Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Poco: Ballad of an outlaw queen

In the house where I was raised, there were two types of music: There was country, and there was western.

And in an era in which one TV set per household was the norm, the patriarch of the family usually determined what was watched. In our house, that meant my dad routinely selected country-music stalwarts such as The Porter Wagoner Show (with a young Dolly Parton) and Hee Haw.

While I cleaved to the music of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, I never completely shed the country-music influences to which I was exposed. Porter never did anything for me (except for recording a song about my hometown) and the cornpone humor of Hee Haw repulsed me (though from time to time there were musical guests who stood out from the cornfield: Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings and youngsters Garth Brooks and Vince Gill.)

The purity of a certain select group of country-music performers (along with their cousins in bluegrass, folk and Americana) has always appealed to me, and many of those recordings nestle in my album crates alongside the raucous rock of my youth.

So when the “country rock” genre emerged, it found in me a receptive host. Performers such as Poco, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds, Gram Parsons and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band led the movement. (Ironically, those bands sounded more country than rock. and many of today’s country stars sound more rock than country.)

The summer of 1976 is a time in my life I recall with great fondness. I had just finished my junior year at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) in Springfield. I was 21 and no longer had to sneak into bars. I did not go home for the summer, opting instead to remain in Springfield. For the first time in my life, I was truly on my own and independent. I got a summer job installing guttering systems. The huge Victorian house a bunch of us had rented was empty except for one person, my good friend Scott, the creator of this blog. It was a magical summer in that Bicentennial year.

My co-worker and I one day stopped off at his apartment for lunch and a toke en route to the next job site. He placed Poco’s recently released Rose of Cimarron album on the turntable. The hauntingly beautiful acoustic guitar intro to the title song flowed into my herb-induced consciousness, followed by the vocal harmonies of the song’s dual singers. “Rose of Cimarron'' captivated me, and that night, I sought out a record store and bought the album.

The song is a surprisingly beautiful, eclectic mix of music that always keeps you guessing. When you think you’ve defined the group’s music genre, a guitar riff turns you in an entirely different direction. The music constantly surprises you by its change in direction, yet it works seamlessly. Vocals were performed by guitarist Paul Cotton and bassist Timothy B. Schmidt.

Not only is this a beautifully played song, but it also fed into my interest in history. “Rose of Cimarron” was inspired by the legend of Rose Dunn, an Old West outlaw romantically involved with George “Bitter Creek” Newcomb, who rode with Bill Doolin’s Wild Bunch gang. The outlaws shot it out with U.S. marshals in Ingalls, OK, in 1893. Three marshals were killed, but Newcomb survived, only to be killed along with another outlaw two years later. Newcomb was taken down by the Dunn brothers, outlaws-turned-bounty hunters who also happened to be Rose’s brothers. The next day, the Dunn brothers loaded the two bodies into their wagon and were riding into town to collect the reward when Newcomb suddenly moaned and asked for water, to which one of the brothers responded with another bullet. Rose was accused of tipping her brothers off to Newcomb’s whereabouts, a claim both she and her brothers denied.

The song bemoans the loss of Rose's outlaw lover and his compatriots:

“Shadows touch the sand and
Look to see who's standin'
Waitin' at your window
Watchin', will they ever show
Can you hear them callin'
You know they have fallen
On campfires cold and dark
That never see a spark burn bright.”

I own several other Poco albums, though “Rose of Cimarron” is the only Poco song installed on my iPod (yes, I still have several of those). Whenever it pops up during a song shuffle, I am taken back to that summer and the memory of the first time I heard this beautiful song. I was fortunate to hear the song live when Poco, Jim Messina and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took to the stage during the Party in the Dirt Tour in Kansas City in 2008.

Inspired by a brochure: Band member Rusty Young was inspired to write “Rose of Cimarron” after learning of the outlaw queen from a brochure. “‘Rose of Cimarron’ is a song I wrote after I picked up a brochure while Poco were on tour in Oklahoma in 1973,” Young said. “It told a story of a woman who took in outlaws in the 1800s. She fed them, mended their wounds and sent them on their way. Or so they say. … When I played ‘Rose’ for the band, everyone wanted to make it a Poco record.”

More outlaw inspiration: The outlaws Bill Doolin and the Dalton brothers were the inspiration for the 1973 album Desperadoes by the Eagles and the songs “Doolin-Dalton” and “Bitter Creek” on that album. The Dalton brothers ended their outlaw careers in Coffeyville, KS, in a bloody shootout with townspeople. My grandfather lived in Coffeyville for a time as a miner.

From the ashes of Buffalo Springfield: Poco was formed by Richie Furay, Jim Messina and Rusty Young following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield. Poco’s first album, Picking Up The Pieces, is a reference to the dissolution of Buffalo Springfield. Randy Meisner was added to Poco’s founding lineup. He later left the group to join the Eagles and was replaced by Timothy B. Schmidt, who later replaced Meisner when he left the Eagles. Jim Messina later hooked up with Kenny Loggins to form the duo Loggins and Messina. (To hear Jim Messina speak about the formation of Poco click here:)

Pioneers of country rock:
Formed in 1968, Poco is credited with pioneering the West Coast country-rock sound. Though hailed by critics, the band never achieved widespread commercial success. The band has existed in one form or another for 50 years. Twenty-two people have played in the band over those five decades.

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