In 1974 Pure Prairie League was playing Wesleyan College, right up the street. I had recently returned from Santa Cruz and was working at an auto parts store. I took the job in a desperate effort to resist the gravitational pull of Dad’s business. Let me type that again: an AUTO Parts store.
I had no idea what tie rods were, but for several months I pretended I did and handed them over to people who seemed to really need them and trust me. With luck they nodded and handed me $37.50. Sometimes they asked me questions like “Do I need to replace the floivan if the retro gaskets are spoogled?” That’s when I became the Bill Murray character in the Greek Diner sketch. Frantically nodding my head and hoping one of the grizzled veterans would step up and answer.
This job did not pay well enough to allow me concert tickets. I drove up to the campus in the late afternoon and looked for the auditorium, hoping I could hear a little bit of their sound check.
I found the venue, parked the car and set my ear against a large metal door. I could hear them running through “Country Song”…the very song that made me fall in love with this band! It was so cool to hear them working it out…starting and stopping…..great harmonies. The song finished and I thought that was about as much excitement as I was going to get when suddenly the door opened and out came their bass player, Mike Reilly. He was incredibly warm and nice to me (didn’t offer me tickets even though I very plainly told him I was too broke to come to the show) and chatted with me for a nice while.
Pure Prairie League went through some strange transitions in the next bunch of years. They got Vince Gill in the band and went pop with saxophones and stuff and put out their big pop hit “Let Me Love You Tonight” . They appeared on Midnight Special. This was not my favorite time for them. I sort of lost interest in this new version but treasured the old records and the memory of that afternoon at their sound check.
One day in 1980, Harold, my producer in NYC, called and said he had an interesting proposition for me. He was also my publisher and had been sending out my tapes a hundred at a time all over the country to try and get my songwriting career going. One of the people he had been sending regular tapes to was a producer who was in talks to do an album with Pure Prairie League. The band had a slight dilemma. They had just fired Vince Gill. (Their side of the story. Fired? Quit? Vince will have to tell you his own damn version over breakfast at Noshville) They hired a new guy and just had to fire him because on the first gig he had sex with the housekeeper at the hotel and the hotel management frowned on that.
The producer knew my voice and thought I would be a good fit. Would I be interested in flying to Cincinnati and auditioning for the slot?
I hopped on a plane (on their dime…holy cow this is real show business) and I went out where I discovered that, rather than being a voice the producer insisted would be the missing piece….I was one of many singers they were auditioning that week. One of the hopefuls had just won Star Search. If it came down to him and me, my only hope would be that they would quiz us on car parts and I could tell them how much a tie rod costs.
The good news? They chose me. I was now the lead singer of one of my favorite bands. The bad news? They had a saxophone. No steel guitar. A saxophone. They were a much more rock and pop sounding band than I remember. It was still an amazing lineup. Al Garth on sax and Merle Bregante on drums, from the Loggins and Messina band (foreshadowing?) Tim Goshorn, a great lead guitarist who’s brother used to be in the band and wrote several of their hits during the “Two Lane Highway” era. Mike Reilly still on bass. He did not remember our conversation all those years ago. (Do I not make the impression I think I do? He was probably on drugs.)
The downiest down side was that my idol, Craig Fuller, was no longer with them. He started the band and wrote all those great early songs like “Amie” and “Early Morning Riser.” That meant I was singing Amie. I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and thanked me for writing that song and telling me how great it was. In the beginning I tried to give credit where it was due and tell them Craig wrote it. After a few months I just started saying “thank you” and signing their breasts. I signed very illegibly so they would see what they want to see.
After about a year I got the great news that Craig Fuller was rejoining the band. I would still have plenty of songs to sing but he would take over the ones he wrote. Craig is a brilliantly cynical bastard. At one outdoor concert we got to the last chorus of Amie, where we stop singing and let the audience carry the song. We had about 10,000 people singing at the top of their lungs. That would make me pretty damn emotional if it was a song I had written. Craig sidled up next to me, leaned his head close to mine, smirked and said “Touching, isn’t it?”
I stayed with PPL for about six years and had some wonderful experiences. Vince and I were both inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame on the same year so we laughed about our connection. Their great steel player John David Call is back with the band these days. Reilly is still on bass and looks more and more like “Old Luke”, the guy on their album covers.. Their wonderful piano player Michael Connor passed away as did Tim Goshorn….yikes, we’re losing people.
One of the great seminal country rock bands. And “Amie” is one of the best songs ever written about an underage French Canadian prostitute.