Poco - Biography
By Paul Andersen
Like many music pioneers, Poco blazed a trail that would bear more fruit for those that followed than they themselves would ever reap. Beginning out of the ashes of Buffalo Springfield in 1968, they laid out the blueprint for the country rock movement that would explode with the success of The Eagles a few years down the road, though from the start Poco forged a truer synthesis of country and rock than any of their more notable followers. Poco’s twang – part Bakersfield roadhouse, the rest Nashville bluegrass tinged and singed – was both traditional and revolutionary, amped-up high energy with sweet steel guitar that could simultaneously rock and weep like no other band before or since.
The genesis for Poco began at the recording sessions for Buffalo Springfield’s final album, Last Time Around. Midway through, Neil Young exited the band, soon followed by Stephen Stills, leaving bassist Jim Messina and singer/guitarist Richie Furay to finish up what would be Springfield’s last work. The pair brought in steel guitarist Rusty Young to enhance the last song, Furay’s “Kind Woman,” and it was apparent that something special was taking place. With Springfield now history – Neil Young went solo, while Stills would soon form Crosby, Stills & Nash – Furay and Messina decided to stay together to pursue a sound that would blend together equal parts rock and country music, a muse that “Kind Woman” pointed to. They asked Rusty Young to join them, which he did (he had been planning to try out for a new group being put together by ex-Byrd Gram Parsons), and Young suggested they pick up George Grantham, the drummer from his former group, Boenzee Cryque. Randy Meisner, a bassist/singer would be the final addition, coming over from The Poor; this allowed Messina to switch to lead guitar.
They initially called themselves Pogo, after the beloved comic strip penned by Walt Kelly, but when Kelly initiated a lawsuit against them to keep them from using the name, they simply switched the ‘g’ for a ‘c’ and became Poco, which happens to mean “little” in Spanish. By November 1968, after months of rehearsals, they made their live debut at Los Angeles’s Troubadour. It wasn’t long, based on the strength of their concerts, that they drew attention from Columbia Records. But with Furay and Messina still tied to Atlantic Records by virtue of their association with Buffalo Springfield, their signing seemed to be thwarted, until a unique, baseball-style trade was arranged by a young talent agent, David Geffen, that saw Furay and Messina switch to Columbia while Atlantic picked up ex-Byrd guitarist David Crosby and ex-Hollies singer Graham Nash from Columbia, freeing Atlantic to sign Crosby, Stills & Nash. Poco would record for Columbia’s Epic Records imprint.
The quintet entered the studio at the beginning of 1969, and quickly slimmed down to a quartet, as Meisner left to join Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band, before enlisting in the group that would eventually become The Eagles. It was the first of a wide stream of personnel moves that would become part of Poco’s legacy. Messina took over bass duties for the recording, and Poco soon had its debut album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces. Released in June of 1969 to critical kudos and disappointing sales, it still stands as a seminal cornerstone (along with the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo) in the birth of country rock as a new genre.
Poco soon returned to life as a quintet with the addition of Timothy B. Schmit on bass, who joined in time to take part in the recording of their second album, Poco, which found them pushing further in their country rock germination. Alas, it received the same response as their first album – critical praise and little chart action – which started pushing Messina out the door. But before he left, the band did two things: they recorded a live album, Deliverin’, which would splendidly capture their concert energy, and they found a replacement for Messina before he departed, in the person of Paul Cotton, a singer/guitarist who had impressed them as a member of Illinois Speed Press, a band from Chicago that mixed R&B with rock and country elements. Messina left to become a record producer (a role he initially took with singer Kenny Loggins before Sittin’ In launched them as a duo) while Cotton took his place in Poco. Once again, the group entered the studio.
Produced by legendary Booker T. & the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper, From the Inside seamlessly integrated Cotton into the band (“Bad Weather” would become a signature staple in Poco’s songbook). The sound was a bit heavier, but the results would continue to be the same (good press, lukewarm sales), and it was decided to aim for a hit single with the next album. Taking its title from a popular tune in Poco’s live repertoire, A Good Feelin’ to Know was released in 1972 to high expectations, but never charted as a single, and only reached 69 on the Billboard chart, 17 spots higher than their previous effort, and 43 higher than Deliverin’, their highest charting album so far.
Disappointment and frustration began to eat at the band, especially as they watched their two former members, Meisner and Messina, reach million-selling status with The Eagles and Loggins & Messina, respectively. Furay would be the next to leave, after recording 1973’s Crazy Eyes, which stayed on the charts for six months and peaked at #38. He left to join songwriter John David Souther and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman in the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, which would engender similar consumer disinterest as his former group (Furay would later turn to ministry in Colorado).
Poco continued on as a quartet, recording Seven and Cantamos, both of which came out in 1974; they marked the end of the band’s tenure at Epic Records. With Young and Schmit filling the songwriting void left by Furay’s departure, Poco moved over to ABC Records, and their first release for the label, 1975’s Head Over Heels, garnered both their best sales since their early Epic efforts and a modestly successful single in “Keep on Tryin’,” which made it halfway up Billboard’s Top 100, peaking at 50. The album might have done better if Epic hadn’t released the first of many compilations, The Very Best of Poco, a two-record set, two weeks after Head Over Heels came out.
By this time Poco was a quintet again, with the addition of fiddler/saxophonist Al Garth, formerly of Loggins & Messina. Rose of Cimarron followed in 1976, and once again had to compete against an album from their former label, as Epic released Live, recorded on tour in 1974. Garth soon departed, and the group considered calling it quits; instead, they went back into the studio and recorded Indian Summer. Four months after its spring 1977 release, Schmit left Poco to replace bassist Meisner in The Eagles, with the blessing of his former band mates. In January 1978, Grantham departed, leaving Young and Cotton to ponder whether to carry on or not.
The pair decided to keep going, adding bassist/singer Charlie Harrison, drummer Steve Chapman and keyboardist Kim Bullard. Alchemy took place as the band went into the studio and came up with Legend, which finally produced the success they had chased for so many years. “Crazy Love” hit number 17 on the pop charts, and number one on the adult contemporary listings, with a second single, “Heart of the Night,” reaching number 20.
The seemingly overnight success of Legend would never again be duplicated, and three albums later (1980’s Under the Gun, 1981’s Blue and Gray and 1982’s Cowboys & Englishmen), after ABC was taken over by MCA Records, Poco switched labels again, this time landing at Atlantic, the company that had ‘traded’ Furay and Messina to Columbia 14 years earlier. Ghost Town barely made the Top 200: 1984’s Inamorata, which featured guest appearances by Furay, Grantham and Schmit, didn’t even attain that, and Poco was soon without a contract for the first time in their career, though they continued touring (again, with a number of personnel changes along the way).
Then the unexpected happened. In 1989, the original group – Furay, Messina, Meisner, Young and Grantham – got back together and recorded Legacy, which was released by RCA Records. Twenty years after they began, the founding quintet, which had never actually made an album together, finally got the chance to show what they could do in the studio. Patience was rewarded as Legacy yielded a pair of top forty hits, “Call It Love” and “Nothing to Hide,” and the ensuing tour was also a success. Furay, a full-time minister, eventually bowed out, and by 1991, Meisner and Messina had also returned to their solo careers.
Once again Poco was left without a recording contract, but rather than calling it quits, Young teamed up with Cotton and the pair soldiered on for the rest of the decade, sometimes as an acoustic duo, other times as a quartet with new members Richard Neville (bass) and Tim Smith (drums). The turn of the century found Grantham and bassist Jack Sundrud (who had first played with Poco in 1985) returning to the fold; in 2002, the band released Running Horse through their website, followed by a pair of live albums, 2005’s unplugged Bareback at Big Sky and 2006’s Keep on Tryin’, a combination CD/DVD that featured Furay as a special guest. Poco, currently featuring Young, Cotton, Sundrud and drummer George Lawrence (Grantham suffered an onstage stroke in 2004, from which he is still recovering), still continues to tour, some 40 years later. Yes, the road does go on forever.