It’s been a month today.
It still doesn’t seem real…it doesn’t seem real because, in some ways, my life hasn’t changed a lot with regard to my day to day routine. I get up, I either get in the car and go to work or sit down at the kitchen table and start replying to emails, dialing into meetings…the usual mundane stuff that a workday brings. I sleep a lot, probably a lot more than usual…I sit in front of the TV and watch stuff that I’ve seen before, so I don’t have to commit a lot of actual attention to it.
It’s almost as if it never happened, and yet…it’s never out of sight. It never goes away.
I got a phone call from a buddy today after I got home from work, and he asked me how I’m doing – I immediately thought of the first verse of Jackson Browne’s song The Late Show that closes side one of Late For The Sky:
“Everyone I’ve ever known has wished me well
Anyway that’s how it seems – it’s hard to tell
Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing
Because it’s easier
Than lettin’ on how little they could care…”
So, I figured – fuck it, let me give him an honest answer and see what he says…
“…well, buddy – aside from the fleeting reprieves offered by work or sleep or the occasional phone call, my life is basically an endless wellspring of sadness…not rock-bottom despair, just a deep, profound, perpetual chain around my neck that never completely goes away – and can go from a few extra pounds to bone-crushing and back again at the drop of a hat. That about sums it up.“
He was quiet for a couple of seconds, and then he said…
“…well, I actually expected it to be a lot worse.”
Some days it feels like this month has been a year long, others it feels like the phone just rang this morning.
The morning after Rusty died – after Jack’s phone call, I ran away to the office to try to hide from the news – I threw myself into every menial task I could, and I got through most of the day without showing my hand to the folks I worked with. Around 4pm, a friend of mine in HR came by my desk and she knew, somehow, that something wasn’t quite right…and she tried to talk to me about it, and nearly broke me in the process.
It was time to get out of the office.
I drove home and went to the fridge…I already had a plan for the afternoon that I’d concocted in my head as I plodded through the day like a zombie, and it was time to put it into action.
Back in April of 2020, shortly after news got out to the world of my having become the newest member of Poco, my longtime buddy (and bandmate in Idlewheel to Jack and myself) Tommy Geddes sent me a bottle of champagne to welcome me to the band. Tommy knew what a fanboy I was, and he understood the significance of my membership in the band as well as anyone. And while I appreciated the gesture, I didn’t open the bottle.
I opened the package and read the card with a smile…but I set the bottle aside.
I thought to myself that – as much as I appreciated the gesture, I couldn’t bring myself to open it yet.
I felt as though I needed to hold onto it until such time as I’d actually played a show with the band, until I’d made my actual public debut with the band as a legitimate member…I’m not really sure why that was important to me, but with the advent of COVID and our involuntary respite from the road…opening that bottle of champagne and celebrating my membership in a band I’d loved since before I was old enough to drink or vote or get a drivers’ license just felt…premature. I’m not particularly superstitious, but…it just didn’t seem right.
It’d mean more if I popped the cork after my first show with the band, so…I waited.
…and waited. And waited.
And that bottle of champagne sat in my refrigerator for weeks…then months…then almost exactly a year.
The day of The Phone Call, though, I came home and went to the fridge, retrieved the bottle, and went down the hill in the back yard to the dock beside the lake and popped the cork and watched it fly out over the water and float for a moment before it sank to the bottom. I poured the first drink into the water beneath my feet (for Rusty, of course)…and I sat on the dock and proceeded to drink the rest of the bottle as the sun went down on the shittiest day I could remember.
I had put my phone on vibrate earlier in the day, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to form sentences around the news of the day…so it felt pointless to field calls or try to talk about any of this. My voicemail filled up. Texts were coming in, but – I just couldn’t.
I was still in some strange mix of denial, disbelief and rage.
And – truth be told – I think that I’ve learned a lot about grief in the time between then and now. But that’s a longer conversation for later.
I set up my laptop on the kitchen table and worked from that spot for a couple of days, going through the motions and considering the repercussions of what had happened. I hadn’t just lost a bandmate – I’d lost a childhood hero, a friend, a mentor, a teacher, a bandmate, and (by virture of all those things combined) a big part of who I was.
There are a number of things that makes this loss difficult to convey or describe to other people – no, we weren’t related…and no, I can’t really describe my relationship with Rusty in a way that I can tie up in terms that other non-musical people can comprehend.
If you get it, you get it, and…if you don’t, I can’t really help you.
The days after Rusty’s passing are something of a blur – Jack, Rick and I had a vocal rehearsal scheduled for that Friday, as we were prepping for the possibility of a video shoot on the west coast…the three of us got together that afternoon at Jacks’ house anyway, in the spirit of commiserating and remembering our Founder. We sat around Jack’s kitchen table and talked about how certain we’d been that Rusty had another twenty years in him, about how Mary had been posting pictures of Rusty in his rubber boots working in the yards all winter and how he seemed invincible…and yeah, about how completely fucking unfair it was that he was the first of the Poco alumni to go.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over that last point…the fact that the ONE MAN who spent over fifty years of his life keeping this music alive and keeping this band on the road – HE would be the first to go.
It’s not fair. It’s not fair…it’s…not…
It’s just fucking wrong.
It’s wrong – not just for me, but for Jack…who’d been the constant in the band for thirty years. For Rick, who’d been an outspoken advocate for bringing me into the band from the days of my first rehearsals as a sub, and – yeah, of course, for me – who’d spent over a year on the sidelines waiting for the COVID cloud to pass overhead so we could unveil this version of the band to the world. All of us, to a man (including Rusty) were really excited about taking this version of the band on the road and showing people what we could do with this lineup of singers and players…but we’d been deprived of that opportunity now. We had a brief glimpse at the possibility of this lineup a year ago, and we’d have to settle for what might’ve been.
Needless to say, all Poco dates that were scheduled from June through the foreseeable future were taken off the calendar. There’s no Poco without Rusty – he was the constant in the lineup of every version of Poco for well over half a century, and it seems blasphemous to even think about going out under that banner without having Rusty on stage. So we set those dates aside, with the exception of the annual Wildwood Springs Lodge booking…which we set aside as Rusty’s memorial weekend. We discussed it, and Mary felt like it’d be the best available point in time to gather to remember him…Wildwood Springs was the place that Rusty and Mary had met, and over the years it had become something of an annual Poco Family Reunion for the most hardcore fans – so we kept that on the books.
Over the course of the next few days, the pieces began to fall into place for a separate memorial of sorts, a gathering of musical brothers-in-arms to testify, to tell road stories, and to remember him…it started out as a radio show, but grew – and kept growing – right up until time to go on the air. It was originally a two-hour slot on a radio station in Columbia, just south of Nashville…but by the day of the show, it was a full audio and video livestream broadcast on well over a dozen Facebook pages and ultimately seen and heard by almost 80,000 people (and charting in the Top Ten in Pollstar Magazine’s Livestream charts for the week).
It feels like name-dropping to list the folks who participated, but the list felt like a who’s who from the liner notes of the record collection of my youth…some in the room with me, some calling in from parts unknown to share Rusty Stories. The assembled folks in the room got together the afternoon before the show to run through a handful of songs that we were to play live over the air, and looking around the table was humbling. I sang the lead vocal on a pair of songs, both songs that were always Rusty’s domain in the set – Call It Love and Keep On Tryin’ – and when Timothy B. Schmit called in afterward, he complemented us on the job we did on his song.
Yet another thing that would’ve been fuel and inspiration under just about any other circumstance…but had only managed to ring somewhat hollow in the moment.
The show was supposed to have been two hours, but the owner of the station – who had attended in person – gave us his blessing to go on for as long as we wanted, and we did. The final caller said their goodbyes somewhere around 9:30, and the total running time was just a half hour shy of being double its original allotted time slot…and could’ve went longer, honestly.
Jim Messina talked about the story of how Rusty came to Hollywood to play pedal steel on “Kind Woman” – a story I thought I knew until that night, but he dropped a bit of a bomb on me in his telling of it during the show.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the instrument, the pedal steel is essentially a math problem with legs…there’s a network of metal rods on the undercarriage of the instrument attached to a hinged mechanism that either raises or lowers the pitch of the strings, either individually or in tandem with others. When the system was first invented, the combinations of pitch changes were endless and the means of setting up the instrument had very little rhyme or reason until a handful of folks started standardizing the sets of changes into a loose standard. Eventually, two “setups” rose to the top – the “Emmons” setup, named for Buddy Emmons, the recognized and accepted Black Belt of Pedal Steel, and the “Day” setup, named for Jimmy Day – another admired and accomplished player.
Over time, the Emmons setup became the VHS, the Microsoft of the two, while the Day setup became the Betamax, the iMac…superior in the eyes of its faithful devotees, but not as accepted by the market as a whole.
Rusty (as well as John David Call of Pure Prairie League) were both Day guys, although I never knew it until I got to know them both. Rusty once told me he’d been playing the Day setup since he was 11 years old…and this is important to know when you hear the story of the Kind Woman session – although I don’t think Jimmy was aware of the specifics of any of this before the radio conversation that night.
Rusty packed his Day-modified pedal steel guitar and set out for the airport to fly to the west coast for his fateful date with destiny…playing on a Buffalo Springfield record…only to find upon arrival that the airline had managed to mangle his instrument into an unplayable state. Here he was, on maybe the biggest day of his musical life, without a functional instrument.
But wait – all wasn’t lost. Stephen Stills, it turns out, had just bought a pedal steel guitar, and it was available…so let’s just borrow Stephen’s guitar for the session and we’ll be back in business!
Except – as you might’ve guessed by the blatant foreshadowing from earlier – Stephen’s pedal steel was configured in the Emmons setup. A pair of pedals backwards, knee levers slightly different, and somewhat foreign to someone who’d been playing the other way for half their lives up to that point.
I’ve often made the analogy, when I retell the story, that it’d be like opening your laptop and finding that Windows was installed in Spanish…all the icons were in the same place, they did the same thing, but it’d be different enough that you couldn’t just sit down and open up Microsoft Outlook and begin checking your email without slowing down to think about every click you made.
But Rusty sat down and played the solo on Kind Woman on Stephen Stills’ borrowed instrument and changed the course of musical history in a matter of a few passes…and an entire movement owes its genesis to the origin story written in the space of that moment.
And from the time I first heard the full story from Rusty many years ago right up until that Sunday night, that was the story as I understood it.
The next thing you need to know about pedal steel before we finish this story is that – while this has changed in the last twenty years or so, most pedal steel guitars have always had two necks, two sets of strings tuned differently with independent sets of knee levers and pedals assigned to change specific strings on either neck. The front neck has historically been the E9 neck, often called the “Nashville” neck, while the back neck is in a C6 tuning, often called the “Texas” neck…as that tuning is usually used for western swing, jazz, and chord voicings that fall outside the stereotypical chord changes available on the “Nashville” neck.
I’d never for a moment considered that to be a factor in the Kind Woman story until Jimmy’s telling of the story, when he revealed that Rusty played the solo for “Kind Woman”…
…on the C6 neck. On the back neck.
On the neck that wasn’t NEARLY as affected by the differences in Emmons and Day setups as the front neck was.
Let me tell you…in the decades that I’ve had Rusty’s phone number in my Rolodex, I’ve never, ever wanted to call him as bad as I did when I heard this bit of the story that night.
I wanted to bust his chops for never having told me that, for letting me think all these years that he’d been visited by some genius spirit that allowed him to make split second judgements about the differences between the instrument he was playing and the instrument he was used to, to laugh about the fact that I never figured it out for myself…and to tell him that – really, it’s another kind of genius at work to evaluate a crisis like that and adapt so goddamned beautifully and to make history with one hand tied behind your back.
Then I got angry at myself…angry for all the down days during COVID that I didn’t pick up the phone and check in because I didn’t want to seem like an overeager teenage kid – not wanting him to feel pressured about going back out on the road, to feel somehow accountable for the downtime coming when it did. It seemed more pragmatic to let him enjoy the extended stretch with Mary, to work in the yard and fish the creek – and when we did talk, I always made a point of telling him that this will all be over soon enough – we’ll restore some degree of sanity in leadership and we’ll find out way out of this mess, and…if he feels like it…we’ll all be here and ready to go back out with him.
I know he missed it. I know he was excited about fine-tuning this lineup and going back out. I know it because he told me multiple times, up to and including the week he died, and I’m really thankful for those conversations…and I wish I’d had a few more of them.
There’s a long list of “a few more”s that we can’t go back and collect, and that’s a huge multiplier of grief. Grief is, at its core, a personal inventory of just that…the things we lose by virtue of losing someone we love. That loss manifests itself not just in shows we won’t play or in songs we won’t sing again, but in hotel breakfasts and backstage conversations and soundcheck jams and rides to the airport and phone conversations about tuning and string gauges and memories of shows past, of departed band members…in movies I wanted to watch with him on the road, songs I wanted to try to squeeze back onto the setlist…in endless undailed and unspoken telephone conversations that are lost to the ages now.
One last instance of foreshadowing before I close, if you’ll indulge me:
Rusty used to tell the story of Richie Furay’s exit from Poco from the stage at shows, often to illustrate the rewards of tenacity – Poco was formed in 1968, Richie left in 1973…and they didn’t enjoy their first real chart success for another half a decade, with the two hit singles from the Legend album. But on that day in 1973, David Geffen (yeah, that David Geffen) called the band into a meeting…everyone filed into a conference room, and Geffen pulled Richie out of the room and took him to an office down the hall. They’d been gone for some time, and the band had no idea what was going on – until Geffen returned alone a while later and announced that Richie was leaving the band, that he’d put together a deal for him to make a record with JD Souther and Chris Hillman.
He announced it in a manner that seemed to indicate that Geffen thought he was announcing the bands’ breakup to them, and he went around the room, addressing each of them.
Paul Cotton: “Paul…you know, you sing…you write songs…you’re gonna be just fine.”
Timothy B. Schmit: “Timmy…you sing, you write songs…you’re gonna be fine.”
He then turned to drummer George Grantham and Rusty Young and – with a dismissive wave, said:
“You two – you don’t sing. You don’t write songs. I don’t know what happens to you two.”
The moral of the story, of course, is that Rusty ended up writing and singing the bands’ biggest hit (cue the intro to “Crazy Love” here).
The Saturday morning of the weekend of the livestream, I felt no real immediate need to get out of bed. This isn’t to say that this day was much different from most others in that regard, but this particular Saturday, I doubled down…I woke up a little before 10AM, rolled over and went back to sleep. Woke up again 45 minutes later, rolled over and went back to sleep.
Then, at some point after falling back to sleep, I found myself loading gear into the back of a trailer after a show…it was dark, the show had been over for some time, and I was stacking road cases into a trailer when Rusty walked up to me with a Sharpie and a poster from the show we’d just played.
“…the promoter wants everybody – band, crew, and staff – to sign this. Got a minute?”
he handed me the Sharpie and the poster, and I held it up against the trailer door to sign it and saw that there were already twenty five or thirty signatures on it, but one person wrote the words “I like the trio version better” under their autograph…so I made a point of signing my name as close to that signature as I could, and wrote “THE NEW GUY” under my name.
Rusty saw what I’d done and laughed about it as we both turned to start walking back towards the stage door area of this outdoor pavillion we’d just played earlier.
(Poco did tour as a trio – without a drummer – for a time with Rusty, Paul Cotton and Jack Sundrud on bass.)
I said to Rusty as we were walking back – “I’m a little shaky about this particular trio version, boss. We have to play your memorial at Wildwood, and I know we’ll pull it off, but it won’t be right without you.”
Rusty put his hand on my shoulder and said…“I’m counting on you.”
(“I’m counting on you”…was the last thing he said to me on his way out of my hotel room in California when we were there to play the Gallo Center…right after a conversation about how pleased he was with what I’d brought to the band.)
I didn’t look over at him, but I said…“I don’t see myself ever getting over this, man.”
He stopped walking for a minute and I looked over at him and he said:
“Hey, you know what?
….you sing. You write songs. You’re gonna be fine.”