Five Decades On, Poco’s Rusty Young Goes Solo

Rusty Young (Photos by Henry Diltz)

One can write a book about the storied life of Rusty Young; in fact, he has already done so! From his childhood in Colorado to the present day, Young’s journey embodies so much of the American spirit, where patience and perseverance can achieve one’s dream. The remaining founding member of Poco is currently navigating the waters between two major milestones: the band’s 50th anniversary and the unveiling of his debut solo album, Waitin’ For the Sun, set for a Sept. 15 release on Blue Elan Records. He will be appearing with Poco at Manhattan’s City Winery on Sept. 13 for an evening of musical celebration.

To their fans, Poco represents one of America’s best treasures: an iconic country/rock group responsible for creating some of the best music in its genre, laying the groundwork for countless others who proudly point to Poco as a prime influence. Interestingly, Poco’s origins lie in another iconic American group, the legendary, short-lived Buffalo Springfield. Featuring Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay, the level of talent (and ego) was such that the band was doomed to a very brief existence. For the band’s final album, Furay and producer/engineer/bassist Jim Messina enlisted the help of an extraordinarily gifted pedal steel guitarist, Rusty Young, to contribute his talents for Furay’s “Kind Woman”—a song that may well be the first true example of the country/rock genre.

With the demise of Buffalo Springfield in 1968, Furay, Messina, and Young added bassist Randy Meisner and drummer George Grantham to the ranks and formed Poco, releasing their debut album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, in 1969. The band endured several personnel changes through the years. Meisner left in 1969 and was replaced by Timothy B. Schmit; ironically, both musicians went on to join The Eagles. In 1970 Messina left to form Loggins & Messina and was replaced by Paul Cotton. In 1973, Furay, frustrated by his lack of success compared with that of his former bandmates, left to form Souther-Hillman-Furay. Still others came and went. Poco’s greatest commercial success came with its 1979 hit, “Crazy Love,” penned by Young, who also wrote several of the band’s best-loved songs, including “Rose of Cimarron.”

Speaking with me from his secluded cabin nestled deep in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, Young relayed the story behind his 50-year wait to make his debut solo effort. “Over the years, all the guys in the band (Poco) have done solo records except for me. Jimmy Messina did Loggins and Messina and solo records, and Richie (Furay) when he did Souther-Hillman-Furay; Timothy B. (Schmit), Paul Cotton…everyone who’s been through the band who’s a singer/songwriter has done that but I always focused on making Poco the best it could be; having the best musicians, the best quality of live show. At one point, I was playing with Jimmy Messina, and Kirk Pasich, who’s the head of Blue Elan, came up to me—it was out in California—and said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing a solo record? I have a label, and we’d be interested.’ Suddenly it just dawned on me that maybe this is my time, you know, how fate works and how fickle it is…maybe this is my time to do the solo record and certainly, this is toward the end of my career and if I’m going to do it, now would be the time to do it!”

Young’s musical journey began at age six, starting out on the lap steel before moving to the guitar. “This was 1952,” he explained. “They would have a giant classroom with 20 kids in it, and everybody played lap steel; I can’t remember if it was the first six months or a year. Probably because it’s easier for a little kid than to put his fingers on guitar strings and push down; with lap steel, you just hold a bar and you can make music, so they can teach you the basics of music before, and then you would move to guitar. That’s what everyone did.”

Young’s musical nature apparently has its roots in his DNA.

“My grandmother was a little red-headed girl, and she played piano,” Young recalled. “That’s how she met my grandfather. She played piano for the silent movies; you know, back in the old days they didn’t have sound for the movies; they would have a piano player in the theaters. They would just make up music that goes along with what they saw on the screen. And I think that Grandma passed that ‘making up songs as you see them’ on to me. My grandfather had a big band that played all the big resorts up in the Rockies in the ‘20s and ‘30s. I think they passed on a musical gene.”

That gene played an enormous role upon Young during his teenage years. He started gigging at 12 and by age 16-17, he was attending high school during the day, giving guitar lessons in the afternoon, gigging at night, then going out to jam, coming home to sleep for a few hours, then doing it all over again.

“Well, I was young!” Young said, chuckling. “I loved steel guitar, and everything revolved around that!”

With Poco coming up on its 50th anniversary and the imminent release of his debut solo album, I wondered how Young was dealing with the juxtaposition of those major milestones. “It’s pretty dizzying!” he admitted, laughing. “I’ve been doing laps around the cabin and hopefully I’ll be in good shape!”

For the complete conversation, visit Island Zone Update.

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Roy Abrams
Roy Abrams is a musician and a veteran music journalist. For more, visit his blog, Island Zone Update.

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