Paul Cotton: 1943 – 2021

playing pedal steel guitar with Paul Cotton in NJ, 2010

The first time i saw him on a stage, I wasn’t sure it was him at first glance.

I’d never seen the band before, and I didn’t recognize the drummer or the bass player at all…I knew Rusty, of course, but there was this balding blonde dude playing guitar, sporting a white Stratocaster with a tortoiseshell pickguard and – while it could’ve been Paul, I wasn’t sitting close enough to make out his features well enough to tell…

…until he opened his mouth to sing.

They opened that show with Ghost Town, with Rusty singing the first verse – and the minute the blurry guy stepped to the microphone and sang the words silver moonlight falls…between grey walls…all doubts vanished.

that’s fucking Paul Cotton! THANK GOD.

They finished Ghost Town with a frenzied lap steel solo by Rusty and went right into Legend, the title track from their biggest record…I was holding the sleeve of that very record in my hands, trying to keep it dry while sitting in a misty rain in the audience with tears forming in my eyes, thanking the Gods that I was actually getting to see them play.

I wouldn’t have known about this show at all if my mother hadn’t flown into the wrong major city in Pennsylvania when she came to visit her granddaughter – she opted to fly into Pittsburgh when she should’ve flown into Philadelphia, and I drove out to retrieve her from the airport. As I always did in those days, I grabbed copies of whatever music-related free weeklies were available to scout the ads for potential places to play in the entertainment listings. There was an ad for the summer concert series at the waterfront, and SONOFABITCH – Poco was coming!

I didn’t know who was in the band anymore, and I didn’t really care – I had already done my first record, and it had a cover of Made of Stone on it, and I happily drove the five hours back to Pittsburgh for the show with a cassette copy of my record and my Legend album cover and sat there, fixated on the two guys who (to me) had always been the heart and soul of the band in the first place. Rusty and Paul were the principal songwriters and vocalists when I first became aware of the band, when I’d fallen in love with their music – so as long as they were there, I was happy.

with Rusty Young and Paul Cotton the night we met for the first time, 1991

They played Ghost Town, they played Legend…they went from there into Call it Love (their most recent hit) – later, they took turns doing solo acoustic songs with Paul playing his classic Bad Weather and Rusty playing a new song that hadn’t been recorded yet called Old Hat. I found out thirty years later that it was a co-write with Jack Sundrud…somehow I never knew that until after Rusty passed away back in April.

Yesterday, Jack sent me stems (digital audio files) of a recording of Old Hat done by the surviving members of the band back in June so I could add some pedal steel to it before it goes off to mix.

Life has been an avalanche of full circle moments lately that I’m purely incapable of enjoying – because most of them are (at best) bittersweet in Rusty’s absence…but the fact that I’m adding pedal steel (Rusty’s instrument) to a song written by Rusty and Jack..that I heard for the first time at my first Poco show…a song that was never released by the band – that definitely goes to the upper echelon of that list.

I had also started recording a couple of Poco songs in my home studio over the past month – with one of those being Paul’s Please Wait For Me (from the Blue and Grey album) – I posted a clip of myself singing it during the vocal tracking for that one on Instagram just a week or so ago, and I figured I’d go ahead and put steel on that song while I was set up to track Old Hat later that night.

A few hours after the files showed up in my email, word floated out that Paul Cotton had died peacefully at home – from a post on his Facebook page.

Onstage with Poco at the Colonial Theater, 2006

I have a ton of great Paul memories – of staying up with him in the hotel bar after a show I opened for them in 1995 and playing guitar until 4am (I still can’t believe my wife didn’t drag me out of there well before then), of sitting in with the band on a handful of occasions…of his smile and the perpetual twinkle in his eye, of gear talk and his stories from the old days.

The last time I saw Paulie was at Wildwood in 2019, and…it was a challenge to keep my game face on.

He looked a little lost, and his health was clearly in decline – but he hadn’t forgotten me, to my immense relief. I was there to act as interim roadie for the band, as there were a myriad of tuning changes and such, and I assured him and his wife Caroline that I would take good care of him once the lights went up.

He gave me a big hug and smiled…“I know you will, Tommy. I know you will.”

His last words to me at the end of the weekend were “Tommy…I sure do wish we lived closer.”

With Paul at Wildwood for the last time, 2019

Our collective mortality was hanging heavy in the air that night – we’d just lost Claudia Upton, a notorious Poconut and lifelong fan of the band, and there was a memorial for her during the show that weekend, but…looking around the room, at the faces in the audience and on the stage, it went further than that. I couldn’t shake the thought that this could easily be the last time I see this group of people on this stage again.

I had no idea that the notion was actually a premonition, but that weekend did, in fact, turn out to be the last time that Pauley and Rusty ever played together…the last time Rusty played at Wildwood…the last legitimate Poco show at Wildwood (there will be a show with the surviving members this October as a tribute and memorial, but it’s not Poco without Rusty).

I recorded a number of moments from that show, but I never posted any of them on social media because they felt like private property…like they belonged to the folks who were in the room. For people who know me, that has to sound like I probably copied and pasted those words into this missive, but – I just couldn’t do it.

Now that Paulie has left the building, I don’t see them ever coming to light.

I went back to my hotel room after the first show of the weekend, and this “end of an era” weight just wouldn’t leave my shoulders. I had Bad Weather stuck in my head and it occurred to me that it might be a fun songwriting exercise to see if I could fashion a new song from scrapbook cutouts of lyrics from other Poco songs…it was supposed to be something to occupy my brain until I managed to shake this sense of dread that was following me around, and it started out well enough:

In every day that passes us by
Indian summers, come and gone
I can still hear that nightbirds’ cry
singing straight on through until the dawn

Every one of those was from a Paul song…obviously, having seen him this weekend had left an impression. It became even more obvious as I kept writing:

Now none of us are young men anymore
And you can’t ignore the writing on the wall
I guess that’s what the stories and the songs are for
A chance to take our eyes off of the ball

It quickly evolved from musical scrapbooking to a love letter…

So many years have passed
But I still wanna hear that sound
I wanna make it last
Another time around
Sing a picture of the days gone by
With a gentle, aging hand
Because tonight my friends, all of us are living in the band

The rest of the song turned into a declaration of sorts for me:

In the beginning, not so long ago
For a thirteen year old kid from Tennessee
There was just a little magic in the music they were singin’
and I could hear it calling out to me
They left a trail of love and glory
As they crossed the southern sky
And my life would be a sadly different story
If that harmony had somehow passed me by

So plug in that steel guitar
I still wanna hear that sound
I wanna make it last
Another time around
Sing a picture of the days gone by
These crazy lovers understand
Tonight my friends, all of us – are living in the band
Yes, tonight my friends, what’s left of us….are living in the band

Most songs that are worth the trouble write themselves…this one jumped onto the page, largely a result of the overwhelming sense that I was saying goodbye that weekend – and it’s taken a couple of years to realize just how accurate that foreboding turned out to be.

Early 2000’s – sat in with the guys during a surprise birthday party in NJ

Rusty and Paul both cut deep, deep rings into the center of my tree, both musically and personally…from a distance, they appeared to be the perfect foils for one another – Rusty’s instrumental virtuosity and his gentle, lilting voice aside Paul’s soulful guitar playing and his full-throated unmistakable voice…it made for a lot of magical moments. They both became mentors and were incredibly supportive over the years, and I’ve never forgotten it – and likely never will.

The Legend album cover that the two of them signed for me still hangs in my living room to this day…

from Rusty: “it’s great to meet you! keep on pickin’!”

from Paul: “a pleasure! happy trails!”

Happy trails, Paul.

I wish we lived closer, too.

5 thoughts on “Paul Cotton: 1943 – 2021

  1. So many memories of good times spent with all the people you just mentioned here. As I sit here typing this I’m listening to Streets of Paradise on Blue & Gray the 6th Poco album I’ve listened to today. I remember that birthday party show in NJ. Great night- unbelievable surprise. I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes over a spread of years with Paul, rusty and the other members of Poco. Great group of guys- very accommodating to the fans who sometimes pushed the envelope a bit. I’m glad I got so many opportunities to hear the many different configurations of Poco play. I to always thought of Paul & rusty as the heart and soul of Poco. I wish I could make it to Wildwood in October or Key West in January to honor them in person but I will do my best to honor them wherever I am when you are playing that memorial to them.

  2. I mentioned Poco in my new book Touching Greatness, as a group that played in my high school back in the late 60s… seeing them perform early on at the Troubadour… and stressing that it is still a sin that they are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So sorry to see this news…. and just a very tough several months for all Poconuts. It’s definitely BAD WEATHER around here today. RIP Paul,

  3. Beautiful stuff Tom. You are a blessed man. Thank you for writing and posting. Still can’t wrap my head around Rusty and Paul leaving us. Their quality body of work surpasses so many other more popular acts, it’s criminal that more people don’t get Poco. They sure made a huge impression on me and my songwriting. And Jack is such a nice guy and great musician as well. I have my special Poco memories as well. I think the 8 track of ‘Crazy Eyes’ was my first exposure to Poco, in my friend’s truck. Couldn’t believe the songs, harmonies and production. Gonna be playing some upcoming solo jobs, doing some Poco tunes and carrying the torch. Stay in touch Tom!

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