Peter Cooper

“…objectivity is the mortal enemy.”

A lot of the obituaries floating around the internet today are leaning heavily on that quote, and with good reason – because he was right.

Peter Cooper knew that objectivity had its place – in the newsroom, the classroom, maybe the pulpit – but for a music journalist, it was a roadblock, a speedbump…an impediment.

Peter knew that there was little else in this world more subjective than music, and he always managed to tell its stories without “cheerleading” (as he called it) – he managed to give you exactly the information you needed in order to see the worth in an artist or an album without shoving it down your throat…and even if it was something that landed outside your own boundaries of subjectivity, he told their stories in a way that you could find worth in them whether you found it in their music or not.

And – like ALL the great ones – he made it look effortless.

I was certainly aware of Peter’s work long before I moved to Nashville, and – once I’d settled into my new neighborhood, I found myself bumping into him at Little League games, as my son Danny and his son Baker played in the same league.  I was struck by how, the first time I went over to him and introduced myself, he was quick to ask about who I was, what I did, what I might have been up to – and if you’ve moved in the circles that exist within musical communities, you know how rare that can be.

When people would ask Ed King what Ronnie Van Zant was like, he used to tell them to pick any six Skynyrd songs and listen to the words, and they’d know who Ronnie was.

I don’t know if that’s a universal truth, because I can think of a few folks whose art I admire that are still an enigma to me, even after multiple deep dives into their work…and yet, where Peter is concerned, I think that even a complete stranger (as I was, once upon a time) can see his most redeeming qualities between the lines he wrote about the art that moved him.

I was always in awe of his deep, deep knowledge of the history of this music, but even more so (if that’s possible) by his vast stores of anecdotes about the people who informed it – the musicians, the songwriters, the people around it.  In his book, he speaks of Don Light and Ann Soyars every bit as reverently as he does of Kristofferson and Cowboy Jack, and – I mean, how can you not love a guy like that?

His love for it all was so infectious that it made you love it as well…made you want to know more about it.  He was an ambassador, an evangelist, a historian, and a talented singer and songwriter in his own right, and…there were a million little things that set him apart and made him special that have been recounted by his friends on social media in the wake of his passing that it’d be redundant to try and catalog them here.

There’s no successor to Peter Cooper.  There’s no replacing Peter Cooper.  

I suppose we’ll all process this in our own way…at some point, after processing the feelings of being robbed of his presence on this plane, I’ll eventually try to get to a place of gratitude that I was actually here at the same time he was, that I got to read and be affected by his work, that I got to know him as a friend over the years, that we got to watch our kids play baseball together…that I have a few great memories of watching him BE Peter Cooper any number of times.

But for now, I’m going to mourn.

It’s a compound loss – we’ve lost a friend, a deeply empathetic and supportive presence in our lives, a genuinely talented craftsman…but on another level, we’ve also lost all the articles he didn’t write, the countless chapters of unwritten books in his encyclopedic mind that we’ll never get to read, and the records he won’t make and the songs he won’t sing.

It’s impossible not to mourn that as well.

Someday, though, when I’m able to get to the other side of that, I’ll try and live by his perpetual advice that he scribbled into my copy of his book, by way of Cowboy Jack Clement:

“Stay in the FUN business.”

Thanks for all of it, man.

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.

Fingerprints and B Sides

The great thing about 45RPM records was that you were getting two songs for the price of one – or at least that’s what it often felt like if you were inclined to flip the record over.

Being a redneck welfare kid for whom records were scarce, I made a habit very, very early on of flipping them over to see what had been thrown in for the price of admission – I didn’t get the chance to buy records often, but when I was old enough to keep a little money that I’d earned from working on my Pop’s farm, I’d prowl around and see what I could find…there was one record store in Savannah, and it didn’t last long, so it was whatever was available at the department store, when I was allowed to go. Otherwise, the occasional yard sale or maybe trading with friends who were sick of their copy of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” (still have it).

It was by flipping over my copy of Firefall’s “You Are The Woman” that I heard Larry Burnett’s “Sad Ol’ Love Song” and started figuring out the difference between their songwriting and storytelling styles. I had bought a copy of “Barracuda” by Heart in a yard sale batch and discovered “Cry To Me” on the flip side…I don’t remember where I got Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love”, but her cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Angels Rejoiced” on the flip side remained my mother’s favorite song for years and years.

As I got older and found my way around, I started building up a little collection, and I might’ve been exceedingly lucky – I don’t know, because I don’t know many people as weird as I am when it came to this kind of thing – but I often found B-sides that were just as impactful, if not more so, than the flagship song on the record.

I remember over 15 years ago, doing a short tour in the northeast with Jim Photoglo and sheepishly admitting to him that when I bought “When Love Is Gone”, I ended up listening obsessively to “Faded Blue” from the B-side, to the extent of lifting the record changer arm and pulling it over and away from the center of the turntable so the song would repeat, over and over again…if it made him uncomfortable, he never said so – and we’re still friends, so I guess it wasn’t too terribly ill-received.

When I reached my mid to late teens, I started pushing my boundaries – I was never going to be content to work with my hands, and I knew it before anyone else did. I had a cousin who was a partner and on-air announcer at a radio station in town, and when they’d have some reason to go into town, they’d drop me off at the station for a visit – I’d sit, quiet as a mouse against the wall behind the turntables and watch him work, listen to him talk, learned the logs…the whole bit. Later, I finally got a weekend gig working for a competitor in town – the comically-named WORM-FM.

Yes, I’m serious. Here’s a stolen copy of a 10CC 45 with the station stamp on it:

The great thing about WORM (to me, at the time) was that it was a country station that had BEEN a Top 40 station, and there was a bounty of records in the attic that no one had bothered to lay claim to. Sure, all the Grand Funk Railroad stuff was long gone, but I found a ton of records up there that I still have to this day…my copy of the “Half Moon Silver” 45 by Hotel came from an attic raid at WORM, and that song has legitimately left a mark on my life. I found Florence Warner’s Epic records debut in a stack without a sleeve – it had covers of Kenny Loggins’ “Till The Ends Meet”, Todd Rundgrens’ “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”, Dan Fogelberg’s “Song From Half Mountain” (I hadn’t even heard his version yet, that’s how long ago it was)…as well as an unreleased-to-this-day Fogelberg song called “The Lady Loves The River” and a piano interlude on side two that I’m convinced is his work.

I didn’t have the cover, only the vinyl itself – I used to fantasize about what she looked like…what kind of face that voice came from, and why I never heard anything else about her. TO THIS DAY, there’s almost no information about her anywhere on the internet, I’ve Googled the shit out of her as recently as a few years ago…I did finally find another copy of the album with a sleeve, but no liner notes.

The WORM Attic was a wealth of undiscovered gems, though…and as you might guess, a lot of B sides that I probably wouldn’t have been remotely curious about, were it not for the fact that I’d formed a habit of routinely flipping them over because I had so few records to listen to as a fledgling, obsessed music junkie.

I started to put a few things together – sometimes there were great songs on the flip side, and sometimes it turned out to be something of a contractual fulfillment. If there were two primary songwriters in the band, you could count on the flip side being written by someone other than the person who wrote the single. Sometimes they were filler – songs given to a singer who wasn’t the primary vocalist, instrumentals (“High Sierra” on the flip side of “Ghost Town” by Poco, “Tramontane” on the flip side of “Double Vision” by Foreigner)…but I listened anyway.

One of my favorite B-side bands was Little River Band. THEY DID NOT DICK AROUND WITH B SIDES.

You bought “Lonesome Loser”? Congratulations, you also got “Shut Down Turn Off”!

You bought “Cool Change”? Awesome, you also got to take home my second favorite LRB song of all time, “Middle Man”!

(My favorite song remains “Too Lonely Too Long”, which was never a single, but you can find it on the “Live in America” album…but I digress. Still, listen to this badassery right here…)

I remember being at a friends’ house who had a copy of “The One That You Love” by Air Supply and flipping it over and dropping the needle on a song called “I Want To Give It All” and falling in love with this four note descending arpeggiated guitar part that’s still one of my favorite songs.

The achingly beautiful “Hearts and Crafts” by Dan Fogelberg was a B-side to a single from his Greatest Hits album and didn’t resurface until his “Portrait” box set well over a decade later. Likewise with “Along the Road”, the flip side of “Longer” from the “Phoenix” album – never would have been a single, but was a gift to folks who bought that record.

It’s important to note, however, that for every gem you unearth from the rubble, there are some truly, truly TERRIBLE B-sides out there, as well. If there’s a worse song that “I’m A Marionette” (flip side of “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA), I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it.

OK, that’s not true. There’s Nicki Minaj.

ANYway…

When I started working in radio, it was still – in my hometown, anyway – very much a vinyl-driven enterprise. The songs you heard on the radio were records, because that’s what we played. It was very much pre-digital, and even though we used cart machines for commercials, we didn’t use them for on-air music like many stations had begun to do by then. But I also found that the records that were sent to radio by major labels DIDN’T HAVE B SIDES! There’d be a mono version on one side and a stereo version on the other, and that was a disappointment, to say the least. I remember getting the white-label MCA copy of “Sea of Heartbreak” from Poco’s “Cowboys and Englishmen” and sure enough…mono and stereo. The only redemption was that not every label cared to service small-market radio stations in towns the size of Savannah, Tennessee, so we’d often have to go out and buy stuff that was charting in the major markets – because HEAVEN FORBID we not be playing what was charting in the towns we looked to in order to reinforce our inferiority complex…so now and then, a retail copy of something would come across the desk.

The last year I spent in town before leaving to join the Navy and never come back, I ended up back at WORM after having left there to work for WLIC in Adamsville and WKWX through the end of high school. My old boss, Tom Wood, had asked me to come work middays for him when he took over at WORM, and I jumped at it…I was out of school and in the DEP (Delayed Entry Program) but Tom welcomed me on anyway.

The cool thing about working for that station at that point in time was that while we were only serviced by a few of the majors, we’d get stuff from indie labels ALL THE TIME…and being a fledgling musician myself, I’d listen to everything that came in the door, and if I liked it, I played it. I played a song called “Music Machine” by a guy on Handshake Records named Mark Gordon Creamer until I started getting requests for it…I don’t know if it ever charted nationally or not, but there were a handful of folks in Savannah who seemed to like it. I’m sure there were other songs that I played that never turned up elsewhere, either – but I learned much later in life that Q-107 in Florence, Alabama did much the same thing…music recorded in Muscle Shoals got priority treatment and a lot of songs that I’d grown up thinking were national hits were a big question mark to people who’d grown up elsewhere. I was just playing songs that I liked…and that Mark Gordon Creamer record had an a cappella intro, and I love me an a cappella intro, so I played the shit out of it.

There was a weird metamorphosis going on, as WKWX was trying to edge into the country market without making a full-on format change, so WORM began creeping towards the middle as well, to the point where both stations were very nearly playing the same songs. You wouldn’t hear George Jones on K-93, but you wouldn’t hear Duran Duran on WORM, either…but there was a lot of shared territory.

As if to illustrate just how far they were willing to go in that direction, Tom comes in one day with a picture sleeve copy of “Physical” by Olivia Newton John.

I thought he was nuts.

He was dead serious, though…he put it in rotation.

I thought “Physical” was bullshit – I’m not gonna lie. Seemed like a gimmicky song recorded by someone who’d largely had their day, and was using a sexy video to rejuvenate her career…so I refrained from playing it.

But I flipped it over.

I’m willing to bet there are folks in Savannah to this day that never want to hear “The Promise (The Dolphin Song) again as long as they live…and to those fine folks, I apologize. Still, that was the song that I gravitated to from that record (that, and staring at the picture sleeve).

When I heard the news today that she’d finally lost her battle to cancer on the day after losing David Muse of Firefall to his own battle with the disease, that song was one of the first to come to mind (as well as “Suspended in Time” and “Whenever You’re Away From Me” from Xanadu – both contenders for B sides in and of themselves).

She’s not prone to repeating this particular sentiment, but I attribute it to her nonetheless when it crosses my mind – Wendy’s notion of “how lucky are we that we ended up here at the same time as this person, or this sports team, or this TV show” and how, at some point, all this will be lost to all but the most voracious historians…but we were here when it was all around us.

In a lot of ways, this post has nothing to do with Olivia Newton-John, but it’s also all about her…and what you might discover if sometimes you’re willing to dig even the slightest bit.

We’ve all lost a lot these past few years…and it seems like I’m saying goodbye to someone every time I sit down to leave a thought here. I guess that’s the cost of growing older, and I have no doubt that it’ll get worse before it gets better, but they’re worth remembering.

This is how I’ll choose to remember her…hopefully sharing a dance with Gene Kelly somewhere tonight.

the difference a year can make…

Facebook won’t remind me, but it doesn’t need to.

A year ago this week, I was riding back to Nashville from Oshkosh, WI after playing a one-off show with some of the folks I’d just gone to Joshua Tree with the month before to play – and pay – our respects to the musical thread that tied us all together, Rusty Young. We were still watching and waiting for this blurry notion to materialize – the notion of what a band that included us all would look like without him.

We had a great weekend, truth be told – our hosts were wonderful, I’d never been to Oshkosh so I availed myself of the opportunity to walk around downtown where our hotel was located, took photos and enjoyed my “alone time” at the hotel as I typically do – watching movies from my laptop and scribbling in a notebook. The Gin Blossoms were playing in town that night, and I spotted a couple of the guys from the band in the lobby but I didn’t bother to introduce myself. I remembered having seen them in Reading, PA at the Bollman auditorium in 1995 with my buddy Todd and sneaking “backstage” to introduce ourselves and pretend we belonged there…pretty sure I still have pictures from that night.

Having remembered all that, I availed myself of the opportunity to NOT be that dude who comes up and recounts details of a show that the band couldn’t possibly remember…but I did wander back to my room that night and posted an IG video of Found Out About You, one of my favorite songs from their most notable album.

This post isn’t about any of that – but this, my friends, is how my brain works, and you likely know this by now.

This particular outing was the trip between Joshua Tree and the Wildwood memorial show for Rusty that would take place later that fall, and we were only a band in the theoretical sense – save for the fact that we’d been offered a record deal by the label that Rusty called home, and had committed to the notion of making an album of new music as the entity that survived the 53 year lineage of the band that essentially invented country-rock. Still, we’d really only just begun to wrap our collective heads around what that would look like.

We didn’t even have a name yet.

In fact, the thing I’ll likely remember most about that trip – over and above the Gin Blossoms or the fact that I showed up with a knife for a gun fight, in terms of the gear I brought for that show – was the drive home, with Jack riding shotgun, trying to think of a band name. We were taking in the scenery and grasping at every straw imaginable, trying to shoehorn the name of an exit or a phrase from a billboard into something tangible – but it became pretty obvious early on that it was more or less an exercise in absurdity. One of us would say a phrase out loud and the other would nod – “yeah, that could work” – and Jack would use his phone to Google the phrase, plus the word “band” or “music”…

…and almost every time, Jack would then ask: “what kind of band do you think (insert band name here) is?”

So I’d reply: “well, I think that ‘Desert Motel’ is a….western swing band from Billings, Montana.”

Jack would then reply with what he’d turned up in his search results:

“…actually, as it turns out, ‘Desert Motel’ is a self-described ‘high energy post-new wave synth pop’ band from Luchenbach, Texas.”

When I tell you that there’s literally no limit to how long you can play this game and still crack yourself up, that’s not an exaggeration. I told my 13 year old son about it, and he STILL comes up to me out of the blue on occasion and says: “Dad…what kind of band is Chezburger Cat?

It might be the best road game EVER.

We did finally find a name. And at first, I was largely lukewarm and ambivalent about it.

But after it settled in, it was hard to deny that it was perfect.

Cimarron 615.

Taken from one of the songs Rusty was proudest of (Rose of Cimarron) and combined with the Nashville area code, it felt more perfect as time went by and it started to sink in.

It’s still a little crazy to think that a year has gone by, but – here we are.

There were details of the contract to sort out, and a million little things in the aftermath – things like opening a bank account, like setting up an LLC, like reserving a URL for the band website and setting up social media, and a million other little things like that to take care of – before we really got to the good stuff: rehearsing, finding out what we sounded like as a band, selecting songs, starting to figure out who would occupy what roles within the band. The truth, if we’re willing to admit it to ourselves, is that on a few levels, we’re still working some of that out.

But – we’ve done it.

It’s taken a year, but we’ve done it.

Between surgeries and COVID and broken bones and budgets and indecision and everything that’s thrown itself in our path, we’ve actually fucking DONE it.

We’ve booked the studio, we’ve rehearsed and learned each other’s songs, we’ve recorded and overdubbed and sang together on the same microphone and argued about arrangements and who to hire for photo shoots…we’ve drank each other under the table at ML Rose and Brown’s Diner and hugged each other after mixes and talked on the phone and texted at all hours of the day and night and put songs under the microscope and we’ve bickered about the sequencing and had photos taken in the most outrageous pink-assed East Nashville hipster house on the planet and we’ve celebrated under a friendly sun in the pool as the record played, in its final form, while we all smiled and acknowledged – maybe without saying as much out loud – that we’ve actually fucking DONE it.

Today, we all submitted our lyrics and writer/publisher/PRO information for the liner notes – we’ve got a respected Nashville artist putting together the artwork and layout as we speak, and we’re preparing our bio/press information for what happens next, and – MOST importantly – we’ve approved the final master to submit to the label.

It’s taken a year, but it’s THIS CLOSE to being in the manufacturing pipeline…

…and it’s starting – after a year – to feel real. To feel tangible. To feel like something less conceptual and more concrete.

And yeah, I might be the greenhorn in this band, but I know how this process works. I know that the ACTUAL work is only just about to begin – but tonight, a year after that road trip back from Wisconsin, and a few days after taking an afternoon to celebrate with the band and our friends and families, it’s worth taking a minute to reflect on what we’ve managed to do over the course of this year…this weird year, bookended against a year of trauma and tragedy.

Maybe, for a minute or two, it’s ok to be proud of what we’ve created.

Maybe, for a minute or two, it’s ok to take stock of the work we’ve done in the aftermath of losing the person that represented the thread that connected us all in the first place – in the midst of a global pandemic – and to exhale and take stock of what we managed to accomplish.

While none of us were paying attention, we became – A BAND.

We’ve become aware of each other’s quirks and we’ve made (sometimes uneasy) peace with each other’s eccentricities.

Catchphrases have evolved:

“…they almost killed Jack!”

“…that’s adorable.”

We’ve learned to play off each other’s strengths and to cover for each other’s (mostly MY) weaknesses.

This late in life, every one of us – to a man – knows what we’ve stumbled onto, and I don’t believe that any of us take it for granted.

In just a few days, we’ll be meeting again to discuss and approve artwork and talk about layout and singles and writing bios and press releases and jump back into the grind of the cycle…we’ve opted to put the record out this fall instead of next February, so that means we’re going to have to really bust our asses to make this pre-release cycle work.

But the decision to put it out this fall was near-unanimous among the members of the band, and we can’t wait for you to hear this record.

Stay tuned, friends.

2021: OBITUWEARY

To paraphrase Jerry Maguire‘s Rod Tidwell – “…that’s MY word!” I’m taking ownership of it, here and now.

Death has been the thread that’s tied together the hours, days, weeks and months that have made up this year, more so than anything else.

Sitting down to take stock of the souls lost over the past 365 days is pretty staggering – it certainly feels like more than a year has passed since we lost Tommy Lasorda and Hank Aaron and Don Sutton…and Ed Bruce and Jamie O’Hara…all the way back in January. A lot of us are still processing John Madden and JD Crowe and Joan Didion and Bishop Desmond Tutu from the past week or so.

Every year brings the loss of folks across the spectrum – media, politics, music, literature, sports – and all of us can probably point to one (or likely more) people we’ve lost this year that affect them especially deeply. I don’t think mine will come as a surprise to anyone:

“the end of an era” doesn’t quite seem impactful enough – but if you visit this particular corner of the internet even semi-regularly, then there’s not much I can add to what I’ve already said about these two and the impact they’ve had on my life.

2021 took a particularly heavy toll in our world this year (musicians and the music industry). In addition to Rusty and Paul, Marc Phillips from the band Hotel passed from COVID complications earlier in the year – Marc and Tommy Calton from the band became friends years ago, and Marc appeared to be in good health until the virus came calling. Nanci Griffith and Tom T. Hall were both huge to me as well – as songwriters and storytellers.

We lost Rupert Neve this year – a giant in the audio industry – at age 94. Lou Ottens – the subject of a documentary telling the story of his invention of the cassette tape during his years at Philips – was also 94 when he passed.

Elsewhere in the industry, there was Walter Yetnikoff (former CBS records head), Phil Spector (I know, I know), Ken Kragen (artist manager, man responsible for USA for Africa/”We Are The World”), Kal Rudman (FMQB publisher/editor), Herbie Herbert (artist manager, Journey/others), Mick Rock (photographer), Richard Cole (road manager for Led Zeppelin) – and, perhaps most senseless, Jacqueline Avant (wife of Clarence Avant) was murdered by an intruder in her own home.

“The business” took a beating this year, for sure. I mean, there were certainly losses elsewhere…

We lost Larry King, Willard Scott, Neal Conan from NPR, and Roger Mudd.

In addition to Lasorda and Hank Aaron, we also lost Ray Fosse, Leon Spinks, David Patten, and the irreplaceable Jerry Remy – NESN’s Voice Of The Red Sox.

We lost Eric Carle (“The Hungry Caterpillar”) and frontier storyteller Larry McMurtry.

Whether they’ll be missed is debatable, but we lost Donald Rumsfeld, G. Gordon Liddy, Sheldon Adelson, Larry Flynt, Ernest Angley and Bernie Madoff this year…elsewhere in politics, there was Colin Powell, George Shultz, Bob Dole, Harry Reid, Max Cleland – as well as F. Lee Bailey and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan.

On screens large and small, we said goodbye to a number of legends: Hal Holbrook, Cicely Tyson, Ed Asner, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman…also Gavin McLeod, Olympia Dukakis, Ned Beatty, Dean Stockwell…Tawny Kitaen, Tanya Roberts…as well as Johnny Crawford from the Rifleman and Tony Hendra – the manager of Spinal Tap. Peter Ackroyd, longtime writer for SNL, also passed this year.

But on our side of the fence…the list is kinda crazy.

DMX. Biz Markie.

Stephen Sondheim.

There was BJ Thomas, Don Everly, Michael Nesmith…as well as Lloyd Price, and – within the Nashville orbit, there was Rose Lee Maphis, Stonewall Jackson, Gary Scruggs, Randy Parton…Ed Bruce died early in the year, followed later by his wife, songwriter Patsy. The songwriting community also lost Les Emmerson, Dwayne Blackwell, Charlie Black, Larry Willoughby…Jamie O’Hara, who had some success as a recording artist with his band, The O’Kanes. Tommy West, Randy Parton.

Chuck E. Weiss passed, as well as stalwart touring folksinger Bill Staines of “Roseville Fair” fame.

We lost reggae pioneer Bunny Wailer, Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers, Ralph Tavares of Tavares, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Wanda Young of the Marvellettes, Sarah Dash of LaBelle, Paul Mitchell of The Floaters (“Float On”), Jay Black of Jay and the Americans, and David Lasley – longtime touring vocalist with James Taylor.

There were a few instrumental giants that left us this year – jazz greats Chick Corea and Pat Martino, bluegrass greats JD Crowe, Byron Berline and Sonny Osborne…Peter Oshtroushko as well.

Robbie Steinhardt from Kansas – there won’t ever be another one like him. Buddy Merrill – who introduced a ton of folks to the pedal steel guitar who wouldn’t have heard it otherwise from his chair on the Lawrence Welk Show also passed this year.

Canned Heat alone lost Gene Taylor (keys) and Frank Cook (drums) – the drums themselves lost a TON of seats. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues, legendary Swamper drummer Roger Hawkins, Don Heffington, Kenny Malone, Ronnie Tutt – Billy Conway of Morphine, Marcus Malone (Santana), Ron Bushy of Iron Butterfly. Keyboardists? The great Mike Finnigan passed this year, as well as Ike Stubblefield and Dave Lewis from Ambrosia.

Bassists?

Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, reggae giant Robbie Shakespeare, Nashville sessioncat Bob Moore, and of course – Tim Bogert and Phil Chen.

Guitarists said goodbye to Hilton Valentine from the Animals, Robin LeMesurier of Rod Stewarts’ band, Keith Allison of Paul Revere and the Raiders and Billy Hinsche (touring guitarist for the Beach Boys).

This garbage year will be over in a few hours, and every year I find myself pausing to take stock of what we’ve lost, even if just to say goodbye in my own personal “thanks for the memories” fashion…certainly, this year has taken more from me than most.

But this year I want to take a look around me at the folks who’ve made my life more bearable – the ones still walking among us – and offer a little gratitude for the fact that they’re still here, still walking on this plane, and in many cases, still participating – still contributing – still living.

Dick Van Dyke. Betty White. Mel Brooks. Vin Scully. Chubby Checker. Willie Nelson. Dan Rather. Loretta Lynn. Joni Mitchell. Gordon Lightfoot. David Crosby. Stephen Stills. Carole King.

David Lindley. Emmylou Harris. David Nelson. Bill Halverson. Stephen Barncard. George Grantham. Sam Cutler and Phil “Mangler” Kaufman. Michael Tearson.

I’m forgetting a few dozen, I’m sure – most of these missives are stream of consciousness, and a lot slips through the cracks.

But we all have a similar list, and it seems like a good day to take inventory and breathe a little gratitude out into the world for what we have as we’re saying goodbye to what we’ve lost.

(BREAKING: no sooner had this gone up than word hit the wires that Betty White came up 24 hours short of making it to 2022. As such, I’m giving Betty the final word on this dumpster fire of a year.)

“I’m just an open stage singer…”

I’m all but certain that Ray Naylor was younger than I am now when we first met, over a quarter century ago.

That’s an important thing for me to realize today, because it helps me put my respect for him into a perspective that I couldn’t fully understand back then, when Ray would come to the Monday night hangs at the Grape Street Pub – I mean, I had met Ray some years before when I was hopping from one open mike to the other, trying to figure out how this whole thing was supposed to work, but “The Grape” was a different animal for a number of reasons.

Grape Street Pub on a Monday night in the mid-nineties was probably the closest I’ll ever come to the Troubadour Experience of the late sixties and early seventies, when a horde of artists I’d come to love and look up to were all hustling, getting their thing together and figuring out who they were.

Monday nights were the one night of the week that most of us weren’t gigging somewhere else, and the Grape became a hot spot – songwriters came there for the hang first, and for the opportunity to play second…or maybe third or fourth, depending on who you might ask. It was an exciting time to be an artist in Philadelphia, and all the stars aligned for our little ragamuffin community.

Of course, whenever something becomes hot or trendy, all the tasteless and talentless wannabes line up to crash the party, hoping that some of the mojo will rub off on them, and there was plenty of that as well – but cliques tend to drive out folks with any degree of self-awareness that can sense when they’re not wanted, and you had to put in the work to become part of that family…and that’s exactly the way we wanted it.

Ray Naylor was easily older than most of us were at the time, and I remember thinking that there was something innately awesome about this guy who’d come in and get up and play Phil Ochs songs, peppered by his own compositions that were proudly and unashamedly carved from the Macdougal Street/Village tradition…because, Goddamnit, Ray was who he was, and he was defiantly uninterested in pretending to be something other than the sum of his own parts.

At the time, it was just a modicum of general respect on my part – but now that I’m likely older than he was then, I’m able to appreciate it in ways I never could’ve at the time.

I moved to Nashville almost ten years ago and realized – far too late to change course – that for me, there comes a time in ones’ life when it really is too late to start over. I couldn’t see myself going to the Five Spot or the Wash and becoming the East Nashville Version of the Steve Buscemi meme (“what’s up, fellow kids?”) and pressing new flesh and trying to navigate an entirely new musical community – aside from the fact that every possible manner of crazy shit befell us during that first couple of years, I just felt any motivation to try to do that, to be that guy – it just ran down the drain.

But at that same age, Ray was coming to the Grape and getting up in front of a room half-filled with Villanova Douchebags who couldn’t decide if they wanted to be Kurt Cobain or Dave Matthews and topped off with a bunch of self-absorbed folks staring up their own asses and complaining that they didn’t get to play because they were too cool to write their names on the damned sheet.

Everyone was trying to claw their way up the food chain, but Ray Naylor didn’t give a shit about any of that.

I don’t know that he ever aspired to anything more than what life ultimately revealed to him, but he never hung it up – he wrote songs, he made records (I got to contribute a few instrumental parts to one of them at Daoud Shaw’s studio years ago), and he ultimately found a home in radio, hosting his own folk show for some time.

The last Facebook post I saw from Ray was only a couple of weeks ago, when he announced that he was turning the reins of his show over to new hosts, and my first thought was – why?

I didn’t know anything about Ray’s health situation, as we haven’t really stayed in touch (Ray has that in common with a great many people, and it’s both a regret and a safety mechanism for me, it seems. I’m at a loss to explain it.) – but this afternoon I saw a post as I was leaving the office that he’d passed away during open heart surgery.

I feel like this little corner of the internet has become nothing more than a perpetual last stop for friends shuffling off the mortal coil, and I’m using the term “obituweary” a lot this past couple of years – it’s a thing.

Ray – thanks for showing all those roomfuls of kids what it means to be who you are without getting caught up in the trappings of nonsense.

It took a long time to rub off, but I think I understand it now.

Requiem For A Legend

A photo from the “Legend”-era lineup of Paul Cotton and Rusty Young displayed at Sunday’s memorial service

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:

#countryrockcarpoolkaraoke

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.

GG reading social media comments on my iPhone

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.

Watching Muscle Shoals in the room at the Wagon Wheel Motel with Madison Thorn, Wendy, Debbie and Danny (sleeping)

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.

night one of Wildwood Weekend – playing “Rose of Cimarron”

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.

GG doing his thing during the second set, night one

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.

Final bow, end of the Friday night show

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. 

in the “Poco Wing” of Wildwood Springs Resort with Michael Webb – who remembers where all the bodies are buried

 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.

Saturday night show, with Maestro Webb on accordion

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.

Post Saturday night group Poconut photo, courtesy of Madison Thorn

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.

Sweet Tooth Potluck at the Super8 in Cuba has been a Wildwood tradition for some time…and George had to be there.

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.

George and Debbie at Frisco’s on the way home – EVERYBODY had the nuggets during the last visit.

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.”

Some light news and some heavy history

So if you’ve been paying any attention at all to my social media lately, you’re likely aware that something is underfoot.

Yes, it’s true…I’m working on not one, but TWO new albums and three projects, all simultaneously.

One will be a 25 year anniversary re-release of Our Mutual Angels, due out next year that will include the original record plus a handful of restored rough mixes from the period the record was created, plus a handful of newly recorded versions of some of the songs.

The other will be the first actual full-length release of original material SINCE Our Mutual Angels, and work on that record is already in progress.

The third, and the one that will see the light of day first, is an album I’m calling Out To Pasture.

It’d be easy to call it a “tribute record”, but it’s a little more than that.

It’s an album, but it’s also a love letter…a sympathy card, a goodbye note, a bedtime story…it’s a collection of songs written by Rusty Young and Paul Cotton, but it also contains two original songs – one of them a moody rocker called Legends, one of them a song that I wrote during Poco‘s last Wildwood Springs Lodge shows in 2019, and one of them a posthumous co-write with Rusty Young – you’ll certainly hear more about this once the record is ready to see the light of day.

It’s the best way I could think of to say goodbye to a band that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, and that’s essentially what it is…the sound of saying goodbye.

I have to say, though…jumping back into this process has been…well, it’s been a bunch of things.

Since I lack anything resembling the gift of brevity, pour yourself a drink and I’ll elaborate if you like.

There’s some part of me that’s varying combinations of voyeur and historian that has been and remains fascinated with other peoples’ creative process.  And yeah, I love the road stories and the nostalgia and the gear nerd stuff and all the trappings of the rock and roll part of it, sure…but watching those Classic Albums documentaries and “the making of…” – those land in a different spot for me.

It’s one thing to think about what the air in the room might’ve been like at a particular show or during a particular moment with certain people in the room – but I find myself much more drawn to thoughts of what it would’ve been like to have been at Joni Mitchells’ house the night Crosby, Stills and Nash sang together for the first time…to have been in that tiny dressing room the night David Lindley walked in with his fiddle and played Song For Adam with Jackson Browne on the night they met…to have been in the studio looking over Brian Wilson’s shoulder as he was leading the Wrecking Crew though the Pet Sounds sessions…to have been on the other side of the glass as a baby Dan Fogelberg was layering the wordless harmonies that precede the final verse of To The Morning for his first album.

Standing by the pool while Keith Moon throws a television into the water is happenstance.

Playing a great show is varying degrees of chemistry and mechanics, and it doesn’t happen if both aren’t present – you have to be able to play, and you have to be able to contribute an ingredient to a recipe that doesn’t come from anywhere else.  Yeah, it’s dexterity on a base level, but the thing that takes it from being a recital to being an event – that’s chemistry.

The creative process, though – there are ingredients, but it’s almost impossible to break it down, because the ingredients are different almost every time.

Janis Ian made her landmark record Between The Lines at a studio in Blauvelt, NY that was also used by The Ramones and Bruce Springsteen – so while the technical tools are a common thread in translating art to physical product, that’s really all the responsibility the recording medium bears for the end result.

Leland Sklar played bass on some of the most important records of my formative years, but he also played bass with Billy Cobham’s Spectrum, Lee Ritenour, Enrique Iglesias and Toto – great players are able to adopt to a host of musical styles and the ones favored for session work are often chameleons that adapt to their surroundings.  In fact, that’s often a factor in getting the gig in the first place.  So they’re an ingredient, to be certain – but you could use the same core players for a James Taylor record that you used for a Randy Newman record and the result would be significantly different – so you can’t guarantee an outcome by using the same studio with the same players, then.

The producer?  Some producers (Phil Spector, Jeff Lynne, Daniel Lanois, Roy Thomas Baker and a few others come to mind) will walk into a project with specific gear or instruments or some other such stash of “secret weapons” that invariably ensure that whatever record they’re working on sounds just like every other record they’ve ever been associated with.  (For proof, listen to Roy Orbison’s You Got It next to any ELO track next to the Wilburys’ Handle With Care next to pretty much anything off Tom Petty’s Into The Great Wide Open and make your best argument that I’m wrong.  I’ll wait. This isn’t to say it’s the wrong approach – I mean, the guy has been phenomenally successful, and that’s probably in large part to the fact that he does put his fingerprint on his work. I’m not judging, just making a point.)  Others, like Rick Rubin or T-Bone Burnett will specialize in a genre of music that’s dear to them but can bring their chops to just about anything and make it better as a result of their presence.

Again, certainly an ingredient – but not the one that defines the recipe.

At the root of it all, there has to be a vision that drives the process – that informs the choice and the use of the gear, that informs the choice and assignments of the musicians, that informs the choice of songs and material, and that leads the musical contribution to the realization of the end product.  Sometimes it’s a singular vision, sometimes it’s a collective, but that process – that translation of a vague notion into an end result – that flavor of creativity has always fascinated me.

Whose idea was it to assemble the giant tape loop of cash registers that required two people to maintain tension with a pair of spindles on microphone stands that resulted in the intro to Money, from Dark Side of the Moon?

The huge, assembled mass of pianos playing a massive C chord in unison for the ending of A Day In The Life?

The backwards drums on Are You Experienced?

The Beatles literally inventing flanging by experimenting with multiple tape recorders?

And yet – while my imagination was fired by hearing these sounds I’d never heard before, the flip side of that coin – artists just sitting down in front of a microphone and plainly stating a lyric and a melody – was what really stirred my soul.

Jackson Browne singing Something Fine…Joni Mitchell on Marcie…Fogelberg singing Stars…BW Stevenson singing If I Pass This Way to close side two of his My Maria album…there was no technical wizardry, no trickery, no manipulation that somehow transformed a mechanical act of dexterity into art.  It was fully formed, and captured for posterity by technology.

That, to me, was more magical than flipping over a reel of tape and using it as a rhythm track.

By the time I was of an age to be able to write my own songs, home recording was just gaining a foothold and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on my first Tascam 244 – and I annoyed the shit out of my roommate in the barracks recording guitar parts and overdubbing vocal harmonies across the room…but there was no going back after that.

I dove headfirst into songwriting at that point, fascinated by the mystery that shrouded the songwriting process, and the sheer volume of possibilities made available by the recording process.  There appeared to be very few set rules for either – other than basic notions regarding song structure and technical no-no’s like “don’t let the meters go too far into the red” and things of that nature.  Both pursuits felt self-perpetuating…the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew and how much more there was to discover – and like any addiction, the more I got…the more I wanted.

My first songs were terrible, and my first recordings…if such a thing could be possible…were worse.  But there existed a hunger to do the necessary work to get better, to improve my craft, and to try to crystallize some form of creative vision and improve my ability to channel that vision into a finished song or a finished recording.

One of the first things I learned to make peace with, though – even at that early stage – was the notion that the finished product (for me, anyway) seldom matched what I’d initially heard in my head when I started down that days’ particular path.  I’d get close sometimes, really close other times – but the process itself would almost always make its own set of suggestions, and other doors would open that I hadn’t anticipated…and sometimes that can be exhilarating, but other times – when there’s a specific sonic goal that you’re reaching for and can’t quite grab – the resulting frustration comes in a multitude of flavors, from irritation to self-loathing to crippling doubt to waves of inferiority, jealousy and envy of others’ creative output, right up to the edge of defeat and resignation.

When things are going well, when juices are flowing and the results are satisfying and rewarding, there’s nothing else like it.

When that’s not the case…I’m not very good company.

Some who’ve witnessed those periods would say that’s an understatement.

I’ve sacrificed relationships (and one marriage) at this particular altar.  When I resign myself to the notion of making a record, it becomes a consuming pursuit, and – as mentioned – it’s a knee-jerk carnival ride from elation to despair and back again from start to finish.  The things that derail me are often things that have little to nothing to do with creativity – album art, publicity and promotion, duplication of the final physical product, things of that nature.

But when the thing that’s under the microscope is something of a creative nature, it becomes much, MUCH harder to traverse.  If there’s a problem with the artwork or the duplication, that’s usually reparable via a few emails or spending a little more money – but when there’s a speedbump in the actual creative process that you just can’t seem to smooth out…well, often there are no tangible methods to overcome that, other than continuing to chase the result you hear in your head.  Sometimes it’s attainable and sometimes it’s not, and when it’s not – scar tissue can build up beneath the effort you’ve thrown at it, and if you’ve missed the mark – it colors everything that comes afterward.

Sometimes it’s a technical limitation…hell, MOST of the time it’s a technical limitation, whether it’s related to gear, or a personal inability to execute the thing I hear in my head.  Often it’s the distance between the sound I’m trying to capture and the sound that’s actually being recorded – and the energy and effort put into trying to nail it down descends into one or more flavors of frustration, especially when nothing translates the way you want it to.  Or you’re trying to play a part a certain way and no matter how many times you run it, nothing that’s coming from beneath your fingers works or fits the framework of the song in the manner you’d imagined and you end up deciding that you’re just not up to the task on any level.

My first self-produced commercially available collection of songs was a self-titled cassette release I did over thirty years ago…I started the project in a studio that was based on ½” 8 track analog recording, but the producer folded up shop in the middle of the record, so I felt obligated to find another studio that used the same format, since I’d already bought tape for the project – the guy I ended up using was a pretty headstrong guy with a brain full of weird notions, and I ended up hating both that record AND the songs on it.  (I’ve since seen a pattern in a lot of artists who look at their first recorded efforts through similar lenses, but trust me – I’m right about this.)

It took me another six years to make a follow-up.  I started looking around at studios within a year or two of making the first record, but there was always something that nudged me away.  I can’t say for sure anymore whether it was the bad taste in my mouth from the first time around, but I knew that I’d missed the mark I set in my head by a mile, and I wasn’t gonna go through that process again without feeling a lot more comfortable with my choice next time around.  I laid a lot of blame on the room and the gear, but I also knew next to nothing about the process of making a record, and I needed to fill in a lot of blanks…which I set out to do.

Still, there were a couple of misfires and false starts before I tripped over my own feet and fell backwards into the arms of Steve Jay, who opened his studio to me and became not just a producer and engineer but a partner in making Our Mutual Angels.  Still, at the time, I had a very different record in my head than what ended up in my hands – because Steve was so passionate and so hands-on and knew so much more than I did about the process, I made a conscious decision to let go and hand him the reins.  And honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a better experience making a record than I did with that one.  Sure, there were some things I might’ve changed in the moment, but I can still listen to that record all these years later and be fine with the end result, and I can’t say for sure that this would be the case if I’d forced some of those decisions in my own favor.

The net result of that experience, though – having that relationship with Steve and feeling like Longview (Steve’s studio) was my musical and creative home – was that when that door closed (literally, as Steve moved to the west coast not long after OMA was released), I didn’t even really look for another place to make records after that.  The chilly reception that the record received after all the work and love we put into it soured me on the entire collective experience of writing songs, making records, flinging myself out into the world as an “artist” – and almost everything associated with it.  Almost.

I found in pretty short order that I could scratch a lot of the same itches by playing in other peoples’ bands, and do so without the stress and risk associated with being The Name On The Marquee.

So for a long, long time – that’s what I did.

It would be almost a decade – 2006 – before I made another record, and it was easily the worst effort of my life so far…a self-produced, self-recorded set of demo recordings released as Noises From The Basement, made on ADAT recorders with a RAMSA console and cheap outboard gear and microphones.  Totally unlistenable to me now, really – and I haven’t even tried in a long, long time.

I made it on a lark as the social media era was just getting underway, on the premise that I could just make records at home, sell them over the internet, and play shows whenever I felt like it, but I ended up hating the record so much that it took another seven years before I worked up the nerve to do it again.

During my stint with Marshall Tucker Band, someone made an offhand remark that I could probably do an entire record of songs written by people I’d played with – by this time, I’d done a lot of session work and felt a lot more comfortable with the notion of possibly recording myself again.  Gear had changed quite a bit, and recording to the computer has become the industry standard – as such, I could get decent results with good converters, a few nice microphones and preamps…how hard could it be, right?

Well, the gear may change as years go by, but the second guessing and crippling self-doubt will follow you from room to room forever, once you let it in the house…and it’s been a constant companion of mine for as long as I’ve been able to push down the guitar strings hard enough to get a clean note from them.

Friends And Heroes was an ambitious concept – a double CD with one disc devoted to songs written by artists I’d actually collaborated with in either live or studio settings, and a second disc devoted to artists who’d been an inspiration for me to follow the path that I did.  Conceptually, it was very heavy on “warm and fuzzy” for me, and I was genuinely excited about making the record – and I have to acknowledge that part of the attraction for me was that it contained ZERO Tom Hampton songs, as I still hadn’t quite gotten back to a place where I felt like sharing anything I’d written with the world at large.  One of the reasons that Noises happened in the first place was because it was a split of cover songs with a few leftover originals on it that I’d written during the OMA period, and my will to write just dried up after that record was ignored to the extent that it was.  I took that personally, as an editorial commentary on the worth of my work…largely because I had let myself believe that it had more worth in the eyes of other people than it did to me personally.  And at the time, I might’ve been right.  But with this new project, I could hide behind other peoples’ songs and make a record with my name on it with what felt like a legitimate purpose for making it – to pay tribute to the folks who’d trusted me to add something to their records or live performances over the years.  I had an unreleased Dan May song, an unreleased Craig Bickhardt song, an unreleased JD Malone song…and a Robert Hazard song called Summerland that we’d only played twice before his passing…and would’ve been lost to the ages if Brian Light hadn’t recorded a performance of the song on a radio show Robert and I did as a duo.  I pulled some great songs from elsewhere in my orbit, including Kind Woman (which allowed me to duck the notion of choosing either a Rusty song OR a Paul song…I just went right back to the “in the beginning” moment).

Once I was deep into the weeds on this record, though, I found myself second-guessing decisions about arrangements, about drum sounds, about which instruments to layer into which songs – I beat myself to within an inch of my life during the mixing process.  NOTHING I did sounded good enough to my ears.  I’d burn reference disks and listen to them everywhere, convinced that there was something I was doing wrong that made them sound so radically different when going from one environment to another (and yeah, there was an element of that, but I was also harboring unrealistic expectations that the mixes would sound identical just about anywhere.  The music I listened to that WASN’T mine did, why couldn’t I get these mixes to be consistent?

I was obsessive – I was working a day job, touring with Marshall Tucker constantly, and spent whatever time I had left tweaking, remixing, tweaking some more, burning another reference CD and taking it out in the car to listen for the next thing that would run me off the rails.

If I hadn’t gone ahead and scheduled a release date with accompanying live performances, I might STILL be working on that record…but it had to be duplicated and ready to go in time to go to retail and to start fulfilling orders, and I eventually had to settle for a set of mixes that – ultimately – lacked any real punch because I was trying to get them to sound the same across platforms that they really weren’t supposed to sound the same in.

That was almost ten years ago, but it might as well have been thirty – while a lot has changed since then in various parts of my life, my approach to making records hasn’t moved around much.

Friends and Heroes might well have been the last record I ever made if I hadn’t joined Poco…and if the events of this past year hadn’t come to pass.

I’d written a few songs, but other than throwing down reference demos so I’d remember how they went, I didn’t give them much thought…but there’d been a notion of a new Poco record that had surfaced in a couple of conversations here and there during COVID and I had a couple that I was legitimately excited about sharing with Rusty and the band.  Now, in the aftermath of Rusty’s passing (and Paul Cotton’s death just a couple of months after Rusty), there’s a new band that’s forming around the remains of the old band, and…an outlet for songs, since we’ll be making a record this year.  

So…I started writing again.  In earnest.

I don’t know exactly what happened…if it was the collective trauma of losing a friend, hero and mentor in the midst of a life-altering pandemic and the emotional fallout from that, or if I just nicked an artery when I picked up a notebook and a guitar with something resembling actual intent for the first time in decades – but words just started gushing forth.

The first thing I did was to take the chorus of a song Rusty had sung to open a show they played for the television cameras back in 2004 (called Where Did The Time Go) and write verses and a bridge for it, since Rusty never actually finished the song…after that, the floodgates opened up.

So, now – I find myself in the late stages of two separate projects that I’m working on concurrently…my first album of original songs since Our Mutual Angels in 1997, and a record called Out To Pasture – a collection of Rusty and Paul songs, along with the aforementioned Where Did The Time Go, a song I wrote during the bands’ last shows at Wildwood two years ago, and a ten minute opus called Legends – all songs directly influenced by the band and by our stories, our mission statements, our lifes’ work.

And I’m falling into those same traps again, relistening to and remixing and rethinking and burning reference CD’s, and…

…and strangely, I’m finding that I’m not as obsessive as I once was.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m more confident in my skills, if I’m happier with what’s coming out of the speakers, if I’ve just given up the ghost and it hasn’t become apparent to me yet…I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, I’m not enraptured with every single note I’ve recorded…far from it.  Just three nights ago, I did 54 passes of a guitar solo until I got one that felt like it developed at the right pace and fell back into place when it was supposed to.  I probably could’ve gotten away with using any of the passes I recorded, but I wanted it to be right, and I knew I had the right one in me, so I waited until I got the right one before I stopped.

I’m still plagued by the inconsistencies I hear in drum sounds from song to song, in levels, in where the vocal sits across the spectrum of songs on the record, but…I feel like I have an out.  I’m not afraid to ask for input and for help, and I know it’s out there – so I’m trying to make the best record I can and to reimagine these songs a bit, and leave it all in the space of a musical monologue of sorts.  To say goodbye to this band, to bid farewell to a piece of myself, to say my piece and lay this dream to rest.

There’s plenty here to haunt me without lying awake at night over drum bleed.

I’m not sure how that became a feature and not a bug, but…well, here we are.

I don’t know how much more time I have left in me, with respect towards creating new music…and I think it’s a bit of a pipe dream to entertain the notion that there’s a joyful record buried somewhere inside me that’ll find its way out eventually.  I don’t think I was ever intended to make records that make people dance or smile or bob their heads while the wind blows through the windows of their car.  I make music that’s pretty emotionally dense, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Making records is no different than any other creative exercise in a lot of ways – and it means different things to different people. For me, it’s as close as I’ll ever experience to the actual physical pain of childbirth…the frustration, the self-doubt, the waves of inferiority, the very nature of how I carry myself when I’m immersed in the process…all that is peppered with moments like the 55th pass of that solo I tracked last week, when it rolled off my fingers in one pass exactly the way I needed it to evolve for that song…or hearing the harmonies line up in a way I hadn’t anticipated, but better than I could’ve hoped…or hearing an accidental clash of two separate passes of mandolin and dobro echo a pattern in succession in a completely unplanned way…

It’s auditory heroin, really. It’s a momentary buzz that – once you experience it for the first time – becomes something that you chase in some form or fashion for as long as you continue to punch that particular clock.

And not unlike childbirth, you’ll have some offspring that will need a little explaining and you’ll have some that’ll bring forth tears of joy – and sometimes they’re the same child, whether you even realize it or not. But they make you proud, in a collective sense – not just of who they are, but of who YOU are.

The cathartic element is more plain to me than it’s ever been, with this record – and I guess the only wish I’m really harboring for this album is that I might actually carry that cleansing notion through to fruition when it’s done and I’m holding it in my hands.

But for now…it’s time to put the cans on and sing.

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.

you are what you eat

so I’ve been on a bit of a tear lately, where songwriting is concerned – for a multitude of reasons. there are projects just around the bend for which i’ll be expected to contribute material, but also – i’m finding that i’m attracted to the exercise for the first time in recent memory.


i’ve written a couple of things over the past few years, for sure, but it hasn’t been anything remotely consistent for a long, long time. I had a short fit of creativity rekindled by the re-emergence of an old flame for a month or so, and there’ve been a handful of songs that have essentially written themselves while I was in the room (“wrong side of history” most notably among them), but I’ve churned out roughly a dozen songs over the past two months and it’s been an education.


the most obvious lesson that i’ve learned from all this is that while age isn’t always a bedfellow of wisdom, it has brought a certain – boldness, perhaps?

i’m finding that i’m no longer weighing my words as carefully as I once did, i’m not as afraid of the consequences of my words, of what friends or loved ones might say or feel in reaction to what I write.


it’s not so much that I don’t care what they think, it’s that…well, i don’t care what they think.


(it sounds bad when I put it that way, doesn’t it?)


what i think i’m trying to say is that i’m not as frightened of the end result of speaking my truth at this point in my life, because i don’t feel as though it’s classified information anymore. i’m not carrying around any secret longings, not feeling trapped in my own skin (at least not to the same degree I once did), not plotting some daring escape from my day to day circumstances – a lot of the things i once used as fuel for songs no longer constitute the lion’s share of the weight i carry around on a daily basis.


i find myself a lot more contemplative, a lot more reflective, more willing to say some pretty uncomfortable things out loud – generally, a little more brutally honest than i might have been at other times in my life.


and let me tell you…”liberating” doesn’t even begin to get the point across.


so – because i’m going to need to play these songs for other people, i spent a couple of weeks recording demos recently, and i uploaded a sampling of them to a folder on a Google drive and sent an email to a handful of folks whose opinions I respect and asked for some honest feedback. “let me have it,” I said in the email with the link. “rip ’em to shreds and send me back into the shadows to contemplate whether i should’ve even thought about doing this again.”


well, i didn’t get any feedback of that particular flavor, but i did get a lot of honest thoughts about the direction i’d embraced from a lyrical standpoint, about song length (almost to a song, all of them are in the six minute range with one in particular clocking in at over nine minutes, but it’s long for a reason – there are thirteen verses, and there will be noisy guitar solos…it’s probably not a candidate for a record, but who knows?) – i was grateful for all of it, for sure, but there was one bit of feedback that i saw fit to chew on for a while.


i won’t single him out, but a longtime collaborator pointed out that some of the instrumental parts that i’d played had made stronger melodic statements than the melody of the lyrics themselves, and that after hearing the songs more often, he found himself humming the instrumental parts moreso than the lyric…and that gave me reason to examine my process, and i had a couple of epiphanies around that.


i’ve always imagined that folks who write music and lyrics simultaneously are probably best equipped to come up with memorable melodies, because they’re creating the melody and the lyric at the same time. i used to write that way all the time, but now i find that i’m either ambushed by a lyric (one of the new songs, “fade away”, was recited practically verbatim into my cellphone while driving to pennsylvania for a show back in june), or i’ll come up with a chord progression or guitar part that feels like a song and i’ll record it into my phone while i just “Mellencamp” along with it (grunt nonsensical noises that bear no resemblance to words along with the musical part as something of a placeholder for what i’d likely sing over the chord changes).


it’s not that i prefer this method to the notion of sitting down with the guitar AND the legal pad at the same time and completely focusing on the task at hand, it’s just the way things tend to get done nowadays. even so, i find that when writing lyrics, i’m almost always more focused on the pentameter of the words than the melody itself. I don’t have a specific reason for this that i can point to, but in considering it over the past couple of days it occurred to me that a lot of my favorite lyricists (Dylan, Jackson Browne, John Moreland, Dar Williams, etc.) seem to write as slaves of the narrative, and i find myself more attracted to that than to the notion of finding the right notes and making the words fit into that framework. of course, then there’s Richard Edwards and Shawn Colvin and Jimmie Spheeris and a dozen others whose melodies are so compelling that i almost don’t care what they’re saying…and Joni Mitchell, who defies any effort to lean her in either direction.


considering this analysis of my work from outside my own bubble, though, it’s been a bit of a revelation to look at my work alongside my influences and see whose fingerprints loom largest as rings inside the tree. no surprises, but good information nonetheless.


(this is not to say that if you listen to “Late For The Sky” over and over again that you’ll eventually write something that brilliant…if that were possible, i’d have done it by now. i’ve put the time in, for damn sure.)


the most gratifying thing i’ve taken away from this introspection into my own process, though, is that i didn’t walk away from it feeling as though my work was inferior as a result of examining it in this light, but rather that i’d learned something about my own process that i hadn’t really considered prior to now…and that it might be worth challenging myself to step outside my own routine and get uncomfortable and try some new things to see what other tools might fit into my toolchest.


the music i listen to in the car comes courtesy of a 32GB flash drive with several thousand MP3’s on it, and i discovered some time back that the best form of “shuffle” for this scenario is good old Alphabetical Order. that’s right – there’s nothing more jarring than letting everything play in order by song title where you go from “Superman” by REM into “Super Trouper” by ABBA…and that’s just one bizarre alphabetical seque. there’s hundreds more.


but this morning, as if to underscore this topic, i heard my favorite Bob Dylan song (“Sweetheart Like You”) followed by “Sylvia Hotel” by Cheryl Wheeler – and it underlined this entire thing with a bold black sharpie.


“Sweetheart” is more spoken than sung, really – and the lyrics are sprinkled with moments of genius, punctuated with the same closing line to every verse, and it’s brilliant. Musically, there’s an atmosphere that perfectly fits the lyric, and it forces me to grab the volume knob every time it comes on. But today, “Sylvia” came on right afterwards as if to underscore the notion that you can have a poignant, haunting, transformative lyric without sacrificing anything melodically or giving up options in your narrative.


life never stops teaching if you’re willing to remain open to learning new things.