Rusty Young Still Has Stories To Tell (INTERVIEW)

It is a song custom made for a sunny spring afternoon, with its lilting melody and sweetly harmonic vocal trails, reminiscing about people who have made you smile over the years. For Poco’s Rusty Young, “My Friend” is the glistening star on his first solo album and since it’s about all the musicians who have come and gone in a band that began in the late 1960’s, he knew he had to have former bandmates Timothy B. Schmit and Richie Furay on the song with him. “This song was a gift,” Young said when the video was released. “Sometimes as a songwriter, you just get lucky. A song comes to you and you just have to write it down and not get in the way.”

2018 marks Young’s fiftieth year in the music business, most of them with Poco, whose biggest hit, “Crazy Love,” was one of his earliest attempts at writing a song with lyrics. He was already a renowned pedal steel guitar player by then, having moved from Colorado to play on a song for Buffalo Springfield’s 1968 album Last Time Around. Fifty years later, he has finally made an album of his own, Waitin’ For The Sun, with songs that reflect on his life, career and the harmony of the world around him. “As the sole writer on this record, I got to visit all kinds of different places that relate to my musical heritage and experiences,” Young said when the album came out in September. “Most of all, I wanted to take people on a journey that was fun to listen to from the first note to the last.”

“Heaven Tonight,” is “Just a romantic song about me and my wife,” Young told me during our interview last week. “That was a very easy one to write.” “Down Home” is about living amongst the beauty of nature, as is the instrumental “Seasons;” “Sara’s Song” was written when his daughter got married; and “Honey Bee” is a piano-fueled little ditty that features two more of his former bandmates, Jim Messina and drummer George Grantham.

Poco, known for its uplifting harmonies, made their name in the seventies, scoring hits with “Crazy Love,” “Rose Of Cimarron” and “Heart Of The Night.” Young’s biggest contribution up until 1978’s Legend was as an instrumentalist, playing everything from banjo, mandolin and dobro to the pedal steel, which he picked up at an early age and which eventually propelled him into the Steel Guitar Hall Of Fame in 2013.  

Glide spoke to Young about his career, his new album and his continued strive to write positive songs.

So what is happening in your word right now?

Well, we just had a huge storm blow through here in Missouri (laughs). But we’re about to go out and hit the road pretty hard for the rest of the year and play a lot of Poco shows and have some fun.

Will you be playing any solo shows as well?

There are a couple, yes, besides the Poco shows

How do they differ?

There are fewer guys onstage (laughs). It’s the same with Poco as with me as a solo except I obviously do more things from my solo record. At Poco shows, we do songs from 1968 through today so we have a lot of ground to cover. There are great guys playing in the band and it’s a lot of fun. The solo shows are a little more challenging because it’s just me and I end up playing a lot of different instruments but both things are really a lot of fun.

You started playing music when you were a small child but was pedal steel one of your first instruments?

The truth is, when I was very, very little, my grandmother lived in Long Beach, California and we’d go there every summer and visit and she had a ukulele and I started playing the ukulele with my grandmother. Then in Colorado, my folks were big country music fans and they started me off on a steel guitar; there wasn’t really pedal steel in the early fifties when I started playing steel guitar but it gradually came about and I learned to play pedal steel guitar in Colorado. So it was because my folks were big country music fans that I learned to play steel guitar. But Colorado was a great place to grow up back in the fifties and sixties. There was a terrific musical influence there that affected my career and I’m really fortunate to have been part of that scene. Back in the sixties, that steel guitar scene in Colorado was very important to me.

Were you writing songs with lyrics before you went out to California?

No, when I went to California and played on the Buffalo Springfield Last Time Around record, I was an instrumentalist. I played banjo and mandolin and dobro and steel guitar, all the country instruments. And that really was my job in Poco in the late sixties and early seventies. It wasn’t till some of the guys quit – Richie Furay, Jimmy Messina – that I started to write songs because there was a need for our band to have songwriters. And that’s when I started writing songs.

So you didn’t try it before that?

No, no, I just tried to be a really good instrumentalist. That was really my goal, to be the best steel guitar player I could be. And I was in Guitar Player magazine, I was the winner of their steel guitar player chart for five years in a row and I’m in the Hall Of Fame there, and in the Hall Of Fame of steel guitar. I was nominated for a Grammy for a banjo song I wrote. I tried to be a full-rounded musician who played a lot of different instruments and did and did it well. Then it came to be that I needed to be a songwriter in the late seventies, 1978, and I did pretty good by that because I have over a million and a half downloads on Spotify and was #1 for six weeks so I’ve been pretty successful at this music thing (laughs).

Did it kind of shock you that one of your early attempts at a song did so well?

Yes! In 1978 when “Crazy Love” hit and went to #1, it was really, really great because the band Poco that I’d been in for ten years had never had a Top 20 hit and never sold a million records. And one of my first efforts at songwriting turned out to be such a huge hit and it was really great, you know. What can you say (laughs). And I still hear it at Home Depot and those places. It’s really high on the Home Depot chart (laughs).

Your first solo record came out in September. You finally did a solo record after fifty years.

You know, I always concentrated on Poco and writing songs for the band over the past fifty years and keeping the band going and having great musicians and great music and all that kind of stuff. But yeah, the last year I was offered a solo record deal by Blue Elan and I thought, well, if I’m ever going to do it, now is the time. So I did a solo record, which I really love. I think it’s a really great record. The guys that are the current members of Poco all played on it, backed me up. We recorded it at Johnny Cash’s studio in Nashville, called the Cash Cabin, and it was a really great experience and I love the music on it and I’m really proud of it.

How long did you work on it?

It took about a year to write the songs for the album. When you write for an album, you write eighteen or twenty songs and ten of them make the album and that’s pretty much what I did. It took a while but it was a great experience.

What was the first song that came about for the record?

When I was offered by the label to do a record, the first song I wrote was the title song of the album called “Waitin’ For The Sun” and it’s about writing the album. It explains how I wrote the album, getting up every morning when it’s dark before the sun comes up, going to my studio and watching the sun come up and working on words and lyrics that I had kind of figured out in my brain beforehand.

You know, these are some very personal songs. I have a song that I wrote for my daughter, my only daughter, who got married. I wrote her a wedding song and it’s on there. I wrote songs about where I live and an instrumental about watching the seasons pass by our window, outside the cabin I live in in Missouri. It’s all real personal stuff. Each of those songs are part of my life so I really did enjoy getting to pass that on.

Who is playing piano on “Honey Bee”?

That is Michael Webb who plays in Poco. He’s a Poco guy now and he’s a brilliant keyboard player. He plays on a lot of great records out of Nashville. The band is based out of Nashville, my Poco guys, and they all play on records that you hear every day on country radio. He’s a brilliant piano player. I love his playing.

You brought in some of your old friends to join you on these songs. Did you know you wanted them to come in from the beginning of this project or did the songs bring that about?

When I wrote “My Friend,” which is a song about the fifty years of Poco, it was a really quick write. It’s funny how one of those magical songs, like “Crazy Love,” only took like an hour to write. I knew I wanted Richie and Timothy to sing harmony on that song. So when I got the demo of it, I sent it to them and they liked the song and they said, yeah, they’d love to sing on it. So it’s really cool cause it’s about Timothy and Richie and Jimmy Messina and Paul Cotton and all the guys that have been in the band over the years. It’s about them and to have Richie and Timmy sing on that song was perfect. And when the end comes, that’s one of my favorite songs that we’ve ever done and the fact that they sang on it was really, really awesome. It’s really an important song in the history of Poco.

You know, the one thing about this album is I think it shows the influences that I’ve had over all these years that I’ve played music. On Waitin’ For The Sun, you can hear The Beatles/George Harrison influence. “Gonna Let The Rain” has a real Rolling Stones influence. Every song on there has an influence that comes from my growing up and the things that have influenced me over the years. I think that’s a really cool part of the album.

“Gonna Let The Rain” is the last song on the record and a little bit different

Well, living in a National Forest here, you see the rain wash things away and I’m disturbed by things the way they are today. I lived through the Nixon thing and all that Watergate and all that kind of stuff and I’ve always seen that time takes care of itself and somehow the country gets through it and I think the country will get through what we’re going through today. So yeah, it’s just that thing of letting the rain wash it all away and that’s what that song is about. A little political and I try not to be political but there you go.

You mentioned the politics and Poco was always a positive band. You guys were young guys when Vietnam was going on and all the turmoil and the protests but yet it didn’t really turn up a lot in the music.

You know, I think that it’s great when music is something you go to that gets you away from all the politics of the day and I’ve always tried to be, in Poco, non-political. I have friends that are Democrats and I have friends who are Republicans and I love them all and we can all have those differences and it’s always been that way. You know, I was in DC and got caught up in the whole Nixon thing and the police actually arrested some of the guys in our band as we were trying to get back to our hotel because they thought we were protesting or something. But it’s been a part of life for as long as I can remember but I really like for our music to be a place to escape.

“Nobody’s Fool,” an early Poco song, has all these really cool different flavors to it. Why do you think you guys didn’t go more in that direction and develop those funkier sounding qualities?

I can’t remember exactly when we recorded that but Richie didn’t write a whole lot of songs so what we had to do was turn some of them into longer instrumentals and that was one of those songs. Once he left the band, everything changed and it became more oriented to songwriting and not to instrumentals. The second album, the oranges album, with Jim Messina, we had one whole side, eighteen minutes of it was instrumental, and that was because Richie didn’t write a lot of songs and he was the main songwriter. Once Richie left the band, things changed. We became more of a songwriting band and less of an instrumental band and hence we had “Rose Of Cimarron,” which is the most recorded song in the entire Poco catalog over the years. So as people came in and out of the band, the band changed what the records were and where we were focused on.

I talked to Timothy a couple of years ago and he was telling me that he wasn’t really a songwriter when he joined Poco so he thought, “I better go write a song.”

We auditioned Timothy in the very beginning and I really wanted Randy Meisner to be in the band, who I think is a brilliant singer-songwriter, and he was great in the Eagles. That’s the guy I wanted in the band and I think Richie wanted Tim in the band and I won out and we had Randy in the band to start with. But then Richie fired Randy and hired Tim, which was his guy. And you know, Tim came into the band and he’s a great guy and I love him to death, a really cool guy, has a great voice and it was neat to have him in the band. But I don’t think we ever thought of him as a songwriter for the band. He was a great guy but my choice for the band was Randy Meisner and Richie’s choice was Timothy and it was Richie’s band in those days. I’m being truthful.

But Timothy wrote some songs that I really love in Poco, really great songs. We do “Keep On Tryin’” today. When “I Can’t Tell You Why” was the biggest Eagles hit in the last thirty years, it was so Poco and so Timothy, I get a really good thrill out of that whole thing. He’s a really, really talented guy and he and Randy both were more than equal to being in our band and I guess time has proved that true.

Will there be any more Poco music, do you think?

I don’t know. I have this solo record deal and I have some new songs and I’m not sure if there will be a new Poco record or a new me record. Who knows. I’m not sure how big the audience is for new music from people who are over fifty, so it becomes more like a personal project. I’m not going to sell a million records anymore like the way we could in the seventies. If it becomes just a personal project, an ego thing, I’m not sure I really want to do that. I do have some great creative new songs that I’d like for people to hear and there is a fanbase out there but you know, you just weigh all the work it is to go in the studio and record it and go through the whole shazam that you go through to make records and I’m not sure I want to do it anymore. But we’ll see.

What was the first song you totally obsessed over as a kid?

“Sleep Walk.” That would have been in the late fifties and I was probably twelve years old, I guess. You know, Santo & Johnny had an instrumental, it was a steel guitar instrumental, the first time a steel guitar instrumental had hit the charts, and it was very important to me. I loved it.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Ricky Nelson. He was a big fan of our band in the late sixties/early seventies and he would bring Ozzie and Dave, his brother, and come to the Troubadour, this club we played in Los Angeles in the late sixties. They would come and I got to be good friends with Ricky and I have lots of stories about Ricky and I over the years (laughs). Ricky, when he first formed his band, he had Randy Meisner as his bass player and he called me and asked me to recommend a steel player and I was really involved with him putting together his Stone Canyon Band that he had. He was a great guy and my first big-time rock star friend.

For you, what was a big I can’t believe I’m here moment?

There were a few. We used to play ping pong with Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr at the RCA Studios in the early seventies. There was a ping pong table and we would get really drunk and play ping pong with Ringo and Harry Nilsson. So that was a pretty good all-star moment.

When we recorded “Kind Woman,” the very first thing I did with the Buffalo Springfield in 1968, The Doors were in the studio down the aisle from where we were recording. We were in one studio and Stephen Stills was in the next studio. There were four studios and we were in one, Stephen Stills was in another one doing the Buffalo Springfield stuff, across from him was David Crosby recording Joni Mitchell’s first album – he was producing it – and then the far studio at the end was The Doors.

What happened with you and Carnegie Hall?

Yeah, growing up in Colorado there were things I never would have believed that could happen in my life and playing Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and Shea Stadium, all those kinds of places, are things I never thought would happen. We played Carnegie Hall and for some bizarre reason I decided I would do the Jimi Hendrix thing and set my steel guitar on fire (laughs). I didn’t tell the guys in the band I was going to do it and I had a matchstick and a striker on the middle of the steel guitar and I had a bottle of flame-it or whatever you call it and it was a surprise. Last song of the set. The only thing I didn’t really understand was that once you set fire to your guitar, the strings pop off your guitar and you have nothing but a piece of wood that’s on fire so it didn’t really make for a great climax (laughs). And of course the fire department was not thrilled with my performance. And of course the people at Carnegie Hall were not real thrilled with that idea and we never played there again.

Did you ever play the old Warehouse here in New Orleans?

Absolutely! We played with the Young Rascals [June 11, 1970]. I remember playing there with them and we played there with some English band too, which I can’t remember now [may have been Trapeze in 1972], but we played there a few times and it was a really fun, great place, awesome place. New Orleans is one of our favorite places. You know, back in the seventies even, if we were in New York or something, we would connect in New Orleans on purpose and stop and have lunch and then fly back to LA where we lived (laughs). We’ve always loved New Orleans. A lot of New Orleans music is in the Poco catalog. In fact, my wife Mary and I were talking about driving down there just for fun and hanging out for a while.

I heard that you were working on a book

My book is almost finished. I was waiting for an ending, like maybe I’d die or something (laughs). But yeah, I do have a book and it’s really cool and it’s called Snapshots right now and it’s got a lot of pictures in it that are snapshots I took over the years and a whole bunch of stories. It’s really a different book than normal because some stories are like a page or page and a half and some are like ten pages. Stories about Keith Moon and Elton John and Janis Joplin, stories about people that I’d been around back in the seventies when things were different than they are now and security wasn’t like it is (laughs). Interesting stories. But I’ve been kind of waiting to figure out how to end it and I think I have the ending now. A lot of people are interested in publishing it so we’ll see.

So the rest of 2018, for you, is going to be out performing?

Right, all the way to Japan and Australia and the islands. We’re doing the Moody Blues Cruise with my old buddies. We’ve got a lot of stuff all around the world so work goes on.

 

Photographs by Henry Diltz

 

 

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