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Bob Dylan: My Back Pages

January 28, 2017

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Poco: Rose Of Cimarron and those country rock family trees

January 18, 2018

Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Eagles, and still do. But I am far from alone in having as soft a spot for Poco. Of course, you cannot compare their respective levels of fame and money-making or undervalue the quality of those timeless rock anthems sung by Glenn Frey and the inimitable Don Henley. But Rusty Young’s band, like the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, were trailblazers and stayed largely true to their country roots while The Eagles, notably after multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon’s departure, slipped slickly into the rock mainstream to achieve phenomenal success.

 

When Richie Furay, Poco’s main creative source, decamped in 1973 believing the band would always be the Next Big Thing without a harder edge, it could have signalled disaster. But Young was confident his own songwriting would emerge from the shadows to inspire a breakthrough, and possibly their finest album followed in 1976. The gorgeous opener, the almost aromatic title track Rose Of Cimarron, captures the essence of Poco more than any other. It was released as a single, and only Emmylou Harris did it justice as a cover on her 1981 album Cimarron.

It is a simple love song on the surface, melodically uplifting and poetically disguising the drama within. Such is the easy art of Young’s writing. A jingle-jangling guitar introduces the infectious chorus…

 

Roll along, roll on
Rose of Cimarron
Dusty days are gone
Rose of Cimarron

 

The verses cleverly resemble a recurring bridge. Paul Cotton and Timothy B Schmit share the main vocals with trademark harmonies from the rest of the band, underpinned by Young’s pedal steel, Cotton’s lead guitar, Al Garth’s fiddle and George Grantham’s drums, before bass man Schmit’s extraordinary falsetto takes over for a rousing, symphonic denouement. This was Poco’s Peaceful Easy Feeling but they did not deserve to be lesser-spotted Eagles.

 

Young, whose steel guitar dexterity as well as that of Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Burritos, Al Perkins and Ben Keith, broadened my horizons in the late 60s and early 70s and confirmed a wider stage for the instrument beyond the Grand Ole Opry, said of the song: ‘I wrote it after I picked up a brochure while Poco were on tour in Oklahoma in 1973. It told the story of a woman who took in outlaws in the 1800s. She fed them, mended their wounds and sent them on their way. Or so they say… When I played Rose for the band, everyone wanted to make it a Poco record.’ It is still his favourite self-penned offering.

An online observer described it as a soundtrack to a movie that was never made although a film of that name and another, The Cimarron Kid, had appeared back in 1952.  The song’s setting is a village in New Mexico and its subject is the young Rose Dunn who was infatuated with an outlaw, George ‘Bittercreek’ Newcomb, in the 1890s among the embers of the Old West. She nursed him and smuggled supplies to his gang, the infamous Wild Bunch led by Doolin & Dalton (another film, another song) but was the involuntary instrument of his death. The lyric probably alludes to a stakeout, Rose wondering whether her man will be gunned down.

 

Shadows touch the sand and

Look to see who's standin’
Waitin’ at your window

Watchin', will they ever show?
Can you hear them callin’?
You know they have fallen
 On campfires cold and dark

That never see a spark burn bright

 

Beau George was supposedly killed by Rose’s bounty-hunting brothers who claimed she knew nothing about their deadly deed. She later married a politician named Noble and avoided prosecution despite the notoriety of trying to help wanted men escape a shootout with US marshals.

 

You're the one they'd turn to
The only one they knew who’d do
All her best to be around

When the chips were down

 

The Poco legend is still alive, thanks to the Colorado-raised Young who has been the mainstay of every incarnation and every gig since the band was formed with Furay and Jim Messina following the demise of Buffalo Springfield in 1968. Poco was a more striking moniker than the original idea of Pogo, named after a satirical comic strip character – thank goodness the cartoonist Walt Kelly objected to them using it.

Young, who began playing lap steel at the age of six and taught guitar as a 14-year-old, announced his retirement in late 2013 aged 68 after 45 years on the road, 19 studio albums and numerous compilations and live recordings. But concerts have continued on a part-time basis for his band and brand of many guises. The Poconut website thrives.

 

Poco’s first album was entitled Pickin’ Up The Pieces, on the back of Buffalo Springfield’s break-up, and they’ve been doing that ever since. Reunions & Revolving Doors would be a fitting title for an anthology of their work or the autobiography Young has written as the 50th anniversary celebrations beckon.

 

In 2017 Young was arm-twisted into a long-awaited debut solo album, Waitin’ For The Sun, co-produced by long-time bandmate Jack Sundrud and recorded at Johnny Cash’s old home studio near Nashville. He had been offered solo deals back in the 70s but ‘always felt Poco were more important’. He was too preoccupied with keeping the band together. ‘Then I realised this was the perfect time to do something that could be a rewarding part of my legacy.’ The standout track is My Friend, a joyous tribute to the Poco years, featuring old pals Furay and Schmit, with Young’s whisper of a voice finding new strength. A fine companion in my collection for Henley's 2015 solo reconnection with country, the sublime Cass County.

 

The extended Poco family contributed to an astonishing crossover of talent in West Coast rock; bassist and alto vocalist Randy Meisner was in the original lineup to be replaced by Schmit after leaving for The Eagles via brief spells with Ricky Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys. Famously, Schmit would become an Eagle himself in 1977 in succession to Meisner who was eventually lured back to Poco in the late 80s for the making of the Legacy album. Furay and Messina have enjoyed this game of musical chairs more than most: The Souther-Hillman-Furray Band and Loggins & Messina blossomed from the same tree.

Which reminds me of how I probably stumbled across Poco in the first place, before their appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. I was a subscriber in the 70s to Zigzag magazine, which was a humble yet influential forerunner to Mojo. Zigzag was founded, the year after Poco, by the self-taught journalist and future A&R man Pete Frame in association with John Tobler and Andy Childs. Apart from the articles, reviews and interviews with countless below-the-radar artists and bands, it featured Frame’s famed rock family trees, wonderfully informative and finely illustrated, which were reproduced in other music publications. The underground felt like a pioneering place to be. ‘If you want to put yourself on the map, publish your own map,’ Frame told an audience at Glasgow University in 2016.

Zigzag was essential reading for me although I lost interest (as indeed did Frame) when it picked up the punk baton and ran relentlessly with it, country rock reduced to a forgotten treasure. But the magazine had championed causes largely neglected by the established music weeklies and introduced me to Michael Nesmith, Mickey Newbury, John Mayall, Frank Zappa, Love, Tim Buckley, Judy Sill, Steve Miller, Chicken Shack, Robert Fripp and Captain Beefheart whose song Zig Zag Wanderer had offered its name.

 

Tony Stratton-Smith, founder of Charisma Records, took over the strained reins, also underwriting the Amazing Zigzag Concert at London’s Roundhouse in 1974 to mark the monthly magazine’s fifth birthday. My wife and I were there, lapping up Red Rhodes’ lap steel behind the golden voice of Nesmith (the former Monkey who wrote jewels such as Propinquity and Some Of Shelly’s Blues), the splendid John Stewart of Wheatfield Lady and Daydream Believer fame, the fleetingly reformed Help Yourself, accomplished pub rockers Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, and Starry Eyed And Laughing, who were later managed by Frame. A memorable show indeed.

Frame, described by writer Chris Charlesworth as ‘rock’s great arborist’, produced a series of books featuring his family trees, which generated a BBC documentary series narrated by John Peel. Each tree has offshoots with band personnel switching branches as new leaves are turned over. The amusing, well researched text boxes that accompany the branches are highly entertaining. A study of the Byrds, Eagles, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Poco & Eagles graphics takes you on a magical journey via Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, John David Souther, Pure Prairie League, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dillard & Clark, Crazy Horse, Manassas, The Rockets, The James Gang, Shiloh, The Joe Walsh Band, Hearts & Flowers, The Contenders and Boenzee Cryque (Rusty Young’s precocious pre-Poco playmates in Denver).

 

Poco are pivotal to the evolutionary story in this invaluable archive. Young’s Crazy Love and Cotton’s Heart Of The Night from their 1978 album Legend – more commercial, less country – became the big hits Poco had craved before their ill-starred stylistic diversions of the 80s. But Rose Of Cimarron remains a genuine classic of the country rock genre. Their music as a whole should have earned greater reward and recognition. Not Poco, but mucho.

 

 

 

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