Pure Prairie League Still ‘Bustin Out’

Pure Prairie League bassist Mike Reilly talks with Pollstar about the pioneering country-rock band, it string of now-legendary album covers and why artists should always hold on to their master tapes

Formed in Columbus, Ohio, in the late 1960s, Pure Prairie League took its first steps in the form of a group of friends coming together to play cover tunes.  Original material followed, resulting in the band’s self-titled 1972 debut album.

The first album also introduced a character that has become the personification of PPL.  With the album sporting a Norman Rockwell image of an old cowhand named “Sad Luke,” Pure Prairie League adapted the style of the artist’s painting and has appeared on every one of the band’s albums.

Looking back at the band’s 45 years of history, Reilly admitted that “it gets a little complicated sometimes …”

(Clockwise) Mike Reilly, Scott Thompson, Donnie Clark and John David Call.

Did you ever think PPL would last this long?

I don’t think anybody who puts together or joins a rock ’n’ roll band ever thinks it’s going to last 45 years but it’s just one of those serendipitous things.  We had our eye on something and sort of kept to it and it still seems to work this way.

We didn’t start out the band planning on a 45- or 50-year career. There’s been a number of personnel changes over the years and we’ve sort of expanded on the style and gotten to stretch ourselves musically and creatively.  I think that’s the secret to longevity, not being just stuck to one thing or one person.

Can you still hear traces of the band’s early years in new recordings and the live shows?

Absolutely.  We do a lot of songs from the first three or four albums just because those are the ones people are most familiar with.  We like to pay tribute to those songs. They were great songs.  I think all the stuff we did out of the 158 tunes in our catalog, I don’t feel there’s a real clam anywhere. 

There’s more than traces.  Our pedal steel guitar player, John David Call, he’s one of the founding members.  As far as I’m concerned, it was his steel guitar playing and Craig Fuller’s voice that defined the sound of Pure Prairie League.

But are there echoes of the band’s early years in the newer material?  That is, do you still hear the band’s roots when playing or recording new material?

We don’t forget where we came from.  We do what we do. It’s not like we’re trying to do everything differently.  Once again, with John Call’s addition and re-introductions of the band, it really brings the sound back to the early days as well as the middle part of the band’s history.

Pure Prairie League recently returned the Grand Ole Opry one year after making at the legendary Nashville venue.  In the early years, did the country music establishment welcome Pure Prairie League onto the scene?

Well, [they said] we were upstarts playing rock ’n’ roll.  In the late ’60s and early ’70s country music was still wearing hats.  The people who were ruling country music were people like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and people like that.  We weren’t as derivatively country as those straight country acts.  But we had our influences that we exercised with rock ’n’ roll chops. Hence the beginning of country rock as a genre or a legitimate pigeonhole for that type of music.

During part of that time period you mentioned – the early ’70s – the then-growing field of what in retrospect might be called country rock and soft rock was getting a lot of airplay.   The Eagles were just beginning to take off as were groups like Seals & Crofts, America and Loggins & Messina.  Do you think the time was right for Pure Prairie League and that appearing within that context of all these other acts receiving airplay contributed to the band’s success almost as much as the music itself?

No.  It was always music first.  We felt frustrations as a lot of artists did back in those days that people were trying to pigeonhole us one way or another.

We signed with RCA in 1971 and basically their Nashville division didn’t want anything to do with us because we weren’t country enough for Nashville.

So they sent us to the Los Angeles division and LA and New York said they’re too country for us to put on rock stations.  It was the shortsightedness, I think, of the music business at that time that there was a need to categorize very strictly so they could have X amount of country acts, X amount of rock acts, X amount of hard rock, X amount of prog-rock on their roster and they tried to keep all those balls in the air and keep them balanced.  Whereas that’s not the idea and the object behind bands signing record deals.  It was to get their music out there, not to satisfy the needs of the record companies’ fields of vision but to exercise creative muscles and have somebody who signed them and believed in them to work their stuff.

That’s why everybody always wanted to be on Warner Bros., because they had creative people working for them as opposed to attorneys and accountants who were calling themselves A&R people in those days. 

I’m not dissing those guys, that’s just the way it was.  But when you recognize that and have to work within that framework, you can add gentle bits of persuasion from the artistic end that didn’t give them as much latitude as they think they have.

Do you think today’s music fans are more receptive to different genres than in PPL’s early years?

Absolutely because the doors have been opened starting in the 1960s to 50 years later where almost any kind of music is acceptable and legitimate to some part of the fan base and the general consumer public.

While performing today, when you’re standing on stage looking out at the audience, what do you see?

I see people put their heads back a little bit, their eyes seem to close or roll back … If I could look inside their heads I would see them reliving their college days or reliving an old time where some of these songs we’re playing now take them back to a day when those songs were part of the song tracks to their lives. And that is extremely gratifying.

You were doing 275 shows a year when the band was young.  How did balance everything that happens in young man’s life, such as starting a family, with the rigors of the road and career?

At that time we didn’t have a life.  We were doing what we wanted to do – playing music for as many people as we could.  We basically had to make the choice to give up certain freedoms … freedom to do other things because the touring schedule was constant [and] we had to put out a record every year.  It’s called “building a career.”  Regardless, a job is a job and we felt the responsibility to do our jobs.  So we told the booking agency, “Put us everywhere so we can get our music out there.  You do your job and we’ll do our job.”

Are longtime fans bringing their own families to PPL shows?

Yes.  There was a gal in Colorado last year, she’s a grandmother now, but she brought her daughter, Amie, to the show.  And her daughter Amie had her granddaughter Amie with her.  The [Colorado] woman’s name was also Amie, but not necessarily named after the song.  Then she named her daughter after the song and then her daughter loved the song so much she named her own daughter Amie.  So there were three generations of Amies.  They came up to introduce themselves and we had to get pictures.  Things like that, it’s pretty amazing for us as artists to think those songs actually meant so much to somebody validates what we do creatively.

Pure Prairie League also had an excellent line of album covers featuring the band’s “Luke” character.

That was part of the thing.  That’s not in small part due to the fact that our original art director at RCA, Acey Lehman, when he heard the name of the band he said, “I’ve got the perfect idea for an album cover” and contacted Norman Rockwell who was a friend of his, and the Saturday Evening Post. All of a sudden we were a brand before the term was ever popularized.  And it served us very well in the 45 years.

Does the band own its own masters?

Actually, the labels own all the masters and it’s been an extremely difficult thing to get licenses for our own material.  I own the masters to an album we recorded in 1987 before the band took a hiatus.  It was an album called Mementos and we recorded it for a compact disc manufacturer in Dublin, Ohio.  He went out of business and I bought the masters and that’s the only album I own.  But that album contains performances by all the band members that had been in PPL previously.  It has songs like “Amie,” “Let Me Love You Tonight,” “Two-Lane Highway,” “Country Song” – a lot of songs [for which] we decided to bring back the members as kind of a “thank you and good night” and reprise those songs. 

That’s the only album that I actually own.  Trying to get RCA to re-release the live album is like pulling teeth from a grizzly bear.

Are you still trying to acquire ownership of all the masters?

Yeah.  I flew to Lyndhurst, N.J., to the RCA warehouses many, many years ago. They showed me the pile of master tapes, the two-inch masters and the one-inch half-track masters.  They were in a pile in a corner of the warehouse in a big puddle of water, oxide sitting at the bottom of the boxes and the boxes were basically disintegrated from sitting in water.  They didn’t really treat their masters all that well.  What they have left and what they’ve reissued and quote/unquote “remastered,” I’m wondering where they actually got the stuff. … I don’t think they were from the original masters.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

They had so many acts and so many things going on and when it’s a priority, it’s a priority and when it’s not you’re an afterthought and good luck …

We tried for years and spent tens and tens of thousands of dollars trying to get them to license us.  We’d love to put the live album out again.  It was one of the best live albums ever made.  They re-released it in other parts but it’s not that live Takin’ The Stage album. … That’s just the way it is.

Does the band have control over publishing?

The band has control since 1975, from the Two Lane Highway album.  We learned our lesson on our first two albums because RCA took half of the publishing and wanted it all [but] the writers retained at least half of the publishing and then their full writers’ share.  You can imagine the amount of money RCA made from the Bustin’ Out album and the single, “Amie.’  But we had learned our lesson.  So when we re-signed with RCA in 1975, they said, “We want your publishing” and we said, “Nope.”

That was one of the smartest things we ever did – keeping our publishing.  Part of it was a band publishing company and the publishing also went with the people who wrote the songs in the band. 

That has enabled us to basically stay together all these years.  When we reformed in 1999, I sold half of our publishing in order to get the money to put the band back together.

What were those early rehearsal sessions like when PLL reformed?  Was it like an actual reunion of old friends?

We were always friends. Craig and I played golf together and hung out together.  We were always in communication with each other but we’d pretty much had it with the roadwork.  By 1987 we decided, “OK, we’re all turning 40.  We should start looking into, maybe, having families and having stable lives.” Nobody gave up music but we gave up touring for a while.  By 1999 when most of our kids were in high school and our wives had had enough of us, they said, “Oh, sure. Go out and play a couple of gigs. Have your middle age fun.”

We got together a couple of times just to discuss it, how logistically it would work.  When we finally got together to play, that smile comes across your face, all those issues of the past had long faded away and it was like, “Wow! We can do this and we can do it better than we ever did it.”

Photo: Doug Seymour
F.M. Kirby Center For Perf. Arts, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

During those first conversations about reforming PPL – did you and your band mates spend more time talking about what you didn’t want to do?  That is, saying this time around you didn’t want to do this or that?  Or were the talks more positive and about what you wanted to do?

Actually, the gist of those initial conversations was, “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right and do it on our terms.”

We chose the songs we wanted to play, that we thought would be good to play, that represented the band’s career up to that point.  And we still do it that way.  We started playing songs in the last couple of years that we haven’t played since 1972 and 1973 and thought they’d been buried too long.  Now that we’ve dusted them off, they’re kicking some serious butt. It’s so much fun playing these old songs as well as everything in the catalog.  What a gas [it’s like] to play a song like “Woman” … and we’re having a great time with it.

 In an hour and a half, two hour show, we’ll play 25 or 30 songs, only half of them they would have thought, “Ok, “Amie,” “Two Lane Highway,” “Kansas City Southern,” “I’ll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle,” “Let Me Love You Tonight.”

But all of a sudden we play “Woman,” “Angel” from the Bustin’ Out album, we play “Country Song” from the first album, stuff from the third album, like “Harvest.” It’s a great cross section of tunes and it’s kind of a fluid thing depending on the night and the venue. It’s so much fun to be able to pull these things out and do them.

What is Pure Prairie League’s touring operation like?

We have Southwest Airlines and Enterprise minivans. We’re all on the A list for Southwest.  They fly instruments for free and they’re musician and instrument friendly.  They let a couple of the guys carry their guitars and put them in the overhead bins as opposed to checking them.  I’ve got my bass guitar in a shotgun case. It’s pretty well protected.  The TSAs love me.  I’ve got my case stenciled, “Not a firearm. Musical instrument inside.”

Sounds like life has been pretty good for the members of Pure Prairie League.

It’s been an amazing ride. All the things we’ve done and the places we’ve been, we’ve been in every state in the Union at least six times.  We’re going back to Alaska for the seventh time next month.  It’s an amazing thing.  To show up in cities where people who came to see us in the ’70s and ’80s  are coming to these shows again and bringing their kids with them. What a thrill.  It’s like, “Wow, this is our life and we’re still living it.”  And, for a moment, so is [the audience].

I can’t complain at all about a career like this and a band like Pure Prairie League.  We’ve had our ups and downs, we’ve had our personnel changes and it’s always been a positive thing.  We’ve made the best out of it and tried to continue to doing what we set out to do in 1968 and ’69 and that was [presenting] good music that people could enjoy and we could enjoy playing.

“All of a sudden we were a brand before the term was ever popularized.  And it served us very well in the 45 years.”

July 31 – Annapolis, Md., Rams Head On Stage
Aug. 1 – Old Saybrook, Conn., Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center
Aug. 2 – Natick, Mass., Center for Arts in Natick
Aug. 3 – Alexandria, Va., Birchmere
Aug. 4 – Fairfield, Conn., Fairfield Theatre StageOne
Aug. 31 – Palmer, Ak.,  Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds
Sept. 1 – Palmer, Ak  Borealis Theater (Alaska State Fair)
Sept. 6 – Remus, Mich., Wheatland Festival Grounds (Wheatland Music Festival)
Sept. 21 – Steelville, Mo., Wildwood Springs Lodge
Nov. 1 – Chicago, Ill., Mayne Stage Theatre
Nov. 2 – Green Lake, Wis., Thrasher Opera House
Jan. 14 – Lancaster, Pa., American Music Theatre 

Please visit PurePrairieLeague.com for more information.