Poco’s Rusty Young Brought Appeal for Steel Guitar to Rock (RIP)

Put Rusty Young right up there with the greatest West Coast twangers who instilled an appreciation for country sounds in a generation of psychedelic rockers, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that country music could be cool. First showing up in one of the final lineups of Buffalo Springfield, and then becoming the principle fulcrum and full-time founding member of Poco for over 50 years, you can put Rusty Young’s name in the exclusive pool of guys like Gram Parsons and Clarence White as pioneers of country rock.

But perhaps the softish music of Poco that in later years drifted towards outright Yacht rock has little appeal to you. That’s understandable. But what distinguishes Rusty Young’s contributions even more was he did while behind the most confounding contraption known to music, and one of the foremost instruments of country: the steel guitar. Considered a virtuoso of the instrument and an innovator of it in the rock realm, it was his steel work that worked as the conduit for rock fans to find favor with country.

As you can probably guess from all of the high praise and use of the past tense, Rusty Young is no longer with us, passing away of a heart attack on Wednesday, April 14th at the age of 75. Born Norman Russell Young on February 23rd, 1946 in Long Beach, California, he would end up back on the West Coast to launch his career in earnest, but was raised in Denver, Colorado, first taking up the lap steel at the age of six, and by the time he was in high school, he was teaching others the instrument, as well as playing in both country and psychedelic bands.

It was an invitation by Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay to play steel guitar on the band’s final album Last Time Around, and specifically the song “Kind Woman” that put Rusty Young smack dab in the middle of the burgeoning country rock scene in California. When Buffalo Springfield hit Splitsville, Rusty Young formed Poco with Richie Furay, Jim Messina (later of Loggins & Messina), bassist Randy Meisner later of The Eagles, and drummer George Grantham. Meisner was later replaced by Timothy B. Schmit also of The Eagles. To call Poco a proving ground is a rich understatement. Paul Cotton and Kim Bullard would also play in the band.

Poco would go through all kinds of lineup changes over the years, and finally found success in the late 70’s with a couple of big hits in “Crazy Love” and “The Heart of the Night,” and then surprise folks again in the late 80’s with “Call It Love.” But the only constant in Poco was Rusty. “I made a promise to myself that Poco would only keep going if we remained a band of real musicians who were having fun,” Rusty said in 2020. “Because audiences can tell the difference.”

When many of the original members left, it was also left up to Rusty to write many of the band’s songs, which he did with their biggest hit “Crazy Love,” another one of their early signature songs “Rose of Cimarron,” and many of the band’s other tracks. Still, it was the distinct moods Rusty could evoke with the steel guitar, including loading the signal up into one of those Leslie speakers with the revolving core that created the signature Poco sounds.

Rusty Young’s steel guitar work was recognized well across American music, and in 2013, he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Though he officially retired that same year, Rusty had a hard time staying put, and continued to perform well after a 2014 farewell tour, both with members of Poco, and later as a solo artist, releasing his solo debut Waitin’ For The Sun in 2017.

Rusty Young is survived by his wife Mary who he lived with in Davisville, Missouri, as well as by daughter Sara, son Will, three grandsons Chandler, Ryan and Graham, as well as Mary’s three children Joe, Marci and Hallie and grandchildren Quentin and Emma.

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