Talking With Poco’s Rusty Young

Poco co-founder Rusty Young talks with Pollstar about the band from its early days in Southern California to the present, encompassing almost a half century of music.

Rising out of the ashes of Buffalo Springfield, Poco’s original 1968 lineup included Young along with Richie Furay, Jim Messina, Randy Meisner and George Grantham.  Considered one of the leaders of the then-fledgling southern rock movement, Poco has withstood personnel changes, clueless label execs and other trials and tribulations to become the solid touring band it is today.

And it’s been one helluva ride for Young, who will experience yet another career highlight when he’s inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall Of Fame Aug. 31.

During his conversation with Pollstar, Young described his days as a young steel guitarist from Colorado who moved to Los Angeles to play on Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around album, his days (and nights) at West Hollywood’s Troubadour nightclub; and how Poco has not only survived but thrived through good times and bad.

And if  you finish this interview thinking, “Wow!  He should write a book!” – Young is way ahead of you and is already hard at work chronicling his experiences.

Photo: Rick Malkin
Left to right – Michael Webb, Rusty Young, George Lawrence and Jack Sundrud.

What was it like to be a young musician in Los Angeles in the late 1960s through the early ’70s?  Was there a feeling of having the world at your feet, of having limitless opportunities?

It was a great time to be there. The music scene wasn’t what it is today, of course.  It was before MTV and all this other kind of stuff.  It was a real local happening there in Los Angeles. Eras were changing. 

The Troubadour was the hub of it all.  We were like the house band at the Troubadour once we got our band together.  Everybody hung out there, from Ricky Nelson to J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, Waylon Jennings … any night there would be interesting people there.

At that time was the Troubadour also the must-visit club for traveling musicians just visiting Los Angeles, either for a gig or recording sessions?  Would you pretty much know who was in town by looking at the crowd on any given night?

Yes.  I was there the night they threw Jim Morrison out because he was loud and obnoxious.  I was there when Lennon got into his thing, Lennon and Harry Nilsson, who was a friend of mine. 

When I lived in Los Angeles I was single and that was our place.  We rehearsed there every afternoon.  Jimmy Messina and I were there every night no matter who was playing. … We played there and we hung out there.

What were living accommodations like at that time?  Did you have your own place or did you share an apartment with four other musicians?

Richie was in Buffalo Springfield so he had plenty of money, had a house and was married.  Jimmy was a prominent engineer at Sunset Sound and he was making a good living.  He had a house out in San Fernando Valley that was really nice, with a swimming pool and the whole nine yards.

There were those two guys and then there was me.  I sold everything I owned in Colorado and went out to Los Angeles. That gave me enough money to last for about nine months, just renting a small apartment.

Randy Meisner was already there because he had been working in his band.  He came from Denver as well.  He’s a friend of mine. … So he and his buddies were out there already and were sharing a house.

With so many talented musicians living in the same area, was there a feeling that everyone would eventually achieve success?  Or, perhaps, were you already kind of identifying the future stars vs the ones that would eventually have to get day jobs?

When I first moved out there I met some musicians that I thought were really great, like Bernie Leadon.  I saw him playing in a little club out in the valley. … Clarence White, I saw him playing around town.  He was a brilliant guitar player. … I saw a lot of musicians that I thought were really great.  I thought they were all going to succeed.

How about the non-musicians, the budding major players?  For example, was David Geffen a Troubadour regular?

I don’t think I ever saw David Geffen at the Troubadour. He ran in a different crowd, he had a different circle going on. But [he] certainly was aware of everybody like Jackson, the Eagle guys.  You used to see them at his house … before he had his label and signed them. They were a pretty close group.

I remember [Los Angeles Times music critic] Robert Hilburn called [Poco] “the next big thing” when he came down to see us at the Troubadour.  Which, of course, was the kiss of death.

During Poco’s early days – did you ever think it would last this long?

Oh, no.  I’m going into year 46 coming up, of being in the band.  You really kind of fought tooth and nail just to keep the band alive from year to year. There were a lot of obstacles in the way.  Geffen was a huge obstacle. He tried to end the band when Richie left to do Souther-Hillman-Furay.  [Geffen] did everything he could to put the band to rest.  He threatened our agents, he threatened a lot of people that if they did business with us, he was going to pull all of his acts and that kind of stuff.

The head of Epic was not happy when we left and he tried to end the band. So we had a lot of powerful enemies over the years and it’s kind of a miracle that the band has survived. 

The reason the band survived all this time is that we’ve always had great musicians.  When we did our Legacy album in 1989 – that, to me was an amazing record.  On one album was the original Poco band – Randy Meisner, Jimmy Messina, Richie Furay, George Grantham and me. In that one band you had [members of] Loggins & Messina, Eagles, Buffalo Springfield and Poco.  Four of the most influential bands in American music that all came from this one little group of guys playing together in 1968.  I think it’s amazing what we’ve done.  We’ve had great talent, we still do the band today, it’s as good as ever. That’s the reason the band survived. We’ve always had great singers, songwriters and players.

About the business of Poco.  You own the name and everything that goes with that but were you able to hold on to the masters?

No. Record companies, you know how that works, they own the masters except for the most recent couple of albums we released.

Have you tried to get the masters back?

No, not really.  That’s a fight that’s too big a fight. If I were Bruce Springsteen and had the resources, that might be the case. I’m just a little guy in Missouri and I can’t really fight the big boys.

Looking at the broad picture, how do you perceive Poco’s legacy?  Do you see the band in different eras or do you identify periods of the band by whichever album was out at the time?

I do see it in eras.  Probably my favorite was the very beginning with Randy, Jimmy, Richie and I.  That was a great time. I think the impact we had, whether people recognize it or not, that brought about the Eagles and brought about Ricky Nelson coming back into playing music, the whole genre … it really came out of those days at the Troubadour when we hit.  We were great, we were really something special.  Unfortunately we didn’t even make it to the first album because Richie decided to let Randy go.  That era is an era I’ll always remember and cherish. Hanging out at the Troubadour with Hoyt Axton and Michael Clarke who was one of my favorite buddies, the drummer from The Byrds.  We used to hang out, get in fights, drink, and chase women.  It was really fun.

What was Hoyt Axton like?

That was before Hoyt got into acting … but he had “The Pusher” for Steppenwolf.  I actually played on his “Never Been To Spain” that Three Dog Night recorded.  Hoyt was an amazing talent. He was a great artist as well as a visual artist – a songwriter, an actor – he was a real renaissance man, a really interesting, cool guy and a neat friend to have. I’ve always missed him.  Those were great days.  That was one era.

Then there was an era when Timothy [B. Schmit] joined the band. Then there was the era when Richie left the band and it was Timothy, Paul [Cotton], George and me. … That was like the third version of Poco before it morphed into the what it has been over the years after that.  Those eras were always eras that I remember that were special for me.

Was 1978’s Legend album a turning point for the band?

That was a huge, huge moment. What happened was Timothy B. Schmit left to join the Eagles and George Grantham, our drummer, left to join The Byrds. It was just Paul Cotton and myself.  The record label was going to drop us because Richie had gone, Jimmy had gone and now Tim had gone. It was me and Paul and there wasn’t a lot of faith in us.  At that point we’d never had a gold record, a hit single or anything like that. There wasn’t a big record that we could say, “Hey, we’ve got what it takes.”

So we ended up inviting the label, before they dropped us, down to a rehearsal studio and we played a couple of new songs.  The first one we played for them was “Crazy Love.”  When they heard “Crazy Love,” like everybody else, they went, “That’s a hit record. Go make an album for us.”

So we went in and recorded Legend and “Crazy Love” was a giant hit.  If it weren’t for that, the band wouldn’t be around now. … The band would have stopped in 1978.

And “Crazy Love” was one of your songs – a hit written by the guy in the band who didn’t write songs.

That’s the odd part of the whole thing.  I was never a songwriter or a singer in Poco.  It was Richie, Jimmy, Randy, Timothy and Paul.  But the only one in Poco to have a No. 1 was me – the guy who didn’t write or sing.  To this day that’s still the case. 

But wasn’t Legend supposed to present Poco with a slightly harder edge than previous albums? Yet the big hit was a ballad, a love song.

That’s true. You can’t pick them. I always wanted to have, like a heavy metal big hit. My friends, like Pat Simmons and the guys in The Doobies, I really wished I had one of those kind of hits. Just having a hit is so special. A song that has so much impact, you still hear it at the grocery store today.

What do you see when look out into the audience?

Friends. I see a lot of people who have grown up with us and our music has meant something to them over their lives.  We just played in Grand Junction, Colo., at this festival, it was the biggest crowd they ever had there, just a whole bunch of people who grew up with us. That’s pretty much what we see when we tour the country.  They may have not been to a Poco concert in 20 years but our music meant something to them … and they come back to see us.

Are there artists, past or present, that as a fan you would love to have the same relationship with them as Poco has with its fans today?

There are people I really love as artists. I think Tom Petty is off the planet great. … I really love John Mayer.  I think he’s incredibly talented and I love listening to his music. … I like Joe Bonamassa. I can’t believe he’s so talented … the gift he has is amazing and I think he’s awesome.

I like the musicians’ musicians.  The guys who really do it, not the kind of faux artists.

That phrase – “musicians’ musicians” – pretty much describes those days at the Troubadour. You and the people you’ve mentioned, you were all the cream of the crop, so to speak.

I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve been nominated and voted into the Steel Guitar Hall Of Fame.  I go in Aug. 31 and I’m going to be in there with all the famous steel guitar players.  That’s pretty cool.  Another recognition, which is really nice.

When I was a teenager in Denver playing in little country bars and working at the music store there, John Edwards Guitar Center, I never would have dreamed I would be put into the Steel Guitar Hall Of Fame with all my heroes.  If the guys back then, if we had all known that, we would have just flipped out.

What’s the creation process like for today’s Poco?

I can’t really explain it but “Crazy Love” was written in about half an hour.  A lot of songs really are gifts that come to you. I’ve heard people say this before, “Your job as a songwriter is not to get in the way of the song but to let it flow through you.” That’s what I try and do. … And a lot of songs pass through, some of them are good, some of them aren’t good.  You weed out the good from the bad, that’s pretty much the deal.  And you have a message, something to say.  If you have something to say, you can write 100 songs but if you’re going to say, “I love you, dear,” 100 different ways, it’s just not going to work.

Was there an inspiration for “Crazy Love?”  Perhaps a lady in your life at the time?

I was actually doing some work on the house I lived in in Los Angeles and the melody hit me.  I looked out … we lived up on this hill and there were all these trees, their branches entwined and I started thinking about the lyrics to that song, it just came to me.  I picked up a guitar and that was it.

Van Morrison has a great song called “Crazy Love” and I when I got it I thought I would have to change the words. … When I got to the chorus, I told the guys when I played it for them, I said, “Listen, I’ll come up with words for that,” and they said, “No, don’t you dare.  That’s the only way it should be.” I was never comfortable with the song until everyone told me it was OK.

When my “Crazy Love” came out The Allman Brothers had a song called “Crazy Love” that came out at the same time.  There were six different “Crazy Loves” released at the same time which kind of took the pressure off of me. 

Do you think, as a young band, Poco would have made it in today’s music climate?

Oh, yeah, absolutely.  I hear a lot of young bands that are incorporating the same kind of … Our concept was to take rock ’n’ roll, which was what Richie wrote.  He had rock ’n’ roll songs, chords and lyrics, and colored that with country instruments.  There weren’t synthesizers then so if you were to color something you had to do it with real instruments. 

There’s “Americana” and a lot of what’s going on in country music today is exactly what we were doing in 1968. It’s like heavy metal music with a banjo in the background.  It’s a hillbilly singer with rock ’n roll going on behind them.  It’s the exact same concept we started off with in 1968.

I think it’s really sad, to tell you the truth, that country music is gone.  The Merle Haggards and the Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, Patsy Cline, all the true country music, the sound of country music is gone.  That’s really sad.  That’s the only music format I can think of that has died.  There’s still jazz, there’s still Dixieland. … Bluegrass that’s true to its roots although there’s great progressive bluegrass, but there’s true bluegrass as well.  All those forms, rock ’n’ roll and all that stuff is around and you can find it but there’s no more country music.

Regarding the different ways acts are marketing music, such as Dave Matthews Band creating its own “Caravan” festivals or Zach Brown Band’s “Southern Crossing” events combining food and music – do you think these methods would have been applicable during Poco’s early years?

I’m reading Gregg Allman’s memoir now. … Gregg Allman actually auditioned to be in Poco.  He was a member of the band for a while when we were rehearsing and he’s an old friend.

They did the same basic kind of thing.  They did free concerts all across the country when they were first starting off.  If they had a gig in a bar, something like that, then they would go play in the park for free.  They did that all over the country. I think that was really a big part of the fact that they exploded and became so big.

Did you know Gram Parsons?

I knew very Gram.  I’m writing a book and I have a whole big long thing on Gram. He actually played in our band when we were putting it together.  We tried a lot of people, like Gregg Allman, and Gram Parsons was one of them. It was just me, Jimmy and Richie and we were looking for the other part of the band that would make it work.  And Gram was one of those pieces. 

He played in Boulder where I lived just a couple of months before he died. … It was a really bad concert you’ve probably heard about.  Chris Hillman was there and has talked about it. Richie has talked about it.  It was the first concert with Emmylou Harris singing with [Parsons]. It was pretty much a disaster.  Afterwards, he and his handler and I met up in the Holiday Inn bar.  That was the last time I saw him.

Do some of the best performances take place, not in a studio or on stage, but privately, say late night in a hotel room or at someone’s home, jamming with friends?

I think there are comedic moments.  We played with James Gang here in St. Louis.  Joe Walsh was playing great, really amazing and Richie always wanted to be a lead guitar player. After the show we were hanging out and Richie said to Joe, “Man, if I could play guitar like that.  That was amazing.  You’re such a great guitar player.”

And Joe said, “I can teach you to play guitar like I do. It’s not that hard.”

So we were all at the same Holiday Inn that night. We went up to Joe’s room. We walk in, he’s got his guitar and Richie has his guitar and he’s going to give him a guitar lesson.  I gave guitar lessons for 10 years back in Colorado and I couldn’t wait to see how he was going to teach Richie to play lead guitar in, like 20 minutes.

Joe sits down and he goes [plays very fast] and looks at Richie and says, “OK.  Now you do it.” 

Richie couldn’t do it and said [to Walsh], “No. Do it again.”  And Joe [plays] and Richie is totally lost. … So we thank him very kindly and left.

About a month later Joe called me and said, “Listen. We want you to play steel guitar on our new record.”

And I said, “No problem.  Why don’t you come on by?  I can teach you to play steel guitar and you can go ahead and play on your record.”  I did the same thing to him. … That was my revenge on Joe.  But those are the kind of moments backstage, more so than jams.”

What was the best bit of advice anyone has ever given you?

That’s really easy.  When Richie left our band, we had a meeting with David Geffen at his office.  Richie went into his office. Richie said he was never leaving Poco but then David Geffen came out and said, “Richie’s leaving Poco.”

It’s Paul Cotton, Timothy B. Schmit, me and George Grantham.  David Geffen walks in, says, “Richie’s quitting the band.” … He stops at Paul Cotton and says, “Now, Paul, you play guitar, you write songs and you sing, don’t you?” And Paul said, “Yes.” And he said, “You’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.  Richie is leaving the band.”

He looked at Timothy and said, “Okay, you sing, you write songs, you play bass.” And Timothy said, “Yes.” And he said, “Timothy don’t worry about it, you’re going to be fine. It’s OK.”

Then he looked at me and George Grantham and said, “OK, you play steel guitar.”  At the time I was considered the best steel guitar player on the planet.  I had won Guitar Player Magazine’s “Gallery Of the Greats.” It was me and Eric Clapton.  I was the man, [the]  No. 1 steel guitar player on the planet.

Geffen looked at me and said, “You don’t write and you don’t sing.  You’re in big trouble.”

That’s the day I became a songwriter.  Whether he knew it or not, David Geffen gave me the best advice I have ever heard.

Photo: Keith Miles
“The reason the band survived all this time is that we’ve always had great musicians.”

Rusty Young will play and sing two songs at the Steel Guitar Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies Aug. 31 at the Millennium Hotel in St. Louis at 1:30 p.m.  The following shows are upcoming dates for Poco:

Sept. 14 – Carlisle, Quebec, Regional Performing Arts Center
Sept. 20 – Kent, Ohio, The Kent Stage
Sept. 27 – Virginia Beach, Va., Virginia Beach Oceanfront (Virginia Beach Neptune Festival)
Oct. 18 – Steelville, Mo., Wildwood Springs Lodge
Oct. 19 – Steelville, Mo., Wildwood Springs Lodge
Nov. 8 – Newport, Ky., Newport Syndicate Concert Series
Nov. 9 – Chicago, Ill., Mayne Stage Theatre
Jan. 11 – El Cajon, Calif., Sycuan Live & Up Close           
Feb. 14 – Melbourne, Fla., Heneger Center
Feb. 15 – Stuart, Fla., Lyric Theatre

Please visit for more information.