The End and the Beginning of an Era

Poco is no more…and it’s generally accepted – and rightfully so – that the band died the instant Rusty Young himself died in April of 2021.

Still, the notion of putting half a century of music and memories into a box and up on a shelf doesn’t sit well with a lot of us, both inside and outside the band. As for those of us in the band, we’re forming a new entity (Cimarron615) and repeating Poco history by “picking up the pieces” and moving forward under a new name, with new songs and a new identity.

But what about the fans?

What about the folks who’ve been going to Poco shows since the beginning, the folks who made the pilgrimage to Wildwood to see Poco year after year for two decades, the folks who’ve formed long lasting friendships around the music of a band that they can’t go see anymore?

I’ve often wondered how many states have this plate registered…I know of at least four personally.

While it’s hard to let go of the band, it’s harder to let go of the trappings that have come with loving this band, with going to shows and enjoying one anothers’ company for untold years…

…and so the notion of carrying on the October tradition at Wildwood was born.

There will be no more Poco shows, to be sure – but what if the folks who made those annual trips to the mountains of Missouri came back every October anyway – and the surviving band members came to play for them?

Drummer Rick Lonow with Dolores Santoliquido (L) and Marc Smith (R)

That’s how the concept for this past weekend was born – I had suggested calling it The Poconut Family Reunion, but that suggestion seemed to have gotten lost along the way…still, regardless of the billing, that’s what it was.

The new band wasn’t able to fully commit to the show (Bill had a pre-existing booking), so we enlisted the skills of Michael Kelsh – ace singer/songwriter/guitarist and old friend of Rusty Young and everyone else in the band – to fill out the lineup of surviving Poco members on guitar, mandolin and good vibes. With Kelsh in place, we were ready to make a setlist and start putting together a show.

Kelsh with his beloved “Chickasaw”, built by his brother Brian. Photo by Dolores Santoliquido

In some ways, it was preferable to have Kelsh along – preferable in that it wasn’t the “official” C615 lineup, and that allowed us to morph into a loose “house band” of sorts that was neither the past OR the future, and there was a degree of freedom in that. We didn’t have to pretend to be Poco and we didn’t have to worry about how this would reflect on our determination to carve out an identity for ourselves as a new band.

I should probably also mention that Kelsh is a neighbor – he lives less than ten minutes from me.

So that’s helpful, y’know.

But being the hermit that I am, I hadn’t really availed myself of the opportunity to get to know him, and that might’ve been the real silver lining of this whole endeavor.

MIchaels Webb and Kelsh during soundcheck. Photo: Dolores Santoliquido

Kelsh and I have a lot in common, especially in terms of how we look at music, how we see the folks we’ve been lucky enough to get to know on our journey, and the reverence we have for the history of it all.

Plenty of good came out of this past weekend, but getting to know Kelsh better was a real blessing.

Still, it threw us a curveball here and there – on Thursday afternoon, I got a text from Debbie Grantham (wife of George, the original Poco drummer) that she’d messed up the meniscus in her knee and she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to make the trip – I told her that if George was ok with the notion of coming without her, that I’d be willing to share a room with him and take care of him for the weekend. I wasn’t sure whether that would fly or not, for a few reasons.

As most of you know, George had a stroke back in the mid 2000’s (onstage with Poco in Springfield, MA, two songs into a set), and George and Debbie hadn’t spent a night apart since then. George has come a long way from where he was, and he’s made a lot of strides, but – this would represent a pretty serious step. Taking George out of his comfort zone is one thing, but taking him out alone is another thing altogether – but they talked about it, and he agreed to the new terms. Both Debbie and my wife Wendy were staying home this trip, and this would be a “Boy’s Vacation” – it felt like a big responsibility, but Debbie made it easy for both of us, and in retrospect – I’m not sure why either of us were worried.

What I didn’t realize – in the wave of planning for the caretaking aspect – was that we were unwittingly agreeing to cut our vehicular capacity by 50%.

Last year, Wendy and Debbie rode together in one car while George and I rode in the other, singing along to Poco songs the whole way and posting videos on Instagram, hashtagged #countryrockcarpoolkaraoke and having a great time…in fact, when we got to town, I sat down with George and read him all the comments from fans on the videos I’d posted – it was a pretty great moment.

But this time around, there’d only be one car – and that didn’t occur to me until early Friday morning when I went to try to pack ALL my gear and my bag AND leave room for Kelsh’s gear (who was riding with us) AND George’s bag…it started to dawn on me as I was loading the car that this was going to be a LOT tighter than it was last time, because we had two cars’ worth of storage then. I spent 40 minutes packing and unpacking to get to the point where I had maximized the space I had, and the only thing I’d left behind was my multi-guitar stand that just wasn’t going to make it into the car. When I got to Kelsh’s house, I actually ended up taking out the lap steel stand that I’ve been using – leaning it against the ladder on his porch and loading his stuff in. It was tight…beyond tight, really…but we made it work.

Thankfully, George had a single bag that we could put on the console between the front seats – so once we picked him up, we were headed north on Interstate 24 for the trip.

GG has the groupies in the palm of his hand. Photo: Dolores Santoliquido

We’d planned on doing more videos for Instagram, but – I think the moment passed, in some weird way. He had no idea that I was recording him last year until after it was a done deal, but this year he had that awareness of last year in the back of his mind, and the Heisenberg Principle seemed to have taken hold in some fashion…he wasn’t quite as vocal as he’d been last year, and…honestly, that was fine. It was enough to just let him listen to the songs and let some of the old memories creep out here and there. I’m sure some folks were probably disappointed that we didn’t reprise last years’ trip, but…you can’t force this kinda thing.

There was a stretch of construction on I-24 and we ended up getting off and taking an alternate route that took us over the bridge above the Ohio River and into a town called Cairo, Illinois – and I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like Cairo since Gary, Indiana.

Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.
Rush Hour.

We were almost all the way through town before we saw a single soul (on a Friday at lunchtime), and it was an elderly guy with Einstein hair on a motorized wheelchair, zooming along the shoulder of the street.

I said to George and Michael – “are you guys seeing this?”

16 year old me wants desperately to explore these houses. 57 year old me ain’t havin’ it.

The town literally looked like what I’d always pictured the day after the Rapture to look like – empty, deserted, abandoned buildings with almost no signs of life – it was downright bizarre. There wasn’t a single chain store of any stripe anywhere in town. Not a McDonalds or Burger King, no Subway, no Starbucks, no Advance Auto Parts, no Midas, no Jiffy Lube, no Dunkin’ Donuts…NOTHING. Just a long stretch of empty shells of buildings that had been untouched for ages.

Oh, and one building that offered “Pizza – Deli – Grocery – CLOTHES”…with gas pumps out front that probably hadn’t passed anything through them for decades.

The sign continues around the side of the building with “Lottery – Tobacco”.

But anything else you want? They got you COVERED.

We finally arrived in the vicinity of the gig at somewhere around 7pm-ish on Friday night, having made arrangements to meet Jack and his girl, as well as Michael’s brother Brian and his wife at a place called Weir-on-66 for dinner. For those who don’t know the area, Cuba is a Route 66 mainstay and the closest town to Steelville (home of Wildwood Springs Lodge) with the usual amenities – including the aforementioned restaurant, as well as the Super 8 Motel that’s become famous among Poconuts for temporary lodging adjacent to Wildwood.

We had a great meal and caught up with everyone, and…we learned that the owner of the restaurant was a Poco fan who summoned us to the bar in the back, where he had a Poco Legacy poster hanging behind the bar that he climbed up and removed from the wall so that George, Jack and I could sign it.

GG getting warmed up for the after-show routine the following night

Double-G was a bona fide Rock Star and we hadn’t yet played a note in this town.

We parted ways, dropped Kelsh off at the Wagon Wheel where he was staying and headed back to the Super 8, where there was a dining room full of Poconuts hanging out (as they do) – so we took our stuff up to our rooms, and I brought my guitar back down with me. George came down with me and we played and sang for an hour and a half before retiring to our room, taking our meds and calling it a night. Load-in and soundcheck started at 10am the next morning, so we needed to get our beauty rest.

I got GG up the next morning in the clothes we were wearing the night before, and he was hungry. I got him to take his meds for the morning and we scrambled next door to Hardee’s so I could get him something to eat (I could feel Debbie scowling at me in my head) and we got him down the road to the load-in late, but not so much that anyone noticed, because the gear was running a little behind as it was.

Despite not having the practice on the drive that he’d had last year, GG was in good voice during soundcheck and the boys in the band were dialed in – everyone was in good spirits and happy to be back in a place that represented so many great memories, and it just felt…right. We were where we were supposed to be.

Soundcheck. Photo: Dolores Santoliquido
Jack Sundrud and Tom Hampton comparing notes. Photo: Dolores Santoliquido

After soundcheck, I decided I was going on a mission to find some guitar stands (I left my own back in Nashville, and I didn’t want to have my stuff strewn about the stage), so I typed “music store” into Apple Maps and a place in Rolla, MO came up as closest – Metz Music. I told GG that we had a little detour in store on the way back to the hotel and off we went.

I had known that there was a store nearby the Young Cabin that Rusty had taken a shine to, but I never had occasion to ask him about who they were or anything of the sort – and when we pulled into the parking lot, the place didn’t offer any notion that it was anything special. But we walked in and struck up a conversation with a kid who worked there, and it surfaced soon enough that this was, in fact, the store that Rusty used to frequent back in his day. We had a great conversation about Rusty and the band with George, who’d known Rusty since Denver – what a surreal moment.

Anyway – back to the hotel…shower…change clothes…become gig-ready.

Debbie had packed a couple of dress shirts for George, but he opted for a T-shirt…what with George being George and all…

Michael Webb keeping George in stitches in the Green Room

But y’know, he was a trooper – it was the first weekend he’d been away from Debbie in twenty years and he was having a ball.

We got to the gig, checked in with everyone, and joined in a 5pm “Toast to Paul Cotton” that Mary had thoughtfully arranged just prior to dinner – I brought a flask filled with white label George Dickel bourbon and symbolically “poured one out” for Paul before raising it skyward – I also played a short version of Paul’s song “Running Horse” – which felt like it summed up the whole day, in some ways:

“…There’s a picture of a horse that’s running – standing here right before my eyes

it’s always there to remind me of the best of old times

with it’s eyes on fire – running like the wind

it’s gonna take me down forgotten trails again

And who knows where it’s going – maybe it’s all gonna show

But I’m betting on a horse that’s running – just like before

It’s never been one to follow – he could set his own pace

There’s nothing that he would allow to take it all away

And when the sun sets on everything and falls into the sea

You can find me on a horse that’s running – that’s where I’ll be…”

“Running Horse” – words and music by Paul Cotton

Raising a glass for Paulie at Wildwood. Photo: Steven Bond Garvan

We had dinner and adjourned to the Green Room to finalize the setlist – George had been a little worried about knowing when to come up and such, but I assured him as best as I could that I would make sure he knew when he was supposed to come up and when it was time for him to take a step aside. We had gotten him a seat right down front with easy access to the stage so he wouldn’t have to work too hard to get up and down, and it worked out wonderfully.

Photo: John Thaler

It feels kinda pointless to try to describe the show to you – there are a ton of videos up on social media, and it seems like a safe assumption that you’ve likely seen at least one or two of them and you probably already have a notion of how things went.

Photo: John Thaler

I will say this – it was immensely satisfying watching George get up and revel in the adoration of the fans who’d come from all over the country to be a part of this – there’s no promise of this night becoming an annual event, so for all anyone knows, this could very well be the last night for all of us. George was up and down more than a devout Catholic at Christmas Eve Mass, and it was absolutely sublime.

We played our asses off – we played like a handful of grizzled veterans newly aware of our own mortality, knowing full well that tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, and I don’t know if I’ve ever sang better in my life. We played every song we knew until we finally had to circle back and re-play “Call It Love” in the new, Cimarron615 style at the end of the night before the house lights came up.

Michael Webb taking Rusty’s lighted shoes for a spin. Photo: Jean Thompkins
The Final Bow at the end of the show. Photo: Lynn Hoffman Parma

We all went back upstairs to man the “merch table”, and we pulled GG into the center of it…I watched him signing album covers and T-shirts and various other things and feeling like my real accomplishment for the weekend was giving him this experience again – since none of us know whether today is the last time any of us get to do this, anymore.

GG working out the finer points of signing the inside of a hat at the meet and greet…

At my age, mortality goes from being a vague, abstract notion to becoming a cloud that hangs over ones’ plans and dreams like a threatening thunderstorm in the distance. It’s impossible to ignore or dismiss, because by this point in your life, it’s left a footprint that demands your acknowledgement.

Still, after this show, there was a wave of contentment and gratitude that fell over me – and I wasn’t going to let some trivial notion like “sleep” keep me from fully recognizing it.

Kelsh’s handwritten setlist, complete with notes on keys and instrument changes. Photo: John Thaler

After spending an hour at the merch table, we finally broke up and went back downstairs to start packing up our gear – GG was starting to fade a bit, but he was a trooper. He hung in there while I packed up my gear and we got him back to the hotel, got his meds taken care of, and got him into bed JUST as his alarm was going off at midnight.

I went back down to the lobby and stayed up with the Poconut Faithful until 2:30AM, trading stories and songs until none of us had anything left to share – and I stumbled back up to the room with my key card.

I had put TCM (Turner Classic Movies) on the TV before I’d gone downstairs (GG likes to sleep with the TV on) – and when I came back into the room, the TV was still on – there was a Katherine Hepburn movie on, and she couldn’t have been more than 24 or 25. I wasn’t particularly interested in the movie, but I couldn’t help but notice…

…every so often in the movie, I kept hearing the name of her on-screen suitor…

yeah, it doesn’t mean anything, but…

his name was:

Russell Young.

yeah, you read that right.

RUSSELL YOUNG.

(Rusty’s name was Norman Russell Young.)

It felt like that was his way of checking in and letting me know that he was keeping tabs on things…which is totally fine with me.

We still love you down here, man.