Poco's Rusty Young Is Retiring: "We're Going Out on Top"

Born out of the ashes of Buffalo Springfield, the band that first brought Stephen Stills and Neil Young to prominence, Poco can rightly claim the distinction of being among the very first bands to make the crossover from rock to country.

The term Americana is bandied about so freely these days. But in 1968, when Poco made their bow at L.A.'s trendsetting club, the Troubadour, the idea of a group melding down home harmonies and pedal steel guitar with a rowdy, long-haired attitude was still somewhat revolutionary. Nevertheless, it proved the precursor to bands like the Eagles in particular (who twice drafted two of Poco's members, Randy Meisner, and later, Timothy B. Scmidt), and a host of others who scaled the charts by mining the same populist appeal.

Over the years, members came and went, most recently, singer/guitarist Paul Cotton, a veteran of the band for the past four decades. That left pedal steel player Rusty Young, Poco's sole constant since the beginning. It was his job to take the reigns and steer the band's legacy.

Indeed, despite infrequent reunions of the original line-up, Poco's legacy has languished at times, taking them from being the darlings of a college crowd to being all but ignored, and later, to belated hit-makers ("Crazy Love," "Heart of the Night") in the late '70s. To their devoted fans (referred to as "Poconuts"), they're revered even now. Their latest album, All Fired Up, recorded with the latest incarnation of the band was released earlier this year. Sadly though as Rusty Young -- who's played every gig since their inception -- told New Times exclusively, it will also be their last.

New Times: So you've been with Poco for 45 years now, ever since the beginning...

Rusty Young:

It's been 45 years, and I don't know if you know this or not, but I'm retiring.


Yes, our last shows are going to be in February. I would have actually stopped this weekend at Wildwood, a lodge we play in Missouri, but I have contracts through February. So we're going to play through February and then I'm going to stop. I have a book I've been working on for about ten years that I really, really want to finish, and I can't do it and tour like we do, and do the other things that we do. So I'm going to take off starting in March and work on the book. We live in the Mark Twain Natural Forest here in Southwest Missouri, and it's beautiful. We built a log home here and it's very, very comfortable and I'm going to just give it a break.

Can we assume the book is your memoir about Poco?

Yeah, it is. It's about what happened during those years, A lot of the most interesting stuff is about the '70s. The business isn't like it is now. People didn't have all the security around them. You'd be able to hang out backstage. You'd be able to walk in the studio and watch Dean Martin or Barbra Streisand record, as well as the other rock 'n' roll acts like Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks (chuckles) or Stevie Wonder.

So it's all these stories about things that I think of as life lessons that I learned in music. We played with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Eric Clapton... I have a great Keith Moon story, and Elton John, when he was an opening act as was Peter Frampton. So all these anecdotes have little lessons in them, and if I can pass that on, it would be nice. With pretty much every book I've ever read, they tend to sugarcoat things so much, and I decided I didn't want to do that. I'm probably going to make a lot of enemies, but I'm intent on telling it like it really is. I haven't seen that very much. So I'm going to do that. It's almost finished, so it will probably take me only a couple of months to wrap it up. And as you probably know, getting it published will be the next step.


You were there at a crucial juncture in rock history, in the final throes of the Buffalo Springfield. Was that as chaotic a time as its been described? What do remember of those sessions when you were hired to play pedal steel?

Yeah, I was. I played on a song called "Kind Woman," and because we got the notion that we wanted to start our band, I hung out and was there for a lot of it. Anytime you have Neil Young involved in anything, there's going to be chaos, and there was chaos then and there will continue to be as long as Neil Young is involved in it I suspect.

They had to finish that record because they were contracted to Atlantic Records to give them one more album, and so they had to do it. But nobody really wanted to, I don't think. I certainly got that impression. And Neil, just like he did with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, when he recorded with them, he would go off and do his own thing with his own musicians and just brought it in and said here it is. That's the way he works, at least with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. So he wasn't there. I only saw him one day when he came in and heard the final mix on "Kind Woman."

Stephen (Stills) was in a studio down the hall doing his stuff by himself and Richie (Furay) and Jimmy (Messina) were by themselves working on their material. David Crosby was across the hall producing Joni Mitchell's first album, so there was a lot of interaction between those guys. It was an interesting time, yeah.

Was your original intention to carry on with the Springfield's legacy, but with the country rock element?

Richie had done it with "A Child's Claim to Fame" and "Kind Woman." That was the country part of the Springfield where Neil and Stephen were way more rock 'n' roll. You have to remember that in 1969, there weren't synthesizers, so if you actually wanted a certain sound, you had to have a real musician playing. So that's why I got involved, because I could play steel guitar and dobro and banjo and mandolin, and pretty much all the country instruments except for fiddle. So, I was color to Richie's country rock songs, and that was the whole idea, to use country sounding instruments.

Also, I pushed the envelope on steel guitar, playing it with a fuzz tone, because nobody was doing that, and playing it through a leslie speaker like an organ, and a lot of people thought I was playing an organ, because they didn't realize I was playing a steel guitar. So we were pushing the envelope in a lot of different ways, instrumentally and musically overall.

Today, the term Americana is such a widely used term, but Poco were really the pioneers of that whole genre, along with the latter Byrds and the Burrito Brothers. Do you think that Poco truly got credit for that?

Not really. It's confusing. I find that with journalists, if someone tells a journalist something, whether it's true or not and a journalist writes it down, and other journalists borrow it from that journalist, pretty soon, if a lie is told enough times then it becomes the truth, so the whole thing about Gram Parsons and the Byrds becoming the whole country rock band... It's just not really so. But you kind of had to be there to understand how that whole notion got started. I think things went the way they were supposed to go. We did have a big hit in 1978, and if it hadn't been for Richie leaving the band, and Timmy leaving the band, and Jimmy leaving the band, I never would have been a songwriter or a singer, so those things had to happen for my life to be the life it is. So I'm really pleased.

In the late '70s and early '80s, Poco had some chart hits with "Crazy Love" and "Heart of the Night." Was that a deliberate plan, to remake yourselves into a radio-ready hit making band?

No, I've just always written songs. What happened, in 1978 -- actually, at the end of '77 -- Timothy left the band to join the Eagles, and of course that was a really cool thing, because how many times do you get to join a band like the Eagles? So that left me and Paul (Cotton), and the record company was going to drop us.

So we had written some songs -- I had written "Crazy Love" and Paul had written "Heart of the Night" -- and our management decided to invite the people from our label down to a rehearsal studio and we played those songs for the. We said, "These are the songs we want to record and we think we will do well with them." And they agreed, so we went into the studio and recorded them and "Crazy Love" became number one in Billboard for six weeks. It was our first hit record, our first gold album, our first platinum album, and all that kind of stuff. The band didn't need another singer/songwriter when Richie and Jim were in the band. My job was to play steel guitar and make the music part of it. So when my job changed, it opened up a whole lot of opportunity for me. So I liked the way things went.


So this is really the end of the line after 45 years?

For me, it's time to stop. I'm tired. I'm going to be 68 in February -- 68-years-old -- and I think for me it's kind of silly to carry on. People say, "Well look at Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney." But the difference is that those guys have a private plane, a limo that takes them to the airport. They stay at a five star hotel, they go down to the gig and everything's set up for them... I have to load up all my gear, drive to the airport, get on a Southwest Airlines flight, drive all my gear to the hotel and then drag all my gear from the hotel to the stage, spend all day setting it up, play a show, tear down all the gear, drag it back to the hotel... If I lived the life that Mick Jagger lived, then I might consider playing on further, but not with the kind of touring that we have to do.


What about continuing to record? Have you ever considered doing a solo album?

That's one of the projects I just might do. I might just do a six song EP because I do have some songs. I love the songs on our new album, All Fired Up. Everyone has said it's the best thing we've recorded in 25 years and I agree. I think it's awesome. We have a new guy playing keyboards, Michael Webb that is just a brilliant musician. He plays accordion, B3, piano, mandolin, guitar, so between him and I there are so many different instruments we can bring in. So he's really been great. And our bass player, Jack Sundred, is terrific. And George Lawrence is a really great drummer.

So it's been a lot of fun and the band's great. But even with All Fired Up, there's not really a huge market for Poco anymore, and doing them is more of a vanity thing. We sell them at shows. That's really just about it. Everything has its time, and we had our time and it was great. I just really want to end on top, and for me we are ending on top, because our band is really, really good. It's one of the best Poco bands we've ever had, and maybe even the best. Our live shows are really, really great and the new CD is really, really great. So I feel like we're going out on top, showing what we can do. If the record sells 100 copies or a 100,000 copies, it's a work I'm really proud of and I think it's the record to end on. It's time.

Poco performs with special guests SOSOS at 9 p.m., on Saturday, October 26, at the Funky Biscuit, 303 S.E. Mizner Blvd., Royal Palm Place, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $60, $50, $45. Call 561-465-3946


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Lee Zimmerman