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Remembering Poco’s Rusty Young (Unpublished 2017 Interview with the Late Guitarist/Songwriter)
Guitarist, songwriter and co-founder of Poco Rusty Young was a valued friend of Rock Cellar for many years. We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him often, and he was generous with his time and tales.
The interview that follows was recorded on August 18, 2017 in advance of the September release of Young’s Waitin’ for the Sun album. In the chat, Young takes us on a journey through the ups and downs of his career with Poco — including how a dog wound up on the cover of their debut album — that has not been posted online until now, a reverent tribute to the man, who sadly passed away earlier this month after suffering a heart attack.
Country-rock pioneers Poco formed in 1968 after the breakup of Buffalo Springfield. Richie Furay and Jim Messina, both singers and guitarists, teamed with multi-instrumentalist Rusty Young, who had pitched in on Springfield’s final album. Bassist Randy Meisner and drummer George Grantham rounded out Poco’s rhythm section.
Over the years, Poco would become a launching pad for the careers of Furay (Souther-Hillman-Furay Band) and Messina (Loggins & Messina). Meisner, along with later member Timothy B. Schmit, would join the Eagles.
Though Poco recorded concert favorites like “You Better Think Twice” and “A Good Feelin’ to Know,” chart success was elusive until Young’s “Crazy Love” topped Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart in 1979. Paul Cotton, who joined the band in 1970, wrote “Heart of the Night,” another Top 5 hit.
Young, who also played guitar, pedal steel, dobro, banjo and mandolin, announced his retirement in 2013 after 45 years with Poco. But an offer by Blue Élan Records head Kirk Pasich brought Young back into the studio in 2017 to record Waitin’ for the Sun, a deeply personal solo album of original songs.
Young told Rock Cellar that Buffalo Springfield’s need for a pedal steel player on one of Furay’s songs would lead to musical relationships that have lasted a half-century.
Rest in peace, Rusty Young.
Rusty Young: A grade school friend of mine, Miles Thomas, went out to Los Angeles and became a roadie for Buffalo Springfield. I was still back in Denver playing in a local rock and roll band. They were in the studio recording Last Time Around. Richie had this song called “Kind Woman.” They said, “You know, a steel guitar would be really cool on this song,” and Miles said, “Well, hey, I know the best steel player there is. I can give him a call.” I got a call from Miles saying Buffalo Springfield wants you to play, come on out here.
The day I got in I went to the studio and met Jimmy and Richie and started recording “Kind Woman.” We had so much in common. Springfield was gone, they were just doing an album they were obligated to do for Atlantic. Jimmy and Richie were looking for their next project and the three of us just hit it off so well that we knew. They said, “Would you be interested in starting a band with us?” And that’s how Poco began.
Our concept was to take rock and roll lyrics and melodies, chord changes, and add country instruments as the color around them, because I play steel guitar and banjo and mandolin, all the country instruments. I could add that color and Jimmy played that James Burton, Ricky Nelson-kind of guitar. We could use this kind of country colors palette to choose from, and have it be rock and roll.
You have to remember at the time there weren’t synthesizers. So if you wanted to have a steel guitar, you actually had to have one, or a banjo, or a string section. You couldn’t have a synthesizer do it. So what I did was bring that to the band and give us both colors to choose from.
Rock Cellar: What were some of your first gigs?
Rusty Young: We started playing at the Troubadour. We auditioned and got to open up for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. People were going, “Whoa, what’s this thing?” And Ricky Nelson was actually there. It was really a nod to the music that he made in the early ’60s. We were trying to create a new genre with more country rock. Robert Hilburn, the music critic for the L.A. Times, wrote that Poco was “the next big thing.” Which was the kiss of death, by the way. It was a pretty exciting time. People were freaking out over what we were doing.
Rock Cellar: Describe that scene for me.
Rusty Young: We pretty much lived there. I saw Jim Morrison being drug out by his hair when he started screaming at the band that was playing on stage. I saw John Lennon when he threw a fit and was thrown out. We made a deal with the owner, Doug Weston. It was our rehearsal hall in the afternoons. And in turn we were the house band. Steve Martin was an opening act for us for a long time. I saw the Everly Brothers there; my buddy Hoyt Axton, we became really great friends. It was the place to be. People came to see “the next big thing” [laughs].
All the A&R people from all the labels were always there trying to snag that act that was gonna go all the way. People hung out, at the bar you’d see Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey was always there with J.D. Souther. It was a happening place.
Rock Cellar: Your expectations must have been sky-high when you formed the band with Richie and Jim. What was the plan as far as your roles?
Rusty Young: Richie was and is a very well-respected person in the music business, so that opened a lot of doors for us. Jimmy was an engineer and played bass in Springfield and was a great guitar player and Richie had a lot of songs. Jimmy wasn’t much of a writer at that point. Richie had a lot of tunes and we even started cutting some demos, calling on different people.
I thought Jimmy and Richie would know every great musician in Los Angeles and they knew a lot. Gregg Allman came and auditioned to be in the band before the Allman Brothers really hit. Gram Parsons came by and played for quite a while with us. And they knew a lot of great guys, but we never found a rhythm section that worked for Poco until I called Randy Meisner.
I always admired Randy and always wanted to play with him. So I got him to come over and play with the guys and they loved him. And then George Grantham, who is the drummer I played with in Colorado, I called him and he came out and auditioned. And he has such a great high voice. Between Randy, who is the high voice of all time, and George, we had these amazing vocals: Richie, George and Randy. It made a combination that you couldn’t beat.
Rock Cellar: Randy left before the debut album was completed. What happened?
Rusty Young: Randy and Richie didn’t get along. They had a dispute in the studio when they were mixing the album and Randy left the band. I was pretty much heartbroken. It was something that I guess had to happen. Look what happened to Randy. It was the best thing that could have happened to him. And then Timothy came in the band. Timothy had auditioned but I pushed hard for Randy and I think Richie and Timothy, they’re still really close to this day, I think Richie really wanted Timothy in the band from the very beginning. So it worked out for everybody; it certainly worked out for Randy and it worked out for Tim.
Rock Cellar: When Randy left, the album cover of Pickin’ Up the Pieces was already done. What happened?
Rusty Young: [Laughs] Poor Randy. The cover was this painting an artist had done. And it had Randy on it. Everyone was not happy because Randy left the band. Clive Davis about had a coronary. It affected the band coming out. Epic wasn’t so interested anymore because the band had changed. The artist refused to make a new painting. We wanted just the four of us. So somehow he took Randy out, he painted over Randy and put a dog in there. I don’t know whose idea that was.
Rock Cellar: Messina left the band in 1970 and was replaced by Paul Cotton. Then in 1973, Furay decided to leave.
Rusty Young: When Richie left the band we were called up to David Geffen’s office, he managed us. Immediately Richie went into Geffen’s office, we were outside sitting on the couch. Geffen comes out and he says “OK, Richie’s quitting the band,” which was a big deal at the time because he wrote most of the songs and he was the reason we had a band. It was a big moment in the history of Poco.
Geffen starts at the front of the couch and he looks at Timothy B. and he says, “Timothy, now you write and you sing songs, don’t you?” And Timothy said, “Yes I do.” Geffen said, “Don’t worry, Richie’s leaving but you’ll be fine, your career is safe.” He went Paul and he said, “You sing and you write songs too, don’t you Paul?” Paul said, “Yes I do.” He said, “Don’t worry, your career is just fine, don’t worry about a thing.” Then he looked at me and at the time I was on the cover of Guitar Player magazine, I was in their Gallery of Greats with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, I had won every award you could win as an instrumentalist, nominee for Grammy, all that kind of stuff. And looked at me and he said, “You don’t sing and you don’t write songs, right?” And I said, “No I don’t.” And he said, “Well, you’re in trouble.”
That was when the little light bulb went off over my head. OK, I get it, the people who are important in the music business are the people who sing and write songs. And I was determined not to be left behind. So I decided I really need to learn how to do this.
I always felt that I was an artist because I was always good with words and melody, but I never put the two together. I’d always put all my concentration into making this other guy’s songs the best they could be, interpreting the best I could, and helping the most I could. So at that point I turned to seeing if I could write the best I could and seeing if I didn’t have the gift as well. And it turns out I did, so I have to thank David Geffen. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have started writing and singing.
Rock Cellar: Songs like “You Better Think Twice” and “Good Feeling to Know” were all over FM radio during the early ’70s but didn’t do well commercially. How did the band feel about putting out these great songs and not getting recognized for them?
Rusty Young: Back in those days there were two radio formats, AM and FM. We were the darlings of FM. We got a lot of airplay on FM and the Eagles were the darlings of AM. They had AM hits. The bands that were really huge, like Santana and Chicago, would have an AM hit and they were also huge on FM. We were primarily an FM underground hit and people liked us for that, but we weren’t an AM hit. That was the frustration, especially for Richie, because we were writing songs we thought were really good but they weren’t AM hits. They didn’t have whatever it was it took to get on AM radio — until we got to 1978 and “Crazy Love.”
The notion that we were too country for rock and too rock for country, I’m not sure I really buy that. I know some people do. But I think that we just didn’t have that song, we didn’t have that song that clicked.
Rock Cellar: Who were your writing influences?
Rusty Young: I was lucky enough to be taught by the very best. In the early days, after Springfield broke up, Neil Young would come by Richie’s little cottage in Laurel Canyon. He was working on his first solo record. And a few times he would have his guitar with him, or he’d pick up one of Richie’s and he’d start playing a song he was working on and sometimes there’d just be the two of us.
And I started learning about that stuff, watching the writing process with Richie. In the ’70s, Poco and America were managed by the same people, Hartmann and Goodman. So I was around those guys a lot, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek, and I watched them write. They called me in to play on their records when they were produced by George Martin and so I got to meet George. And learn that recording process, how you make records, and how you write records. I had all these influences around me that were so positive and there was so much to learn about recording and writing. And I had these great teachers. I had the very best, all I had to do was watch and learn.
Rock Cellar: Your own “Rose of Cimarron” was another great song that got a lot of FM airplay. Tell me about writing that.
Rusty Young: We were in Oklahoma and I saw a pamphlet, they have them in hotels, advertising the home of Rose of Cimarron. And I saw that phrase “Rose of Cimarron,” I thought, those words are actually beautiful. And so I took it and I didn’t think much about it and I wrote a little bit. Then I got a call from a friend, Stuart Margolin. Stuart was Angel on The Rockford Files. He did a lot of TV and record production in L.A. besides being an actor.
He said, “I’m going to produce a record on Roy Rogers. Do you have any songs?” And I thought, “Boy, ‘Rose of Cimarron,’ that’s perfect because Roy was lead singer in Sons of the Pioneers, which was one of my favorite harmony bands of all time. They were Crosby Stills & Nash before CSN. So I thought “Rose of Cimarron,” this would be perfect. If I finish this song and I make it a contemporary song musically, but use the Sons of the Pioneers-kind of lyrics, this would be a great record for Roy Rogers. So I finished it, went into the studio, met Roy Rogers, played the song. Stuart and Roy loved it and Roy for some reason went a different direction and didn’t record an album. He decided he wasn’t going to do it.
I played the song for the guys in the band and they loved it, so we cut it and it turned out to be the title track and it’s been recorded more than any other Poco song. All over the world. It was a big hit in Germany and Australia by other artists. And Emmy Lou Harris recorded it. It turned out to be a classic Poco song.
Rock Cellar: By 1979 Meisner, Furay and Schmit are gone and it’s you and Paul Cotton with the writing responsibilities and you come up with Poco’s two biggest hits. Tell me about writing and recording “Crazy Love.”
Rusty Young: Tim had just left the band to join the Eagles and George left to play drums in the Byrds. It was just me and Paul. And the label was gonna drop us. We had written “Heart of the Night” and “Crazy Love” and we’d been in the studio rehearsing and thinking about putting together a new band and trying to find musicians for a new rhythm section. When the label decided to drop us, we had management come down, we said, “We have some new songs we think are really good.” And we played them “Heart of the Night,” “Crazy Love” and “Spellbound.” And they said, “Listen, let’s get the label down here.”
So the ABC people came down to the rehearsal hall. We played them “Crazy Love,” “Heart of the Night” and “Spellbound” and they said, “Go make a record.” That was the turning point. “Crazy Love” turned out to be our first and only Number One and that was the first album that actually went platinum. Our first gold record and first platinum record that Poco ever had. Against all odds. Here’s the guy that didn’t sing and didn’t write.
Rock Cellar: You retired in 2013, so how did you come to record Waitin’ for the Sun?
Rusty Young: I thought it was about time to wind down. I’m 71 now and the road is long, the road is tough. Travelling these days is really difficult unless you’re a big star with a private plane. It’s real work. That hour-and-a-half or so on stage is wonderful and the band is so great. I’ve got these great guys I’m playing with: Michael Webb on keyboards, Rick Lonow, our new drummer, was with Flying Burrito Brothers and he’s the perfect drummer for Poco. And then Jack Sundrud, our bass player, has been with me since 1985 and we’re just this great little team, super-good little Poco band. I really love playing and I hated to give that up, but it’s so stressful.
So I was playing a concert in California with Jimmy Messina. And Kirk Pasich came up to me after the thing and he said, “Hi, I have a label, have you ever thought about doing a solo record?” And so we got to talking. Everyone from Poco has made a solo record, Richie and Timmy and Randy and Paul but me. And I started thinking, maybe if fate would have it, this is my time. I went home and I finished a couple of songs I’d been working on and I called him up and I said, I think I’d like to do this.
It took a year because I wrote about 20 songs and 10 made this CD, 10 that I was really proud of. Went into Cash Cabin in Henderson, Tennessee, Johnny Cash’s old place, and we cut these songs and here we go.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about some of the tracks. “My Friend” has some old friends on it.
Rusty Young: When I wrote that song I was thinking about all the guys in the band and how life has been really good to all of us. And so I thought, this song, the chorus is perfect for Tim and Richie. So I sent them emails saying “I got a song I think you guys would be really great on. Would you sing it?”
I thought it would be a perfect song for our three voices and it was really about all of us. And even the people that aren’t here today, like Gram Parsons and Greg Allman, who had been with us in the very beginning.
And then I started doing the song live in concert and I realized that the song’s really about everybody, about all the Poco people who’d been with us all these years. I started realizing in concert when I started looking at the audience singing these words that it’s really words about all of us, it’s about all of us over this last 50 years.
Rock Cellar: What was your inspiration for the title track?
Rusty Young: “Waitin’ for the Sun” is about writing this album. I started with a clean slate. I get up at 4, 4:30 in the morning while my wife Mary is sleeping and I sneak downstairs and I have a cup of coffee. I grab my guitar and I’ve got my paper and pencil. We live in a cabin in the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. We overlook the mountains, there’s a river below, we’re up on a bluff and I’ll start in the dark and I’ll watch the sun come up. And the birds start to sing and it’s so inspiring. I’ll take these ideas that I’ve had in my sleep or during the day before and I start working on them. And so “Waitin’ for the Sun” is exactly that process.
Rock Cellar: Songs like “Honey Bee” and “Down Home” have a roots feel. What was the inspiration for them?
Rusty Young: “Down Home” is about the cabin here. Living in Missouri and the friends that we’ve made. And it’s a classic kind of Poco track. It could go all the way back to “Grand Junction” on the first record. It’s got that classic country rock feel.
“Honey Bee,” I was thinking about my grandparents. That’s where I got my musical ability from. My grandmother was a little red-headed piano player and in the ’20s and ’30s she use to play in movie theaters. When there were silent movies, they’d have a piano player who would just make up music that would go along with what they saw on the screen. So she was constantly writing music. And then my grandfather had a big band in Colorado and he played at all the big resorts in the mountains for wealthy people. So I was envisioning a song that my grandparents would have played, a song that they might have heard back in the ’20s and ’30s.
Rock Cellar: You wrap up the album with a rocker, “Gonna Let the Rain.” What kind of music is the most fun for you to write and perform?
Rusty Young: Rock and roll songs like that one are really a lot of fun to play and I can’t wait to do that one live. They’re all really fun. I love playing “My Friend” because the best music is music that stands by itself. And I can play that song all by myself and you still get it. It doesn’t need to have bass and drums.
Some songs like “Gonna Let the Rain,” it’s really fun and it needs bass and drums and rockin’ B-3 and all that. So they’re all really fun in different ways. But I love the songwriter-folk singer songs that stand by themselves like “My Friend.” Or “Sara’s Song,” which is a song I wrote about my one and only daughter getting married. She wanted me to sing a song at her wedding so I wrote that song and sang it at her wedding. Those are real special.
As part of our RockCellarTV interview series, Young also spent some time with us a couple of years back for an intimate Q&A, in which he discussed his career, songwriting and beyond. Here are those interviews and a performance of “Crazy Love,” as our salute to the man.
October 14, 2021