We’re bringin’ you back down home

Poor Poco.

When I mentioned to a few friends that I would be writing about Poco this week in memory of the passing of founding member Rusty Young last week, I was met with blank stares.

“Haven’t heard of them,” said one. “I know the name but don’t know a thing about them,” said another.

These were folks in their sixties, pretty music-savvy, and yet, they didn’t know Poco.

Poco, circa 1972: Rusty Young, George Grantham, Richie Furay, Timothy B. Schmit, Paul Cotton

The band that can rightfully claim the title as one of the pioneer groups of country rock had a strong pedigree, a devout following, recorded many albums, and toured relentlessly. But the commercial success they chased remained, for a long time, elusive. That’s a damn shame, for Poco’s catalog includes some truly memorable songs and impressive musicianship, and they were known for turning in some exhilarating performances in concert.

If you’re a fan of country rock, perhaps this piece will reaffirm your appreciation of a talented band. If you’re new to Poco, let this be an opportunity to learn about a group that’s more than worthy of your attention.


Poco’s story begins among the ashes of the late, great Buffalo Springfield. Here was a Southern California band that played its rock and roll with more than a hint of country influence. Its members included Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay, all multi-talented singers/songwriters/guitarists who offered up a dizzying array of uptempo electric folk (“Rock and Roll Woman,” “Sit Down I Think I Love You”), harmony-rich ballads (“Sad Memory”), spirited hit-single anthems (“For What It’s Worth”), esoteric rockers (“Bluebird,” “Mr. Soul”) and country-pickin’ ditties (“Go and Say Goodbye,” “A Child’s Claim to Fame”) in a dazzling stew that filled two strong LPs in 1966 and 1967.

But all was not well. Neil Young was a difficult maverick who quit and rejoined the band and quit again, eager to blaze his own trail, and bassist Bruce Palmer was deported to his native Canada for marijuana possession. Stills grew frustrated by the band’s instability and found himself drawn to making music with ex-Byrd David Crosby.

Final lineup of Buffalo Springfield: drummer Dewey Martin,
Jim Messina, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

The group’s third and final album, released to fulfill a contractual obligation even though the group had essentially disbanded, included only one song that featured the whole group. If not for the efforts of engineer Jim Messina, who became the group’s bass player in the waning days, the album might have never seen the light of day. Among the strong gems on this underrated LP (“Last Time Around”) is a wonderful country ballad by Furay called “Kind Woman,” which featured pedal steel guitar by contributing musician Rusty Young.

In late 1968, Furay and Messina decided they enjoyed each other’s company and musical leanings, and recruited multi-instrumentalist Young (pedal steel, banjo, dobro, guitar) to form a new band. Said Young, “It seemed natural to think, “What if we take this in a country direction? We’ll take rock and roll songs, but the palette that we’ll add to it will be with country instruments. We’ll be using traditionally country instruments to play rock and roll, and not playing the typical country thing.”

With the addition of Randy Meisner on bass and George Grantham on drums, Poco was born. Furay wrote virtually every song on the new group’s debut album, appropriately titled “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” (from the Springfield’s demise). Originally calling themselves Pogo, the band was faced with a cease-and-desist order from cartoonist Walt Kelly (creator of the comic strip “Pogo”), so they altered their name to Poco, just in time for their first concert at the famed Troubadour in Hollywood. Critical praise came immediately — “Poco is the next big thing,” said the L.A. Times — but on the charts, there were no singles and only a modest #63 peak for the album.

The original Poco: Randy Meisner, Rusty Young, Jim Messina, George Grantham and Richie Furay

While one critic called it “a great record, a landmark in country rock,” I tend to agree with The Village Voice‘s Robert Christgau, who wrote, “Nice and happy, but, considering the personnel, a disappointment.” To my ears, the production sounds thin, and many of the songs just don’t grab me, especially when compared to what Furay’s former band mates were releasing at about the same time in mid-1969 (the “Crosby, Stills and Nash” LP and Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”).

Meisner was unhappy with what he felt was Furay’s dictatorial manner and split Poco early, heading first for Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and eventually becoming a founding member of The Eagles, who had instant commercial and critical success with their 1972 country rock debut. Meisner’s replacement in Poco was Timothy B. Schmit, whose strong tenor voice bolstered the three-part harmonies that were so integral to Poco’s sound.

In 1970, the band’s second effort, entitled simply “Poco,” should’ve been the one that made them stars. Messina’s spunky “You Better Think Twice,” which stiffed at #72 on US pop charts, was one of the great shoulda-been hits of that era. “These songs represent Poco’s blend of country and rock at its finest and brightest,” said Allmusic critic Bruce Eder, “with the happy harmonies of ‘Hurry Up’ and ‘Keep on Believin” totally irresistible.” Most notable to me is the startling 18-minute “El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa,” a top-notch instrumental jam featuring Rusty Young’s unparalleled pedal steel guitar, played through a Leslie speaker to make it sound more like an organ.

But the album managed only #58, while Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were topping the charts with their “Deja Vu” album featuring Nash’s sweet countryish hit “Teach Your Children.” This gnawed at Furay and made him unpleasant to deal with, according to Messina. “With Poco, Richie wanted to be as big as Crosby, Stills & Nash. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but there were, and are, no guarantees in the music business. To think that way was a sabotage of every aspect of what we were trying to do.”

The radio stations said they weren’t sure about Poco. “Too country for rock stations, too rock for country stations” was the knock on Poco that seemed to limit airplay. Although the live album “Deliverin'” in 1971 broke the Top 40 and reached #26, Furay’s expectations continued to place a strain on the band, Messina said.

“I became frustrated because Richie was frustrated. This was the guy in the band who I loved and I still do love, who I looked up to and admired, and I just could not understand his behavior. It scared me, and I had to get out of the way.” And with that, Messina was gone, returning to producing, eventually partnering with singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins as Loggins and Messina for a successful run (1971-1977).

Cotton, Grantham, Furay, Schmit,
and Young (seated)

Taking over lead and rhythm guitar duties was Paul Cotton, a strong singer and songwriter as well, who became a mainstay in the group’s lineup pretty much ever since. His song “Bad Weather” was one of the highlights of the next LP, “From the Inside,” which, along with Furay’s pretty “What If I Should Say I Love You,” showed a lighter, more reflective approach. Still, the album peaked in the mid-50s on the charts, and again, no single.

Ardent fans, sometimes known as “Poconuts,” argued, “Who cares if there’s no single? We love Poco’s albums, all of them, every track.” But the bitter fact of the music business is you need a hit single to earn your keep, sell more albums and tickets, and survive.

Furay, growing more and more disconsolate, stuck around for two more albums (1972’s “A Good Feeling to Know” and 1973’s “Crazy Eyes”) but their inability to improve the band’s standings in the charts were the last straw. Poco would have to soldier on without him, for he had agreed to mogul David Geffen’s offer to sign him to a new trio called Souther-Hillman-Furay Band with songwriter John David Souther and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman. (That outfit lasted only two modestly successful albums, during which Furay converted to evangelical Christianity and essentially quit the music business.)

I first saw Poco in concert right after Furay left, in 1974. Admittedly, I’d gone to see fellow country rockers Pure Prairie League, who were the warmup act, but I left with a solid appreciation for Poco’s musicianship. I saw them a second time in 1976 when they were the warmup for the fleeting project known as Stills-Young Band. Neil Young was in an ornery mood and Stills seemed out of it, which meant Poco pretty much stole the show that night.

Grantham, Schmit, Cotton and Young in 1975

Poco was now Rusty Young’s and Paul Cotton’s band, with Schmit and Grantham as the rhythm section and on backing vocals, and this quartet lineup made some of the best music in Poco’s catalog. “When Richie exited the group, it left room for another songwriter,” said Young. “I had always been just an instrumentalist, but I really thought I could write songs too, so I started writing then. Paul and Timothy were better at it, I think, but I enjoyed it, and a few of mine made it onto those Poco albums, which I’m proud of.”

They still struggled in the singles market, and the albums never fared better than the mid-40s, but the songs were getting more interesting, more accomplished instrumentally, more melodious, more richly produced. Listen to the warm feeling of Schmit’s “Find Out in Time,” or Cotton’s acoustic guitar-driven “Too Many Nights Too Long,” or two of Young’s first attempts at songwriting, “Sagebrush Serenade” and “Rose of Cimarron.” Really great stuff.

“Rose of Cimarron,” 1975

“Indian Summer,” 1977

Epic Records had dropped the group in 1975, and ABC-Dunhill stepped in to keep Poco afloat through this period. Then fate intervened in 1977 when, following the release of the fine “Indian Summer” album, Schmit announced he had accepted an offer to join The Eagles, coincidentally replacing Meisner again. Poco decided the time was right to take a break, with Young and Cotton choosing to collaborate as a duo called the Cotton-Young Band. Once the material was written and recorded, however, ABC execs changed their minds and insisted the album be released as the latest Poco album, entitled “Legend.”

Lo and behold, ten years after Poco’s formation, they finally had a hit single with “Crazy Love,” written and sung by Young. “When Timothy left to join The Eagles, it left room for me to also sing the songs I was writing. So the funny thing is when we started the band, I didn’t sing and I didn’t write, and we never had a hit, but by 1978, it was a song I wrote and sang that became a hit. Unbelievable.”

“Crazy Love” reached #17 on the pop charts, and also was #1 for five straight weeks on the new Adult Contemporary chart, which helped push the album into the Top 20, peaking at #14. A follow-up single — Cotton’s tribute to New Orleans, “Heart of the Night” — also cracked the Top 20. Poco had arrived.

As Young put it 30 years later to an interviewer, “The only reason you and I are talking now is ‘Crazy Love.’ It’s a classic, and it still pays the mortgage.”

Young added, “At first, Poco always wanted to take the idea of country rock further, and for a while, we were popular on FM radio, but we didn’t cross over to AM with hit singles like The Eagles did. They were a lot smarter, writing songs tailored for that market. They really captured the country rock sound. ‘Crazy Love’ finally gave us a hit, but it was more light pop rock than country rock.” Indeed, how strange that Young’s tasty pedal steel guitar, a trademark of Poco’s sound through the years, is glaringly absent from their biggest hit.

The 1980 follow-up LP, “Under the Gun,” cracked the Top 50, as did two Cotton-written singles, the sweet “Midnight Rain” and the rockified title track, but from there, each album performed more poorly than its predecessor. Cotton and Young remained in charge, but the rest of the lineup changed several times, as did their record label. By 1982’s “Ghost Town” and 1984’s “Inamorata,” the band was using synthesizers and drum machines, which were in vogue at the time but a million miles from the traditional Poco sound. They still toured, but the venues were smaller and the gigs fewer.

“Legacy,” 1989

In 1989, backed by RCA Records, the original lineup of Poco (Messina, Furay, Young, Meisner and Grantham) reunited for “Legacy,” a welcome surprise that reached #40 on album charts, thanks to the #18 hit single “Call It Love,” with Young again on lead vocals. The leadoff track, “When It All Began,” was a nostalgic look back at the band’s genesis, with these lyrics by Furay: “I remember the feeling, not so long ago, /The kids came dancin’, their hearts were romancin’, and the music was live Poco, /Some called it country, some called it rock and roll, /But whatever the sound, it was sure to be found with a heart, rhythm and soul…”

The reunion turned out to be only a short-lived phase, with Furay, Messina and Meisner all returning to their individual careers again.

Through the 1990s and 2000s, Young kept the Poco name out there by assembling various touring configurations that included Cotton and guitarist Jack Sundrud, among many others. Furay and/or Messina would occasionally join them for one-off concerts. Young finally chose to retire in 2013, bringing the Poco story to an end.

Furay, Schmit, Messina and Cotton
(with Young off camera) at a 2002 show

Poco may not be inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the band is prominently featured in an historical country rock exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Young’s death last week brought Poco back into the public eye, giving me the opportunity to tell their tale, and Young’s memories of how his pioneering pedal steel guitar playing evolved.

Rusty Young

“In a music store in Denver in the mid-’60s, I met a guy named Donny Buzzard, who was my hero,” Young recalled. “He was a brilliant musician, and he introduced me to all kinds of stuff. He said, ‘You can try playing the steel with a comb, and it will sound like a tack piano.’ Or ‘You can run it through a fuzz tone and listen to what that sounds like.’ Or ‘Run it through a Leslie speaker.’ He just opened my eyes to the fact that the pedal steel is an instrument that can do anything, and it shouldn’t be limited to just country and western music. So I decided to take off with what Donny had showed me, and the rest is history.”


Here’s a playlist I assembled of three dozen songs from throughout Poco’s admirable career. Give it a listen!

Rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard

November 2007.  My wife Judy and daughter Emily were on a college trip visiting Nashville with a friend and her daughter to check out Belmont University.  While they were in town, they decided to buy tickets to the Christmas 4 Kids annual benefit concert that Charlie Daniels hosts every year at the fabled Ryman Auditorium.

They were told if they stopped in at a souvenir shop on Second Avenue where a Charlie Daniels Museum was set up in the back half of the retail space there, they’d probably FullSizeRenderfind the man himself, signing autographs and taking photos.

Sure enough, there he was, larger than life with his trademark ten-gallon hat.  Emily and her friend Sarah were thrilled to get their picture taken with the Nashville icon.

At the Ryman that evening, the ladies enjoyed performances by several country artists (including an up-and-coming gal named Taylor Swift) before Daniels and his band took the stage.  Two songs into their set, country star Martina McBride interrupted the proceedings to offer Daniels a Christmas present of his own.  “Thank you, Charlie,” she read from a letter, “for all you’ve done to make Christmas wishes come true for thousands of children through the years.  Now it’s time to make a wish come true for you.  You are officially invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry!”

Daniels was visibly stunned.  It took him several minutes to compose himself and offer his heartfelt gratitude for the honor he had dreamed about since he was a boy.  The girls witnessed a very special moment in the life of a very talented man who came from simple beginnings to become a major presence in country, bluegrass, Southern rock and blues music.


Now Charlie Daniels, at age 83, has died, a victim of a hemorrhagic stroke July 6th.

“My heart is crushed today,” said country star Travis Tritt.  “Charlie was the guy who took me under his wing and encouraged me when I was first getting started.  He was always there for me when I needed him.  I have so many great memories of touring, performing, Unknown-436writing and recording with Charlie, but my favorite memories are of simply talking with the man when it was just the two of us alone.  Farewell, dear friend, until we meet again.”

Daniels has been universally admired for his superb abilities on the fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin, and as a vocalist and songwriter.  He was also revered by many for his kindness and generosity.  “He was one of the nicest, kindest people I have ever met,” said Jason Aldean.  “Thanks for the musical legacy you left for all of us.”

Singer/fiddler Natalie Stovall added, “Charlie Daniels was the epitome of a Southern gentleman.  He was kind, welcoming and so sweet.  Playing ‘Devil’ with him will forever be a highlight of my life.  No doubt The Devil is pissed as hell with how loud the angels are rejoicing in Heaven today.”

Unknown-433The “Devil” she’s referring to is, of course, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Daniels’ signature song and by far his biggest commercial peak, reaching #3 on the pop charts and #1 on the country chart in the summer of Unknown-4341979.  It’s essentially a spirited bluegrass workout, telling the story of a competition between Satan and local boy Johnny as to who was the better fiddler.  It was featured in the popular film “Urban Cowboy,” won the Country Music Awards’ Single of the Year, and earned the band a Grammy.  The album it came from, “Million Mile Reflections,” reached #5 on the pop chart and #1 on the country chart, and reached triple-platinum sales figures.

Born in North Carolina in 1936, Daniels grew up listening to Pentecostal gospel in church, bluegrass bands at local events, and R&B and country on Nashville 50,000-watt AM stations, including the Grand Ole Opry radio program.  At age 28, he had his first taste of success when he co-wrote “It Hurts Me,” a song Elvis Presley recorded.  Once he moved to Nashville in 1967, he worked as a session musician, often for his producer friend Bob Johnston, most notably playing guitar and electric bass on Bob Dylan’s images-226“Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait” and “New Morning” LPs.

Daniels fattened his resumé by adding guitar and bass on Leonard Cohen’s “Songs From a Room” and “Songs of Love and Hate,” and also contributed to Ringo Starr’s country LP, “Beaucoup of Blues.”  Tammy Wynette and Barbara Mandrell recorded a few of his songs, and he even produced a few albums for artists like The Youngbloods.

His first couple of solo albums barely made the charts, but his third included the whimsical country story-song “Uneasy Rider,” the humorous tale of a traveling hippie who talked his way out of a fight in a redneck bar, which became a surprise Top Ten pop hit in 1973.

Unknown-435The 1974 album “Fire on the Mountain” was the first to be credited to The Charlie Daniels Band, which included Taz DiGregorio on keyboards, Tom Crain on guitars, Fred Edwards and Don Murray on drums and Charlie Hayward on bass.  CDB, as their fans called them, toured relentlessly and began hosting and headlining the annual Volunteer Jam in Nashville that year, a tradition that ran for 20 years and featured big names like The Allman Brothers Band, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, James Brown, Emmylou Harris, Ted Nugent, Chris Stapleton and Billy Joel.

Albums like “Nightrider” (1975) and “Saddle Tramp” (1976) offered a healthy cross-section of Southern rock (“Birmingham Blues”), country rock (“The South’s Gonna Do It Again”), bluegrass (“Orange Blossom Special”), blues (“It’s My Life”), acoustic country (“Everything is Kinda Alright”) and even 10-minute mostly instrumental workouts images-225(“Saddle Tramp”) that were huge in concert.

They maintained a steady core audience throughout the ’80s, appearing on “Saturday Night Live” in 1982 and having a Top Ten country hit, “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye,” in 1986.   By the late 1990s, Daniels and his longtime manager David Corlew founded Blue Hat Records and released a diverse slew of albums, including his first all-bluegrass album, several Christmas collections, and “Deuces,” an LP of collaborations with the likes of Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley and Brenda Lee.

Daniels had shown a slightly-left-of-center political leaning during the ’70s when he advocated for legalizing marijuana and appeared at fundraisers for Democrat Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.  As the 1980s rolled in, Daniels’ first attempts at political lyrics in two mainstream hits showed him drifting toward the conservative side of the spectrum.  “In America” (#11) focused on the heartland’s patriotic response to the Iranian hqdefault-22hostage crisis, and “Still in Saigon” (#22) commiserated with veterans who returned from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses.

In the new millennium, Daniels chose to take on an increasingly outspoken role in the issues of the day.  After the 9/11 attacks, he issued a single, “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” and when peace activists protested the impending war in Iraq, he wrote “an open letter to the Hollywood bunch,” calling them “pampered, overpaid, unrealistic children.”  He also issued anti-abortion arguments, defended the Second Amendment, and later castigated Barack Obama’s policies.  He seemed to relish in stirring the pot, and since most of his conservative Southern fan base concurred with his views, he didn’t see any downside.

His health began failing around 2010.  He had prostate cancer surgery, suffered a mild stroke and had a pacemaker installed, and yet he continued performing and maintaining involvement in his charity events and philanthropic activities up until the end.  His final album was 2018’s “Beau Weevils:  Songs in the Key of E,” and he toured with Travis Tritt and the Cadillac Three late last year.

I was a modest fan of country rock during its mid ’70s heyday, and liked CDB’s music images-224fine, although I didn’t buy much of it.  I saw them in concert once, in the summer of 1982, when I was reviewing concerts for a Cleveland newspaper.  Here’s what I had to say at that time:  “CDB is a very tight band, and they clearly enjoy what they’re doing.  They offered two dozen songs that mixed the newer hits with a liberal dose of tunes from their earlier albums to keep new fans on their toes and older fans happy.  Without a doubt, it was Daniels, a mountain of a man with a gentle twang in his fine singing voice, who dominated the proceedings.  He played his trusty fiddle on only four songs, not quite enough to suit me, but his guitar and the piano, lead guitar and pedal steel of his colleagues more than compensated.”

My friend Mark, who was with me at that concert in ’82, reminisced about the time he saw the band in college.  “It was at the little old fieldhouse at Bethany College.  We sat on images-219the floor right in front of the stage, with our cowboy hats and bottles of Rebel Yell, and we held up signs requesting ‘MORE FIDDLE!’  The band liked the signs enough that they invited us back stage to party afterwards.  What a memorable time hanging out with them.  They were all really great, fun guys, and such terrific musicians!”

Clearly, Charlie Daniels left quite a legacy as a musician, entertainer, storyteller, philanthropist, opinion sharer and friend.  As he often said, “God gave me a gift to play music for a living, and I feel it’s my responsibility to give something back.”  You’ve surely done that, good sir, many times over.  Rest in peace.


In appreciation of his music, here’s a Spotify playlist of The Charlie Daniels Band’s better known songs along with a few that may be new to you.