Like most people, I suppose there are a number of things that I tend to believe selectively…when it’s convenient, or when it suits my narrative.
Probably at the top of that list would be the old adage that “everything happens for a reason”. Seems solid enough when it works to ones’ advantage, but I haven’t found much use for that one for a good long while…
…until this past weekend, maybe.
George Grantham (original Poco drummer, 1968-1977 and 2000-2004) had planned on making a “road trip” out of the sojourn to Wildwood Springs Lodge for Rusty Young’s memorial shows and service with his wife Debbie, so they’d have their own transportation available while they were there…Debbie isn’t big on depending on other folks to get them from place to place, and she felt up for the drive – but fate intervened in the form of a transmission issue that ended up quarantining their car at the garage well past when they’d have needed it back in order to make the trip.
Most of you know that George suffered a stroke onstage during a show in Springfield MA that effectively retired him from the road, although he’s made a number of appearances at special shows – he got up and played drums and sang “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” with the band at Wildwood in 2019, even.
If you stop by to read these missives on even a sporadic basis, you know that I’ve known George almost as long as I’ve known Rusty and Paul – nowadays, we live in the same city – so I wanted to do what I could to make sure the Granthams were able to be in Steelville for this last Wildwood Weekend if I could.
We hatched a plan to bring two cars, since Wendy and Danny were planning to come anyway – gear in one, luggage in the other – and Debbie rode along with Wendy while George rode shotgun with me.
I loaded a few decades’ worth of Poco and Buffalo Springfield MP3’s onto a flash drive and brought it along…and once we got everyone loaded up and said goodbye to Dusty (the Grantham’s fierce, man-eating attack dog), we started up Interstate 24 headed north to Missouri.
We started out making small talk here and there, but when the lulls between dialogue started to get longer, George started singing along to the Poco archive I’d been playing in the car since we left.
Half an hour or so up the road, Paul’s “Bad Weather” came on, and it froze both of us for a couple seconds or so, but then George went back to singing…and I took a harmony part right along with him.
Me being me, I immediately thought that “I’ve gotta get a snippet of this. For me. To remember the drive and the moment.” I pulled out my phone and held it up to the drivers’ side window and recorded thirty seconds or so of the two of us singing along with Paulie – George was blissfully unaware of what I was doing. But before I put my phone away, I held it up to my ear to listen to what I’d captured, and…
…I’ll be damned if George didn’t sound like…well, George Grantham!
I rationalized it in my head as I was doing it – “there are a ton of folks who want to be there this weekend that can’t be there, and they’d get a kick out of this. Maybe it’ll make them feel like they’re along for the ride” – and I uploaded it to Instagram and cross-posted it to Facebook with the hashtag:
My phone started buzzing on a regular basis as folks commented on the post on both platforms, so I kept recording us, and we kept singing…and singing…for damn near the whole six-plus hour drive.
I almost got away with it for the entire trip – that is, until we stopped for a bathroom break less than an hour from our destination. Debbie had no reason to think that I was doing it without George’s knowledge, so she mentioned it to him before we got back into the car to finish the trip and…well, I had to come clean.
George was all for it – and when we’d gotten checked into the hotel and went out for dinner, I showed him the dozens and dozens of comments people had left on the videos and he was clearly moved to see how many people were passing along well-wishes and love from various corners of the world. He even got the chance to listen to a couple of them, in between torrential blankets of rain that threatened to drown out whatever conversation might’ve been taking place at the table.
After dinner, I had planned on making good on my promise to screen a showing of “Count Me In” for George, but the WiFi was on the fritz, so we had to settle for a rerun of the Muscle Shoals documentary from my laptop’s hard drive instead…thus ended the first of three consecutive nights of post-midnight bedtimes.
Jack, Rick and I had spent some time discussing and curating the setlist for the Wildwood shows – trying to be sensitive to EVERY consideration possible, pacing the two sets and setting the theme for the first set as a tribute to Rusty – the reason the three of us were there in the first place, founder of the band and keeper of the fire for 53 years.
There were half a dozen videos that had been selected for the shows, plus a pair of videos that Richie Furay had sent in – one with some reminiscences about Rusty and Paul and another with a solo acoustic performance of “Bad Weather” and “Crazy Love”. I spent several days writing a script, recording voiceover, soliciting recorded input from friends and band members, editing audio and video for a tribute film we showed at the very beginning of the first set – the video ended with Rusty playing the chorus of “Where Did The Time Go” and I was to be seated with my guitar in hand when he hit the final chord and would start the first verse of the full-length version of the song just as he finished…then Mary walked onto the stage and put Rusty’s trademark hat onto the headstock of his guitar as Jack started playing “Old Hat” (a song that he and Rusty had written together that – coincidentally, Rusty played as his solo acoustic offering at the very first Poco show I ever saw) – from there, we’d play “Us”, the first song Rusty ever sang on a Poco record…you get the picture. We had some flexibility in the second set, but the first set was pretty solidly written in stone.
On Friday when we went to load in and soundcheck, I asked Jack and Rick how they felt about having George up for the first three songs of the second set – we had already planned on him doing his traditional appearance on “Pieces”, but he was in pretty great voice, and I knew that he was familiar enough with the three songs at the top of the second set that it’d be pretty low risk to have him up. We conducted the world’s quickest unanimous “yes” vote and it was on.
We ran through a few things to make sure everything was working – I had to improvise a pedal board on the spot, as I hadn’t had any time the previous week to get it together (I spent literally every non-working waking hour on finishing Rusty’s tribute video…the one I had done the year before to launch the Poco YouTube page was a solo effort with practically zero input, but this one was very much a communal effort, which quadrupled the time factor) – but I cobbled together a workable setup to get me through the weekend.
I felt that if I could just get through that first song both nights, I’d be OK.
Thankfully, I actually DID get through the first song without a hitch both nights, but my brain was so scattered that I managed to forget lyrics to a song each night in mid-sentence…once per show, a different song for both shows. I reversed verses for “One Tear at a Time” on Friday night, and my brains just ran down my nose during “Call it Love” on Saturday night.
We got through the first set – the Rusty Set – and I went and got George and brought him up for the three songs that kicked off the second set: “Child’s Claim to Fame”, “Kind Woman”, and “Pickin’ Up The Pieces”, and he sang his ass off.
When every other memory of last weekend has faded, the one I’ll cling to will be George walking off to a round of applause after finishing those songs, and taking his seat in the front row…then noticing that people hadn’t stopped applauding yet, at which point he stood up and turned around to the sight of THE ENTIRE HOUSE ON ITS FEET.
Watching George from my vantage point a few feet away as he turned around and looked around the room, soaking in all that love…that, my friends, was a moment.
Saturday morning, Michael Webb dragged himself out of bed after having played the Ryman with Amanda Shires the night before and drove all the way there to be a part of that night’s show, and to be there for Rusty’s memorial service the next day. He gave me an impromptu tour of the “Poco Wing” of the lodge, where they’d come to take care of overdubs for “All Fired Up” and told me about moving the furniture around in the rooms to accommodate the band’s recording hijinks.
There was a lunch get-together that afternoon at an AirBnB rented by longtime friends Marc and Sharon…we got up and got ourselves ready to head out that way and very nearly got lost, pulling into the driveway of the host – who was apparently pretty accustomed to having to take folks by the hand and lead them to the property, which he happily did for us. We stayed for a bit, but left earlier than I’d have liked, because we hadn’t gotten back to the hotel until almost 1AM the night before, and I wanted George to have a chance to rest up for the show that night, as it was almost certain that it would go at least as late as the night before had gone.
For that night’s show, we kept George up for the original three songs at the beginning of the second set PLUS “Keep On Tryin’”, and I made sure he knew the queue to come back up for “Good Feelin’ To Know” at the end of the night…a couple of people had needled me about playing “Wildwood” during the set, but the night seemed long enough as it were without getting too carried away with solo stuff. And sure enough, it was again well after midnight when we left to return to the hotel on Saturday night as well.
Sunday morning, Debbie had a predictably tough time getting George out of bed and ready to go to the church for Rusty’s service, but he pulled through. I’d talked to him on the way there about whether he wanted to say anything during the service or not, and he had somewhat mixed feelings about it…I told him that he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to, and that nobody expected him to if he wasn’t up for it, but – that if he did, I’d walk up with him if he wanted…and he said he’d decide once he got there. I went back to where he was sitting after I’d gone up and spoken and he seemed a little intimidated by the notion of going up (Debbie told me later that she’d had to nudge him a couple times to keep him awake, and I felt bad that we’d kept him up so late the past few nights…but I can’t imagine he’d have had it any other way.)
Everyone from the band had great stories – Michael talked about playing a B3 part for a song on “All Fired Up” on the day Jon Lord from Deep Purple died, and about getting the call from Rick Alter, asking if he “knew anybody” that might fit what Rusty was looking for when he had to replace Paul Cotton in the band. Jack talked about being taken out for all manners of food he’d never had before when Rusty brought him into the fold, and about hearing from Rusty when he’d decided to move to Missouri to be with Mary. Rick Lonow talked about the difference between the “Poconuts” and the typical hangers-on that so many other bands attracted and how the ‘Nuts have eclipsed that stereotype to become a huge extended family, bound together by this music.
That, after all, is why we were all there.
This music drew us all in at some point in our lives, and upon being drawn into this family, the people within the family itself came to mean as much to us as the music did. Yeah, I would’ve still loved the music if I’d never gotten to know the band and the extended family, but – maybe not quite enough to drive all night to a show on the other side of the state or up the coast…or make a trek to a mountainside in the Ozarks every third weekend of October for decades to be a part of “Wildwood Weekend”.
I talked to more than one person who’d driven fifteen hours – twenty hours – a day and a half – to be there this weekend. Others who’d suffered through some odd flavor of airline torture…and one poor soul who stepped through the front door during the final song of the night on Friday night and missed the entire show.
There was a woman who sat in the front row and sobbed while we sang “Crazy Love” for the last time.
These are folks who’ve made this trip faithfully, year after year – and weren’t about to miss one last chance to come say goodbye to their favorite band with the rest of their family.
The music was the main course, but it was about so much more than that…and Rusty kept that fire burning for half a century. We played Rusty’s songs, we played Paul Cotton songs (“Heart of the Night”, “Indian Summer”, among others) and we celebrated the music…because that will outlive them both. But we celebrated more than just “the band” – we were taking stock of the fact that we’re all only here for a short time, and every goodbye may be The Last Goodbye.
They were there to mourn the losses of Rusty and Paul, but we were also mourning the loss of this unique thing that had grown up around the music, around the band and the personalities involved – as people have come and gone, as the band has changed, as we’ve collectively grown older and as we’ve lost some of our old-timers (Naomi, Zog, Claudia, and a host of others), the family has persevered.
None of us really know what any of this looks like moving forward, but The Last Wildwood Weekend felt like a good time to confront the fact that what we’d always known it to be was over…and we were saying goodbye to that, too.
George was pretty drained when we left the service, and Debbie had to work the next day – so we bowed out of an invitation to Mary’s afterward so we could get on the road. But everyone was hungry, so we ended the weekend where it started: at Frisco’s in Cuba – home of Danny’s New Favorite Chicken Nuggets.
The place was very nearly empty, so we were thankfully in and out in pretty short order…but while we were sitting there, the faint strains of the piano intro from “Tiny Dancer” wafted in from somewhere, and (with the exception of Danny, who does NOT sing in public) the rest of us all started singing along on the chorus, right there at the table.
And yeah…no one needed to tell me….
“You ARE home.”