Poco’s Rusty Young Puts a Cherry on Top of a Brilliant Career
Recording music in bands since 1967, steel guitar extraordinaire Rusty Young finally released his first solo record this month—and it’s a tour de force.
Waitin’ for the Sun on Blue Elan Records finally shows the world what Poco fans have known for decades: Rusty Young is not just a great pedal steel player but also a top songwriter, lyricist and music arranger who can create meaningful and beautiful music in the studio.
“When Blue Elan asked me if I’d like to record a solo album, I wasn’t sure at first,” Young tells me. “But it was such a challenge that I couldn’t say no.
“There have been lots of times over the years when being in a band was really hard, and I secretly wished I was on my own,” says Young, one of the founding members of Poco, which released its debut album Pickin’ Up the Pieces in 1969.
“So I cut a few tracks and sent them off to see if the label liked what I was doing, and they loved it! The CD has elements of my musical influences over the years—the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, and even newer acts like Sturgill Simpson.”
Young says he learned that recording a solo project is “hard work” but “also very satisfying when you’re finished.
“I’ve been playing solo concerts off and on for the past few years—sometimes with friends like Jim Messina or Richie Furay—so it’s an easy transition.”
I attended Young’s first solo performance in Bay Shore, Long Island, three years ago, and, to be kind, it was a rough outing, with Young even remarking at one point how difficult it is to play a full set solo. Now, though, with years of solo work behind him and a fabulous debut solo album under his belt, I’m sure the uncertainty is long gone.
In addition to his work with Poco, Young’s new album, which he produced with long-time Poco bassist Sundrud, shows why Young’s own musical accomplishments stand at the top of the rock, roots and country-rock pantheon. The ballads are tender, the rockers are energetic, the rootsy musicianship is first-rate, and the lyrics glisten with poetry.
Since I fell head over heels for Poco 11 years ago, I have never heard Young’s voice so strong. His voice can sometimes get thin as he tries to hit high notes in concert, but, on the album, his voice lures you right in. It’s the voice of a hit single on an Eagles hit, though I apologize to die-hard Poco and Flying Burrito Brothers for such a comparison, because many maintain those two bands were the trendsetters in whose footsteps the Eagles walked.
The 10 songs on Waitin’ for the Sun are diverse, and there’s not a clunker in the bunch.
The title track opens the album with a nice Poco-like groove, and Young sings a warm, nostalgic lead on the second track, “My Friend,” with Furay and former Poco member Timothy B. Schmidt (better known as a member of the Eagles) providing background vocals. The lyrics point to the 50-year life of Poco and the memories its members share:
The road’s been long
The road’s been rough
Enough is enough
But we never gave it up
The essence of Poco’s country-rock vibe shines through in “Heaven Tonight.” It features a strong vocal performance by Young and gorgeous saxophone runs by Jim Hoke.
“Seasons” is a real departure from the Poco sound—a wonderful instrumental that could fit on a movie soundtrack, as background to a yoga session or maybe as the heavenly coda for the Band’s next Last Waltz. Young plays mandolin, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar on the track.
Waitin’ for the Sun and an increasing number of live shows—solo and with Poco—appear to have put a crimp into the retirement Young announced several years ago.
“I was planning on getting off the road,” he says, “but the new project scuttled that. Plus, I love playing with the musicians that make up Poco today.”
Besides Young and Sundrud, Poco today is Michael Webb on keyboards and mandolin and Rick Lonow on drums and percussion.
“I used the guys on my CD, because they’re the best musicians I know, and we have such a great musical rapport.”
Young grew up in southwest Denver and was “heavily influenced” by country music. “I took up steel guitar at age six and have loved playing that instrument ever since.”
He says it’s easy to choose his favorite steel player—Buddy Emmons—and he really likes David Gilmour’s lap steel work. Indiana-born Emmons played with Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, and the Everly Brothers, and recorded his own albums in the 1970s.
With songwriting accomplishments in Poco that date back to “Grand Junction” on the group’s first album, what are Young’s proudest songwriting achievements?
“There are a couple songs on the top of my list,” he says. “First would be ‘Rose of Cimarron.’ I love everything about that song—from the very visual lyrics to the beautiful melody. We just recorded a new version with Chelsea Williams, a label mate on Blue Elan, that will be available later this year. It has a new lyric added and an additional musical section. I’m also really excited over ‘My Friend’ on my new CD.”
If Young was forced to take only one album from Poco’s extensive catalog with him on that proverbial deserted island, which one would it be?
“I definitely wouldn’t take an album I recorded with me,” he says. “By the time I’m through recording and have the heard the songs a million times, I’d rather hear Van Morrison!”
Young says the “best” concert he attended as a spectator was Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther opening for Poco at the Troubadour in 1970. “Not because it was so great—because of what it became historically,” Young says. A year later, Frey, Randy Meisner, Don Henley, and Bernie Leadon formed the Eagles, and Souther became a highly successful songwriter who wrote and co-wrote songs for top-selling albums of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.
“How could anyone guess what impact they would have on music and how many great songs they’d write?” Young asks. “I’ve seen many amazing shows—Elton John as our opening act, Jimi Hendrix at Atlanta Pop, Janis Joplin near the end. Almost too many to count.”
The live performance that influenced him most musically, though, wasn’t a concert.
“It was at the Record Plant in L.A. in the early ’70s, watching Keith Moon record on a lame heavy-metal album,” Young says. “But you’ll have to read my soon to be released, unauthorized biography, Snapshots, to get the story.”
When I press him further, however, some details emerge.
At the Record Plant, Gene Cornish and Dino Danelli of the Rascals were producing a solo album for Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper’s guitar player, songwriter, and vocalist. Moon walked into the studio on an unrelated matter, and the two Rascals, dissatisfied with the drumming on one track, asked him to play.
Moon started banging on the drums so hard he broke a drumstick, Young says. During the next take, he broke another stick but “reached down and pulled a fresh one from his stick bag without missing a beat.
“He was playing like a madman,” Young says. “He was playing like Keith Moon. There weren’t any rules. He played the choruses like they were verses and the verses like choruses, all the while machine-gunning wild fills. I was blown away. All of a sudden, a mundane song came to life. It was exciting to listen to.”
When Moon left, Cornish and Danelli said his drumming was terrible, and Young agrees.
“But Moonie played what he felt and didn’t care about how it’s usually done,” Young says. “I thought it was brilliant. It was genius and idiot at the same time. I’d never realized how music could compare so perfectly to art. It was Picasso. It wasn’t the perfect image of a woman. It wasn’t what you expected. It was never predictable. You could love it or hate it and be right either way. It was a lesson I’d never forget.”