This past Thursday – February 23rd, 2023 – would have been Rusty Young’s 77th birthday.
I’m mentioning this now, because it’s important to keep this in mind as I recount what happened that day. I’m still wrapping my head around it all.
First – a little backstory (that most of you who stop by here on a regular basis may know already):
When Rusty passed in 2021, the surviving members of the band agreed to go to Joshua Tree at the behest of Rusty’s label to film a tribute show with the band backing a litany of guest artists. We assembled a “house band” comprised of the remaining Poco members plus Michael Webb (who’d been in the band for eight years prior) and Bill Lloyd (who’d played with Rusty in the Sky Kings some years back) and started rehearsing the set list.
(Yes, this lineup would eventually become Cimarron615, for those following along.)
At some point, Mary suggested that I bring Rusty’s newly refurbished pedal steel that I’d taken custody of way back in 2020 before COVID hit and sidelined the band. I’d taken it to Jeff Surratt at ShowPro for a tuneup and I’d arranged to have a brand new SKB case foamed out and prepped for the road by Billy Alcorn at Alcorn Custom Case. We were getting ready for a few days’ worth of rehearsals, and I wanted to make sure his guitar was ready for him when we got started. His steel was in the back of my car when I got the call that Rusty had died.
I still have a vivid memory of getting in the car to leave for work on the morning I heard the news and turning the key, only to have “Rose of Cimarron” start blasting from the speakers (I’d made a rehearsal mix CD in anticipation of our upcoming rehearsals, and it had been playing on a loop in the car), and then hearing Rusty’s pedal steel shift in the back of the car when I pulled out of my driveway.
At any rate, I’d just picked up the newly fitted case from Alcorn the day before we were to fly out to California before the taping – Mary was in town and she flew out of Nashville with the band, and my son Dylan drove us both to the airport and we checked in at the Southwest counter.
I had multiple instruments to bring along – and for the benefit of those who haven’t done this dance before, it’s a somewhat common practice for groups of people traveling in a band situation to “mix and match” checked luggage to keep the total bag count under the number that incurs additional charges – so Mary and I checked in together and combined our checked bags to make sure we were within the parameters of the magic number.
Yet when we arrived in California, the steel was missing.
Needless to say, panic ensued and we started making phone calls, pestering the appropriate people at the airport and frantically trying to figure out what had happened to the case containing Rusty Young’s road instrument that he’d played every show with for the prior fifteen years.
The last time any of us saw the instrument was when Mary and I walked away from it on the scale at the Southwest check-in counter on June 15th, 2021.
That pretty much brings us up to date.
In the time since, I’ve personally checked Craigslist, Reverb and eBay on an almost daily basis to see if it turned up. Eventually, I began checking Reverb and eBay less frequently because I had become all but certain that the instrument never left Nashville in the first place, and I felt as though it was going to turn up here if it was going to turn up anywhere.
Not to veer too far into generalizations, and I realize as much as anyone that there are great pedal steel players scattered all over the globe, but…law of averages and all that. I was certain, for some reason, that it was still in Nashville.
I’ve had a Post-It note stuck to the computer monitor on my desk for that entire time with the serial number of Rusty’s steel on it – it’s been on the monitor long enough that I’d actually memorized it. If prompted, I could’ve probably rattled it off at the drop of a hat.
On the morning of Rusty’s 77th birthday, I woke up, showered, and sat down at my computer to check in with work and take a look at my ticket queue. I have a morning teleconference every day with the folks in my region, and I’ve developed a habit of checking Craigslist during the call. It’s become part of my daily routine, even though I’d largely given up hope of ever seeing the instrument again. Every now and then, someone would list something cool that I wouldn’t have found otherwise if I hadn’t fallen into this habit, so I picked up a couple of bargains on pedals or microphones over the period of almost two years that I’d been obsessively screening the listings.
This morning, though, there was a listing for a “Carter SD10 pedal steel” that was clearly NOT an SD10, so I knew whoever had listed it didn’t know that much about it.
The first thing I noticed was that it was missing the Carter badge.
Rusty’s steel was missing the Carter badge.
He advertised the guitar as having an SKB case….
…Rusty’s guitar had an SKB case.
He’d taken over 15 photos of the instrument, and two of them were of the bottom of the instrument, so I pulled up the hi-res photo to see if the serial number was visible.
I just stared at my screen for a couple of minutes with the earbud dangling from my ear, still hearing the chatter from my call in my right ear, then I waved Wendy over to my desk.
I showed her the Post-it note, and then I showed her the photo from the Craigslist post.
She knew I was on a call, but she looked at me and mouthed the words:
“ON HIS F&*%ING BIRTHDAY!!!!!”
I immediately sent him a message via CL and told him that I was VERY interested and asked him when I could see it – he responded promptly with a phone number, and I sent a number of notes back and forth and set up a meeting for that afternoon at his apartment.
I was overcome with so much nervous energy that I thought I was gonna vomit – I texted Mary and the rest of the band and updated them as to what was going on and talked to Mary within a few minutes to discuss our options.
I had examined the photos and came to the pretty quick conclusion that the guitar had passed through more than one set of hands since we last saw it – the GeorgeL’s pickup that was in it when it left our hands had been replaced, and the seller was including a fifth knee lever that Rusty never used – so, that being the case, it was pretty clear to me that we weren’t buying it from the person who’d gotten it from the airport. Someone had owned it at some point who was a player and had made modifications to it, but I was all but certain that it wasn’t this guy – since he’d listed it with the wrong model number.
So – we could get law enforcement involved, but then we’d have to go down the road of proving it was ours, and since it wasn’t technically stolen, we’d have to prove some degree of intent on the part of the seller – and this poor bastard wouldn’t know what hit him if we set that machine into motion.
So Mary suggested that we just buy it from him and call it a day – so that’s what we did.
I went to meet him at his apartment, and he had it set up in his living room – I walked over to it and pressed the pedals down to confirm that it was still set up in the Jimmy Day configuration, and proceeded to start packing it up as the guy told me that he thought it used to belong to Terry Crisp from Ricky Skaggs’ band because they’d seen pictures of him on the internet playing the same model without a badge on it. Once I finished packing it up, I handed him an envelope with the money in it and asked him:
“So do you want to know the REAL story of where this guitar came from?”
His expression changed almost immediately – he wasn’t defensive, just…confused…so I told him the story of what had happened, and he volunteered everything he knew about where he’d gotten it from, who he thought it might’ve come from prior to that. We’re still considering our options with regard to tracking down the trail from the airport to this guy’s apartment and – while we have some ideas – that’s a story for another time.
For now, the important thing is simply this:
After 619 days of exile to God knows where, Rusty’s steel was no longer missing, wandering in the desert, in the hands of some shady unknown entity…we got it back.
After almost TWO YEARS, we got it back.
I’d felt responsible for having lost it – for not taking the time to make a label or put a card inside the case or somehow making sure it was trackable in the time between when I picked it up the day before and when we left for the airport, and it ate at me. Now I’d found the Craigslist ad a mere 35 minutes after it had been posted and I managed to get it back. I felt exonerated – as if I’d finally managed to atone for the error of my ways.
It was a huge weight off my shoulders.
And again, because it’s worth mentioning one last time – these events all took place on what would’ve been Rusty’s 77th birthday.
I guess that’ll be considered coincidence by some folks, but I don’t know that I’m one of them.