Rusty Young, Country-Rock Pioneer, Is Dead at 75
Rusty Young, a founding member of popular country rock group Poco and a key figure in establishing the pedal steel guitar as an integral voice in West Coast rock of the late 1960s and 1970s, died Wednesday at his Davisville home. Mo. He was 75 years old.
His publicist Mike Farley said the cause was a heart attack.
Mr. Young played steel guitar with Poco for more than half a century. Along with other Los Angeles-based rock bands such as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco was one of the architects of the country rock movement of the late 1960s, which incorporated traditional country instruments into predominantly rock arrangements. The Eagles and dozens of other bands would follow suit.
Formed in 1968, Poco originally included singers and guitarists Jim Messina and Richie Furay – both formerly Buffalo Springfield, another groundbreaking Los Angeles country rock band – plus Mr. Young, drummer George Grantham and bassist Randy Meisner, a future member of the Eagles. (Timothy B. Schmit, another future eagle, replaced Mr. Meisner after he left the band in 1969.)
Poco first got together for a high profile show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, not long after Mr. Furay invited Mr. Young to play pedal steel guitar on his composition “Kind Woman,” the final track of Buffalo Springfield’s farewell album. “The last time.” The music that Poco made generally used a Twangier production and was more populist-oriented than that of Buffalo Springfield, a band that had at times gravitated towards experimentalism and obfuscation.
Mr. Furay’s song “Pickin ‘Up the Pieces”, the title track of Poco’s 1969 debut album, served as a letter of intent:
Well there is just a little bit of magic
In country music we sing
So let’s start.
We’ll bring you back home where people are happy
Sittin ‘pickin’ and a-grinnin ‘
You and me
We’ll pick up the pieces, um.
Sharp and lyrical at the same time, Mr. Young’s pedal steel work shaped the group’s music with its rustic signature sound and helped create a prominent place for the steel guitar among roots-conscious California rock bands.
“I put color in Richie’s country rock songs, and that was the whole idea of using instruments with a country sound,” Young explained in a 2014 interview with Goldmine magazine, referring to the compositions of Mr. Furay.
But Mr. Young, who also played the banjo, dobro, and mandolin, was not averse to musical experiments. “I slipped the envelope onto the steel guitar and played it with a fuzz tone because nobody did that,” he told Goldmine. He also played the pedal steel through a Leslie speaker, much like a Hammond B3 organist would, leading some listeners to believe that he was actually playing an organ.
Mr. Young was not one of Poco’s original singers or songwriters. After the departure of Mr. Messina in 1971 and Mr. Furay in 1973, he appeared alongside newcomer Paul Cotton as one of the group’s front men. Mr. Young wrote and sang the lead vocals for “Crazy Love,” the band’s biggest hit, which reached # 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Charts in 1979 (and # 17 on the Pop Charts).
He also wrote and sang the lead role on “Rose of Cimarron,” another of Poco’s more enduring recordings from the 1970s, and orchestrated the reunion of the group’s original members in 1989 for the album “Legacy,” which like the 1978 platinum Legend “, resulted in a pair of top 40 singles.
Norman Russell Young was born on February 23, 1946 in Long Beach, California, to one of three children of Norman John and Ruth (Stephenson) Young. His father, an electrician, and his mother, a typist, took him to country bars where he was fascinated by the steel guitarists as a child.
He grew up in Denver where he started playing lap steel guitar at the age of 6. As a teenager, he worked with local psychedelic and country bands.
After moving to Los Angeles but before joining Poco, he declined an invitation to become a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, which at the time included Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, formerly Byrds.
After Mr. Cotton left Poco in 2010 because of a financial dispute, Mr. Young became the group’s only front man. The band made their last album, All Fired Up, in 2013, the same year Mr. Young was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in St. Louis. In 2017 he released his first solo album “Waitin ‘for the Sun” and performed sporadically with the latest version of Poco until the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020.
Mr. Young is survived by his wife of 17 years, Mary Brennan Young; a daughter, Sara; a son, Will; a sister, Corine; and three grandchildren. His brother Ron died in 2002.
Mr. Young’s rise as a singer and songwriter in Poco in the late 1970s after nearly a decade as a supporting instrumentalist was as propitious as it was accidental.
“The band didn’t need another singer-songwriter when Richie and Jim were in the band,” he explained in his 2014 Goldmine interview, referring to Mr. Furay and Mr. Messina. “My job was to play the steel guitar and bring the music to it. When my job changed, a lot of opportunities opened up for me. So I liked the way things went. “