image by Henry Diltz
One can write a book about the storied life of Rusty Young; in fact, he has already done so! From his childhood in Colorado to the present day, Young’s journey embodies so much of the American spirit, where patience and perseverance can achieve one’s dream. The remaining founding member of Poco is currently navigating the waters between two major milestones: the band’s 50th anniversary and the unveiling of his debut solo album, Waitin’ For the Sun, set for a September 15th release on Blue Élan Records. He will be appearing with Poco at Manhattan’s City Winery on September 13th for an evening of musical celebration.
To their fans, Poco represents one of America’s best treasures: an iconic country/rock group responsible for creating some of the best music in its genre, laying the groundwork for countless others who proudly point to Poco as a prime influence. Interestingly, Poco’s origins lie in another iconic American group, the legendary, short-lived Buffalo Springfield. Featuring Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay, the level of talent (and ego) was such that the band was doomed to a very brief existence. For the band’s final album, Furay and producer/engineer/bassist Jim Messina enlisted the help of an extraordinarily gifted pedal steel guitarist, Rusty Young, to contribute his talents for Furay’s “Kind Woman”—a song that may well be the first true example of the country/rock genre.
With the demise of Buffalo Springfield in 1968, Furay, Messina, and Young added bassist Randy Meisner and drummer George Grantham to the ranks and formed Poco, releasing their debut album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, in 1969.The band endured several personnel changes through the years. Meisner left in 1969 and was replaced by Timothy B. Schmit; ironically, both musicians went on to join The Eagles. In 1970 Messina left to form Loggins & Messina and was replaced by Paul Cotton. In 1973, Furay, frustrated by his lack of success compared with that of his former bandmates, left to form Souther-Hillman-Furay. Still others came and went. Poco’s greatest commercial success came with its 1979 hit, “Crazy Love,” penned by Young, who also wrote several of the band’s best-loved songs, including “Rose of Cimarron.”
Speaking with me from his secluded cabin nestled deep in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, Rusty shared some stories from his illustrious past as well as his plans for the present and future.
Roy Abrams: I want to congratulate you on the new record. I’ve been soaking in it for the past two days and cannot possibly convey how much I love this music. After 50 years and multiple opportunities to put out a solo album, why was now the right time?
Rusty Young: Over the years, all the guys in the band (Poco) have done solo records except for me. Jimmy Messina did Loggins and Messina and solo records, and Richie (Furay) when he did Souther-Hillman-Furay; Timothy B. (Schmit), Paul Cotton … everyone who’s been through the band who’s a singer/songwriter has done that but I always focused on making Poco the best it could be; having the best musicians, the best quality of live show. At one point, I was playing with Jimmy Messina, and Kirk Pasich, who’s the head of Blue Élan, came up to me—it was out in California—and said, “Have you ever thought about doing a solo record? I have a label, and we’d be interested.” Suddenly it just dawned on me that maybe this is my time, you know, how fate works and how fickle it is … maybe this is my time to do the solo record and certainly, this is toward the end of my career and if I’m going to do it, now would be the time to do it! And so I came home and I wrote a few songs; I had a couple of songs I was working on and I finished them up. I really liked the way they went, and I thought, “What is the right time for that challenge in my life?” So I said, sure, let’s make a record. It took a year for me to write enough songs. I wrote about twenty songs and ten of them made the CD that’s out now, Waitin’ for the Sun. So it was a matter of timing, and the fact that everyone else has done it except for me, and I really wanted to accept that challenge, because it’s way different than making a band record. Everything’s on you … all the songs are on you, all the singing’s on you, the pace of the record, the sound; it’s just your project. It was really, really fun!
RA: How did you choose Cash Cabin as the location to record your album?
RY: The guys in the band now, Poco, they’re just brilliant musicians. They’re the best of the best in Nashville: (Keyboardist) Michael Webb, Rick Lonow, who was the drummer in the Flying Burrito Brothers towards the end there with Sneaky Pete, and (bassist) Jack Sundrud, who’s been with me since 1985. Webb and Lonow are session musicians; they work at all the different studios around Nashville. They both worked at Cash Cabin and said that it had the perfect atmosphere for my project. I used them on the record because they’re the best musicians I know, and we’ve worked together long enough that they know what I like and what I want, and we communicate without even talking about things. When they said Cash Cabin’s the right place, I said, well, let’s go! And it was! It was a wonderful place to record.
RA: Were the songs’ arrangements a collaborative effort, or did you provide a working template?
RY: Well, I usually have an idea for a song; I pretty much know what I want, although I may say, “Hey Rick, how about you try this instead of that?” Or, Rick will say, “You know, this would be really good on this song,” and I’ll go, “Yeah, I didn’t think of that. That’d be great!” So it’s collaborative, and Michael Webb is such a brilliant keyboard player, I just let him go, I don’t even begin to tell him what to play. I come in with pretty much an idea of what I want to hear, and they know how to do it, they know how to get it.
RA: The album has very much of a live set kind of feel.
RY: It is live, you know. We went in the studio and recorded; I played guitar, Michael would do his keyboards; everything was really live. On most everything, I’m playing two or three guitar parts; I had to go back and overdub the steel guitar. I laid down a basic guitar track, then put on the electric lead, the mandolin; stuff like that. It has a real live feel to it.
RA: You previously spoke about the writing process and how the songs came “in the hours before dawn.” What is it about that time the muse seems to speak to us a little bit more persistently?
RY: Yeah, isn’t that wild? The title track, “Waitin’ for the Sun”, really documents the writing process for this album. I would get up at 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning, when it’s still dark. You know, I live in a cabin in Missouri, in Mark Twain National Forest, overlooking the Huzzah River, and it’s absolutely beautiful! We’re up on a bluff, so it’s dark and then you could see the sun come up over the hills, and it’s really inspiring. I think my brain works well (while) sleeping; it gives me ideas. When I just wake up and have that first cup of coffee, I sit there with my guitar on my lap, pencil and paper next to me, the ideas just start coming. I’m not sure where they come from. It’s so serene; here, it’s so quiet, and when the sun comes up, the birds start chirping, and life starts coming around. It’s really, really inspiring, and it made some of the songs, like “My Friend”—I’m just on my way to Nashville now to shoot a video for it—come so quickly. I knew what I wanted to say, and it just poured out. It maybe took an hour to write that song. That’s the best, when that happens!
RA: I spoke with Richie (Furay) a couple of years ago when he released Hand in Hand, the album containing “We Were the Dreamers”, a song reflecting on his time with Poco. With “My Friend”, it’s wonderful to see that the friendship has remained intact through the years.
RY: I was thrilled that Richie and Jimbo (Jim Messina) said that they’d love to sing on it. And you know, the funny thing about that song is that I wanted to write a song about—you know, next year’s the 50th (anniversary of Poco), and about the fact that, through all these years, all these great musicians have gone through Poco. I mean, Poco is probably too big to hold that bunch of guys over the first ten years, and just how lucky we are, because everyone’s really succeeded. We were struggling in the early days. I was in a little apartment I could barely afford out in the Valley in L.A. We didn’t have a lot of money; we were just doing our best to make it by. After all of these years, everyone has been so successful. I’m really happy with my life and the way things have gone. I’m thinking about how everyone has been so successful and we’re all so lucky. So I was starting to write about that, and I’ve been doing the song in concert for the past few months and I suddenly realized that the song is not just about the band; it’s about everybody! It’s about all our friends who have been with us over these 50 years; the people in the audience who come to see us every time we play, and we’ve all been through those same experiences. You know, times may change, you know they will; life’s been good to you and me … all those lyrics apply to the audience, too. So the song is really more universal than I even realized when I wrote it!
RA: Speaking of universal, “Sara’s Song” has to be the quintessential father/daughter song. My antennae are telling me that it’s going to become a staple at weddings.
RY: Oh, thank you!
RA: I understand that you began playing guitar when you were six years old, but because of the area where you were growing up, they started the kids on lap steel and moved them to the guitar in six months. Is that accurate?
RY: That’s true. This is 1952; it was a long time ago. They would have a giant classroom with 20 kids in it, and everybody played lap steel; I can’t remember if it was the first six months or a year. Probably because it’s easier for a little kid than to put his fingers on guitar strings and push down; with lap steel, you just hold a bar and you can make music, so they can teach you the basics of music before, and then you would move to guitar. That’s what everyone did.
RY: I came from a hotbed of steel players in Denver, Colorado. The best steel players were there, because Oklahoma was (nearby), Nevada with Las Vegas; they’re all right around Denver. And I worked at the biggest steel guitar store in the country—Don Edwards’ Guitar City in Denver, Colorado! So, a lot of great steel players came through, and there’s this one guy, his name was Donny Buzzard, and he was my hero. He came from Oklahoma, and he was a real innovator. He would try everything! We both worked at that same guitar store and on slow afternoons, we’d sit around and play. He’s the one that showed me how to play the steel with a comb, to make it sound like a tack piano. He was doing the voice box thing that later on Frampton and Joe Walsh did; he was doing that in 1962! And of course, that started with Alvino Rey, who was a steel player in the late ‘40s; he was the first one to use the voice box. But Donny Buzzard was my ideal. He always had a brand-new Corvette, he played steel guitar, and he would try everything and anything. He was brilliant; he was really my hero. I model myself to this day after Donny Buzzard. He showed me that steel guitar didn’t have to sound like Hank Williams all the time; that it could do more things. When I had the chance to go out and play rock ‘n’ roll in L.A., I brought all those ideas with me, so it was a natural transition. I knew it would work.
RA: You started gigging at 12 and by the time you were 16-17, you were going to high school during the day, giving guitar lessons in the afternoon, gigging at night, then going out to jam, coming home and sleeping for a few hours, then doing it all over again. How?
RY: Yeah! [Laughs] Well, I was young, and I loved steel guitar, and everything revolved around that. And I loved the atmosphere at the studio where I taught and sold guitars. The whole vibe there was just so intense. When I went out to L.A., I was disappointed because there were so many great steel players in Denver, Colorado and there weren’t in L.A. There was like one guy who was pretty good, but a lot of the steel players in Los Angeles at the time would have starved if they lived in Denver, Colorado.
RA: Music is certainly in your blood. Your grandparents were performing musicians, correct?
RY: Well, my grandmother was a little red-headed girl, and she played piano. That’s how she met my grandfather. She played piano for the silent movies; you know, back in the old days they didn’t have sound for the movies; they would have a piano player in the theaters. They would just make up music that goes along with what they saw on the screen. And I think that Grandma passed that “making up songs as you see them” on to me. My grandfather had a big band that played all the big resorts up in the Rockies in the ‘20s and ‘30s. I think they passed on a musical gene.
RA: In addition to your grandparents and the other members of Poco, you’ve also singled out Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Gerry Beckley as influences.
RY: When the Springfield had broken up, Neil would occasionally come by Richie’s house in Laurel Canyon and he was working on his solo record. There were times when it was just the two of us, and he would sit down and play a song that he was working on. That was the beginning of me being around those kinds of really talented musicians and songwriters, watching him, and watching the process in the very beginning. You know, his first album, Jimmy played bass and George (Grantham, Poco’s drummer) played drums. The next album after that, he had a steel guitar player. I think there was a little influence going on there! Being in the studio when Stephen was recording, and watching that whole process … we were managed by the same people that managed America, Hartmann and Goodman, so I was around them a lot. They invited me to play on their records when George Martin was producing them; I got to hang out with George Martin. Watching those guys write songs—just being around really great songwriters—Paul Cotton, Richie Furay, Timothy has his thing which is so special. I did a lot of sessions; everyone from Gladys Knight to Three Dog Night. I just saw a lot of great songwriting and the process and the recording. I tried to be a sponge and soak up as much as I could about how to write songs and how to record. There was a lot to learn, and it took a while, but I had great teachers!
RA: Speaking of Stephen, “High and Dry” has a very Stills-Buffalo Springfield flavor to it. I’m wondering if that’s an accurate read or am I missing the mark?
RY: I think so, and I (also) think Richie’s influence with the Buffalo Springfield. A lot of the first (Poco) album that was recorded (contained) songs that he had written when he was in the Springfield. They even cut demos of them but didn’t record them. So there was always a big Springfield influence. I think you can even hear that on the new record. You know, “Waitin’ For the Sun” has Springfield and Beatles influences in there. “Gonna Let the Rain Wash it All Away” has a real Stones influence. There are different influences all over this record that were influences that I have that came from great musicians.
RA: Going back to Poco’s early days, when I spoke with Richie, his decision to speak with David Geffen and put Souther-Hillman-Furay together stemmed from “the way Poco was being accepted out in the world.” What’s your perspective of that time in the band’s history?
RY: Yeah, Richie was struggling because everyone around us had been successful: Stephen with Crosby, Stills and Nash; Neil Young’s solo career; Jimmy had Loggins & Messina and they were doing great. Poco was the only one that was struggling as far as Top 40 radio goes. Back in those days, it was so different than now! There was AM radio and FM radio. We were a big hit on FM radio. AM radio was where all the hit singles were. The people who had the AM hits were the ones who were selling a million records. FM sold well, but it didn’t necessarily sell a million records. With Santana, you had AM and FM, and (they) were huge; and Chicago and that kind of stuff. Richie was frustrated because all around him, people were having such great success and that weighed heavily on him. And when the voices came and said, “Hey, maybe the band is holding you back,” it was easy for him to try and go in a different direction. I don’t blame him—I totally understand.
RA: In 2014, you had announced your retirement.
RY: I was!
RA: You mentioned at the time that you were working on a book. Are you still working on it?
RY: It’s actually finished. Blue Élan has connections in publishing, so we’re exploring that.
RA: It sounds like that label did for you what David Geffen did for John Lennon, basically saying, “You make the record that want.” It sounds like you were given complete freedom to just follow your muse.
RY: They did. It’s a really, really wonderful place to be. I haven’t experienced that, really, ever. David Geffen made those kinds of promises but he never came through. [Chuckles] He had ulterior motives. But this is really an artist-friendly family; they don’t sign you unless they believe in you, and when they believe in you, they go whole hog. It’s really a great place to be!
RA: Are you acquainted with Chelsea Williams, the artist who will be opening for you at the City Winery show?
RY: Yes, very well. Actually, we just re-cut “Rose of Cimarron” with her. I like Chelsea a lot! a
RA: With Poco coming up on its 50th anniversary and the imminent release of your debut solo album, how do you deal with the juxtaposition of those major milestones?
RY: I know—it’s pretty dizzying! My schedule … I’m leaving today and I will be working all the way through until December, but I’m sure December will fill up, too. So yeah, it’s a lot of work! I’ve been doing laps around the cabin [Laughs] and hopefully I’ll be in good shape!
|image by Henry Diltz|
© Roy Abrams 2017