‘Pickin’ Up the Pieces’ with Poco’s Rusty Young
Rusty Young is a fortunate man. He speaks of his good fortune with humbleness and a sense of wonder, even after all these years. Known as the heart and soul of the country rock band Poco, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist co-founded the group in 1968. Their number one hit single, “Crazy Love,” written and sung by Young, was released 10 years later.
Poco celebrated the group’s 50th anniversary in 2018, commemorating decades of chart-topping albums and singles. While Rusty Young continues to be the nucleus of the group, the original members have remained friends, collaborators, and touring bandmates in various formats over the years. Young was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2013. A virtuoso on pedal steel guitar, he is regarded as an innovator on the instrument.
The multi-talented musician has never stopped honing his skills. Young released a digital single this March to raise funds for an animal shelter, and he wrote and recorded in 2017 his debut solo album, titled Waitin’ For The Sun.
Attendees at Saturday’s concert are in for a rare treat. According to the band’s website, pocoband.com, “It’s Poco’s live performances where their newfound attitude and energy truly goes to the next level.”
“We challenge each other every time we’re onstage,” says Young, “which means that no two shows are ever alike.”
I spoke with him recently while he was relaxing at home in Missouri, where he and his wife have a cabin overlooking the Mark Twain National Forest.
SG: I’m really enjoying the songs on Waitin’ For The Sun. I read that you did the sessions at Johnny Cash’s former studio in Tennessee, which must’ve been a trip. I’m not familiar with your label, Blue Élan Records, but they have some interesting, seasoned artists.
RY: They’re such neat people. Kirk (Pasich), the guy who owns the label, is a big music fan, so he signs people whose music he likes. They’re like a family, a great bunch of people. It was a lot of fun recording the album. Joe Hardy mastered and mixed it. He mixed all of ZZ Top’s records. We were very lucky to get him.
SG: The bass (played by longtime Poco bassist/vocalist Jack Sundrud) really caught my attention – such a melodic, warm sound. Is Jack playing bass and singing on the current tour?
RY: Yes! He’s been in the band since 1985. He’s my best friend. In the band, on drums we have Rick Lonow, who was with the Flying Burrito Brothers, the last version of that band. We have a newer member now … a guy who plays fiddle, mandolin, and guitar, named Lex Browning. Because he plays fiddle and mandolin, and I play dobro, we can do things together like fiddle and dobro solos. Lex is also our lead guitar player and he sings. It’s a lot of fun, because it’s four guys who get along really well and there’s no intrigue in the band!
SG: And everyone in the band sings! Do you write songs with harmony in mind, and how do you guys work out the parts?
RY: These days it just falls into place. Maybe we were more conscious of that in the early days, but now it’s pretty much second nature. I mostly sing lead vocals and some high harmony. Jack will sing above me when we need a high part. Back in the old days, Richie (Furay) mostly sang lead, but he also sang a lot of high harmonies. We used to tune our guitars down half a step because he’d lose his voice on the road from trying to sing high. (laughs) That used to be a problem … but I’m really lucky because my voice is the same as always, for better or worse, it’s the same as it’s always been. I haven’t had a hard time with my voice.
SG: Are you always working on new song ideas?
RY: Yeah, pretty much every day. You know how songs will come to you, or you’ll get an idea or you have a riff. I have a guitar with me all the time, virtually. I’m always picking it up and trying out things, or recording them on the phone, and I have my pad that’s full of song ideas, lyric ideas. I’ve been working on a book for over 10 years now, so I’m just now wrapping that up. I take turns between writing songs and writing my memoir.
SG: I read Clive Davis’ memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life. He said, when you were starting out in the late-’60s, that Poco was a band with “bright harmonies” and “a great deal of commercial promise.” That’s quite a compliment coming from someone of his stature.
RY: Clive Davis is real interesting. When we gave him our first album, Pickin’ Up The Pieces (1969), he called us up to his skyscraper office there in New York City, and he said, “I wanna play you your new single.” So he played “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” for us. It was back in the day with the old reel-to-reel tape. So he played the song, and when it was over, Richie said to him, “Clive, that sounds pretty good, except what happened to the steel guitar? There’s no steel guitar on the record.”
Clive Davis had taken me off the record! He said, “Don’t you know you can’t have a hit record with steel guitar on it?” (laughs) I didn’t get along real well with Clive. I’ve got stories in my book about Clive that he’s not going to be happy with. Like the one I just told you.
SG: Wow! Well, I can’t wait to read your book. When you’re on the road these days, how do you maintain your health, your vocal cords, your sanity? It’s such a taxing lifestyle.
RY: You know, in the old days when we would tour, we went on the road for six months. With a lot of bands like Poco and America and Firefall, these days, the way we tour is, it’s basically weekends. We fly to a city, rent a car, next day maybe drive three to four hours to another performing arts center, and it works out great. I couldn’t be on the road for six months at a stretch anymore. I’m just a little too old for that, but now all we do is carry our guitars. Backline provides the drums and amps and all that kinda stuff. It makes it nice. You don’t have to have trucks and crews and all that. You just plug your guitar in, and jump up and down, and pretend like you’re havin’ fun. (laughs)
SG: So, what can we expect to hear in Fernandina? Do you perform Poco’s familiar hit songs along with your recent material?
RY: Yeah, we pretty much cover everything. In the first five songs, it’s kind of a medley of one song into the next. We start with the latest Poco title track, called “All Fired Up,” and then we go into “Pickin’ Up The Pieces,” which was the band’s very first title track …and we just kinda sail through that stuff. Then, we weave in two of my favorite songs to do. They’re from Waitin’ For The Sun. One’s called “My Friend” and the other is called “Hey There.”
“My Friend” is a really neat song because it’s about the band and looking back on all the years. You know, when we first started out in 1968, there’s five guys onstage at The Troubadour in Santa Monica, California, and to think about what would happen to those five guys. … We had no money. We just had this idea. We wanted to play music that was rock-n-roll music, but still used country instruments and had a country influence to it, but we never would’ve guessed when we were playing on that stage that, well, you know. … It was Randy Meisner, who started the Eagles, Jim Messina, and Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield, and me carrying on the Poco thing (George Grantham played drums). So you have four of the biggest bands in American rock-n-roll history, all represented in those guys who were onstage every night at The Troubadour. What other band is there that has that kind of a legacy? Loggins & Messina, Buffalo Springfield, Eagles, Poco, all came from the same band, and … I think it’s a pretty special deal.
So, I wrote “My Friend,” saying here we are after all these years, same as we were back then, so long ago. It’s just kind of my ode to the 50 years and that we’re still surviving. That song is an ode to the history of Poco and I love playing that every night.
SG: Will you be able to unwind after the show and hang around for a little while?
RY: After the show we’re always available to sign autographs, and we have T-shirts and CDs and stuff like that. We will be out in the middle of the crowd shaking hands and kissing babies. I’m looking forward to it.
SG: And I hope you’ll get to try some of our local, wild-caught shrimp!
RY: Me too, that sounds great!
Susan Gallion, who lives on Amelia Island, is a Grammy Award-nominated songwriter, studio musician, and former backup singer for Tammy Wynette.