Founded in 1968, Poco was a forerunner to the whole country-rock movement. In fact, its debut, Pickin' up the Pieces, is often considered one of the movement's defining albums. Since that time, the band has undergone countless lineup changes, and now singer-guitarist Rusty Young is the sole original member still involved with the group. He spoke about the band's legacy (and shared a funny story about onetime Byrd Gram Parsons) during a phone interview from his home in rural Missouri.
You've been spending some time in a Nashville studio recording new material. What are you working on?
We have a new configuration. Between two and three years ago, we added Michael Webb, who's a great keyboard player out of Nashville who played sessions on everyone's records. We wanted to document this version of the band because it's so good live. All the Poconuts are really thrilled, and we wanted to document that so it could be compared to the other eras. We have 12 songs recorded now, and we will finish up at the end of this month, and we just have to mix and master and get it out before Christmas.
Michael Webb is the "young" guy in the band. What does he bring to the table?
He brings a fire. He loves the band and that's why he joined. He's a fan of the band and he brings a different perspective. Because he is younger, he has more fire in the belly. He pushes me for sure to do things I wouldn't be doing now. Truthfully, I didn't think I'd still be playing in the band much longer, but once he joined, it's been so much fun. I'm hanging in there and going to keep doing it for a while.
What's been the key to keeping Poco alive for over 40 years?
Gee whiz. That's a good one. There's always been a great fan base for the band. They've been so strong and so behind us, through all the changes. The band has always had great musicians in it. If we change directions, they stand by us. The basics of what Poco started out to be in 1968 are still in the band. The new album will be titled All Fired Up, and the title track is the first song of our set. We play four new songs. And the title track sounds like Pickin' up the Pieces and all those songs from the Richie Furay era with the mandolin and dobra. It's a going-to-the-hoedown kind of song. We also have songs that are way rock 'n' roll. We've had great songwriters in the band over the years and great musicians, and those things have kept it alive.
How many different lineups have there been?
There haven't been as many as people think. The first lineup was Randy Meisner, Jim Messina, and Richie Furay and me and George Grantham. First, Richie and Randy got into it. And then Randy left the band. And then Richie and Jimmy got into it and Jimmy left the band. And then Richie got into it with the rest of us and he left the band. I detect a theme.
Wikipedia lists about 20 different lineups.
Wikipedia is so stupid. They have me listed as road manager for Buffalo Springfield, which is totally wrong. I'm writing a book because there are so many things that are written that just aren't true. I want to tell some of the backstage stories. We played with Hendrix and Janis Joplin. and I have great Who and Keith Moon stories about what happened in the hotels and in the studio. I'm trying to set the record straight on a lot of that stuff.
Tell me one behind-the-scenes story that nobody else knows.
I'll tell you the Gram Parsons story. We invited Gram by before he joined the Byrds. We were trying to put Poco together, and we had a concept, but not the musicians. Richie and Gram were friends, and Gram came by and we played together for two or three weeks and at one point, I was talking to Richie about this notion of country rock, and I said that Buck Owens was really rock with a country twist. Richie had never seen Buck Owens live, and he was playing at Disneyland. Gram said he knew Buck and wanted to go. We all met up at Disneyland, and Richie and I went through the gate, and we heard this commotion by the entrance. We walk down there and it was Gram Parsons. They weren't going to let him in, and he was throwing a fit. At the time, they had a "no gay" policy. If they thought you were gay, they would not let you in. No Prince Charming. Gram had just come back from Europe and he had been hanging out with Keith Richards and David Bowie, and when we went down there to see what was going on, Gram was wearing a dress. He was a real pretty guy. He was strikingly handsome, and he always wore that necklace or dog collar thing. You put him in a dress and there you go. He was arguing with this big, giant lady in a blue uniform. Finally, he managed to get ahold of Buck, and his manager straightened it out, and Gram got in. Backstage after the show, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton were hanging out. They were giving Gram a hard time. He said he just got back from Europe and told them they'd all be wearing dresses because it was what was going on. Cash looked puzzled and said, "Really? Do they make that in black?"
Pickin' Up the Pieces is generally regarded as one of the greatest country rock albums of all time. Did you know at the time that you were doing something truly unique?
Oh yeah. First of all, in putting together the band, we auditioned all kinds of different people. GreggAllman played with us for three weeks. I was running out of money and was going to move back to Colorado. I wanted to play with Randy Meisner. I thought he was a unique talent and just had the best and coolest voice. Randy came and everybody loved him, and I said I knew a drummer in Colorado, and George came out and played drums, and we had our rhythm section. We started playing the Troubadour, which at the time was the showplace venue in Los Angeles. Our first night, we opened for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, back when they were a jug band. The place went nuts, and after that we were the house band for a year. Steve Martin was one of our opening acts. It was obvious that something was happening. George Harrison would be in the audience. Waylon Jennings would be in the audience. Robert Hilburn from the L.A. Times came to see us and said we were the next big thing. There was a bidding war over the band, and we knew it was something special. Other bands were changing, and the Dirt band became electric and started to be like us. Gram Parsons went to the Byrds and told them we were doing stuff they should do, so they did Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It was really exciting.
Is there a particularly strong contingent of Poconuts in Northeast Ohio?
I don't know. There's a pretty strong contingent everywhere. There are hotbeds in St. Louis and New York and New Jersey. You should be sure to let people know we do old songs from Pickin' up the Pieces. When I go to see bands play, I expect to hear the hits, and that's what we do. After every show, we go to the merch booth and sign things and get to meet everyone, too.