soul of my life. He gave me a second chance. My wife and I, we were on the verge of divorce, we were on the verge of seven years of it being all over. Jesus came in, and basically we surrendered our lives to Him. And He, in turn, has given us a life that both of us are so satisfied (with) and so thankful for because it’s not only a hope that we have for this life but it’s a hope that we have for the life to come. That’s what the Bible teaches. We’re 100% on board with that, and just thankful that the Lord is so gracious and so forgiving that He would give us our lives back, and a family, and the opportunity to do what we love to do the most.

RA: Amen to that!

- Roy Abrams
  Long Island, NY

1 comment:

  1. Saw Buffalo Springfield in 1967 in a big barn converted into a venue/dance hall that had a stage....outside of Appleton, Wisconsin somewhere. It was a $3.50 door charge and all the beer you could drink. They were GREAT but the band was so new to most of us we didn't realize how special the night was until later. Meet Richie on Mau'i in the mid 1990's at Kumulani Chapel.