The legendary founder of Poco and an essential architect of Americana, passes away suddenly at age 75
Rusty Young’s original role in the pioneering country crossover band Poco found him playing support to the band’s original frontmen, Richie Furay and Jim Messina.
Nevertheless, his shimmering pedal steel guitar helped shape the essential sound which, in future years, would come to be called Americana. So too, when Messina, Furay and later recruit Paul Cotton parted ways with the band he helped to found, it was Young who picked up the slack and became the band’s chief singer, songwriter and multi-tasking musician.
Young, who died suddenly this past Wednesday of a heart attack at his home in Davisville, Missouri at age 75, carried on the brand long after many observers considered Poco to be past their prime. To the contrary, under his aegis, Poco had a creative rebirth, resulting in several critically acclaimed albums and any number of successful songs, beginning with “Rose of Cimarron” (later covered by Emmylou Harris) and continuing through a string of major hits, including “Crazy Love,” “Heart of the Night” and “Call It Love,” the latter culled from Legacy, Poco’s one-off reunion album. Although Young put Poco on hiatus in 2017 when he released his first and only solo album, Waiting for the Sun, the group’s retirement didn’t last long, and with a group of newer musicians in tow, Poco continued to play up to 100 dates a year prior to the pandemic.
Born in Long Beach California, Young was raised in Denver Colorado and it was there that he took up pedal steel guitar as a young boy and later became known for his instrumental acumen as a result of his work with various area bands. His big big break came in 1967 when Furay asked him to contribute to what would become Buffalo Springfield’s third and final album, Last Time Around. Ostensively a collection of solo songs by each of the Springfield’s remaining members, it birthed the track “Kind Woman,” which not only prominently featured Young’s steel guitar, but also provided the template for Poco, Furay, Messina and Young’s country-oriented offshoot. Not surprisingly, “Kind Woman” would remain a staple in the group’s live shows for decades to come.
“I got involved, because I could play steel guitar and dobro and banjo and mandolin, and pretty much all the country instruments except for the fiddle,” Young recalled when he was interviewed by this writer for the book, Americana Music — Voices, Visionaries & Pioneers of an Honest Sound. “So I added color to Richie’s country rock songs, and that was the whole idea, to use country-sounding instruments. Also, I pushed the envelope on steel guitar, playing it with a fuzz tone, because nobody was doing that, and playing it through a Leslie speaker like an organ…a lot of people thought I was playing an organ, because they didn’t realize I was playing a steel guitar. So we were pushing the envelope in a lot of different ways, instrumentally and musically overall.”
Although the original outfit would regroup only once, for the aforementioned Legacy album, Poco’s legacy survived and thrived due to Young’s singular commitment to their cause. And while Poco has yet to earn its rightful place in the Rock of Roll Hall of Fame, there’s no doubt that the Americana movement was, in fact, fostered by the role Young and his colleagues played in its development. Appropriately, Young was recognized for the contributions he made all on his own, thanks to his inclusion in Guitar Player Magazine’s ‘Gallery Of Greats’ in 1974 and his induction into the Steel Guitar Hall Of Fame in 2012.
Perhaps his greatest tribute comes from Richie Furay, his former colleague whose current album, Still Deliverin’, commemorates the 50th anniversary of the stunning live album that helped Poco find a wider reach, particularly with the college crowd. “I just received word that my friend Rusty Young has passed away and crossed that line into eternity,” Furay wrote. “My heart is saddened; he was a dear and longtime friend who help me pioneer and create a new Southern California musical sound called ‘country rock.’ He was an innovator on the steel guitar and carried the name Poco on for more than 50 years. Our friendship was real and he will be deeply missed. My prayers are with his wife, Mary, and his children, Sara and Will.”
Indeed, the tragic loss of so many musical icons in recent years has been heartbreaking to say the least. Yet Young’s sudden passing is especially hard to digest, not only given his unshakeable stewardship of Poco, but also due to his indelible instrumental prowess.
Whenever the subject of that unique country-rock hybrid is mentioned, Young ought to be remembered as much as anyone for having contributed to that crossover.