Poco, Firefall, Manassas,
A KEY PROGENITOR OF THE COUNTRY-ROCK MOVEMENT, POCO DISSEMINATED ITS INFLUENCE THROUGH TIGHT, JOYOUS AND HEARTFELT MUSICIANSHIP.
Rusty Young got his musical start in Böenzee Cryque, a Denverbased band that recorded for Uni Records. The double-sided 45 “Still in Love with You Baby” backed with “Sky Gone Gray” went to No. 1 on the hit list of KIMN, Denver’s dominant Top 40 station, in April 1967. On the West Coast, Richie Furay had formed Bualo Springfield with Stephen Stills and Neil Young. His song “Kind Woman” made the Springfield perhaps the first rock band to experiment with a country sound. Furay called his friend from Colorado, Rusty Young, to play pedal steel guitar on the session.
In 1968, with Springfield in disarray, Furay and guitarist Jim Messina quickly set about assembling a band of their own. They recruited Young, who called in two buddies from Colorado—drummer George Grantham, also from Böenzee Cryque, and bassist Randy Meisner, who came from a rival band, the Poor. Poco’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces album debuted in 1969, blending sweet country harmonies with a driving rock beat. Meisner left and later co-founded the Eagles, and Messina slipped into the band’s bass slot until Timothy B. Schmit signed. After Messina split to form a duo with Kenny Loggins, former Illinois Steam Press guitarist Paul Cotton stepped in. Poco made its reputation as an exciting live act, playing hopeful, optimistic music. The 1971 live album, Deliverin’, was its biggest seller of the era.
In 1971, the band members moved to Colorado. While walking down a road to his house near Nederland, Furay wrote one of Poco’s most distinctive compositions—1973’s “A Good Feeling to Know,” with the lyrics “Colorado mountains I can see your distant sky.” Frustrated when the crowd-pleasing track failed to generate the expected commercial success, Furay departed the band.
Poco plugged on, recording such classics as Schmit’s “Keep On Tryin’,” Young’s “Rose of Cimarron” and Cotton’s “Indian Summer.” When Meisner left the Eagles, Schmit quit Poco to take his place; Grantham left to live and work in Nashville. With Legend, Poco’s 12th studio album, Young and Cotton cracked the top of the charts. Young wrote and sang on the surprise hit, “Crazy Love.” Cotton’s “Heart of the Night” was a second Top 20 hit. Young orchestrated a Poco reunion of the five original members in 1989; Legacy contained the Top 20 hit “Call It Love” and earned a gold record. The team of Young and Cotton carried on until 2010. Young, the Colorado native, has remained the only member who has performed at every Poco gig and played on every Poco recording since the band’s inception.
Richie Furay left Poco in September 1973 to join the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, a supergroup assembled by record mogul David Geen. Furay wrote “Fallin’ in Love,” the group’s sole hit. During the recording of its second album at Caribou Ranch in Nederland, steel guitarist Al Perkins
suggested Furay consider Christianity. Furay became one of the first rock stars to make Christian music for the general market. 1976’s I’ve Got a Reason spent eight weeks on the Billboard pop album chart, and “I Still Have Dreams” reached the Top 40 in 1979.
In 1982, Furay temporarily abandoned music to devote himself to pastoring Boulder’s 150-member Rocky Mountain Christian Fellowship, now Calvary Chapel in Broomfield. The longtime Colorado resident continues to record and perform with the Richie Furay Band.
Storking a sound that had been smoldering in the rockies, Firefall landed six singles on the top charts between 1976 and 1981.
Singer-songwriter Rick Roberts and guitarist Jock Bartley founded Firefall in the summer of 1974. Roberts had served as a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers from 1970 to 1972, after Gram Parsons left the band. He contributed several compositions to the repertoire—the best-known being “Colorado”—before launching his own career as a solo artist. Bartley had started as a student of jazz guitar great Johnny Smith, a Colorado Springs resident. With a few band stints around the Denver/Boulder area under his belt, Bartley took over the lead guitar post of Tommy Bolin in Zephyr in 1971. The following year, he switched over to Gram Parsons’ band, the Fallen Angels (which also featured Emmylou Harris) and met Roberts, whose touring schedule with the Burritos often overlapped that of Parsons. Mark Andes, the founding bassist of the bands Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne, joined with Bartley and Roberts, who began an informal series of jam sessions at his home in Boulder. Roberts thought of a fourth participant he’d met in Washington, D.C., singer-songwriter Larry Burnett. At Chris Hillman’s suggestion, the band added drummer Michael Clarke, an original member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
The break came when Roberts, Bartley and Andes toured as Hillman’s backup band. Hillman fell ill during a date at the Other End in New York, and the club owner accepted a proposal to bring Burnett and Clarke into town. Firefall finished out the engagement, and Atlantic Records was sold on the band. By January 1976, the group had completed recording a debut album with producer Jim Mason, who blended the group’s acoustic guitars, mellow pop melodies and vocal harmonies. A sixth member, David Muse,
joined the ranks on keyboards, synthesizers, flute, tenor sax and harmonica.
Firefall reached platinum status, and the singles ”You Are the Woman,” “Livin’ Ain’t Livin’” and “Cinderella” together sold in excess of one million copies. Firefall notched more hits—“Just Remember I Love You” and “Strange Way”—and two more best-selling albums in the late 1970s, Luna Sea and Elan. The band’s heady time culminated in an opening slot for Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” tour in 1977, including a hometown Folsom
Stadium gig before 61,500 Coloradans. Lineup changes followed, and the band ran out of chart momentum. Bartley has continued to tour with the Firefall name. The song “You Are the Woman” has been played on American radio more than six million times.
came out of the folk tradition, co-writing “I Dig Rock-N-Roll Music,” a Top 10 hit for Peter, Paul & Mary, and co-producing Paul Stookey’s classic “Wedding Song (There Is Love).” His work with harmonizing folkies drew the attention of country-rockers, and in 1972 he came to Boulder to produce Poco’s A Good Feelin’ to Know album. Mason stayed to produce gold and platinum recordings for Firefall, and albums for Chris Hillman, Richie Furay and a diverse range of Colorado acts such as Woody & the Too High Band, Chris Daniels and Jim Salestrom. Mason’s career awarded him the opportunity to work in Abbey Road Studios in London. From 1989 to 1998 he was a music business instructor at the Colorado Institute of Art, University of Colorado-Denver and Swallow Hill Music Association.
Lighting out from hte supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the 1970s, Stephen Stills found his muse – and inspired musicians – in Colorado.
Stills posed outside his cabin near Gold Hill in Boulder County for the cover photo of his first solo album. It was September 20, 1970, the morning after he received the news of the death of his friend Jimi Hendrix. Stills wrote songs for his second solo album that winter while in Colorado; he named his publishing company after Gold Hill. After watching the Flying Burrito Brothers play the Boulder nightspot Tulagi, Stills posited that Chris Hillman, then the Burritos’ lead singer and driving force, and guitarist Al Perkins should quit their band and join him.
Stills had been visualizing a group that would bring together rock, folk, Latin, country and blues. He also retained several members of his touring band—Dallas Taylor on drums, bass player Fuzzy Samuels, keyboardist Paul Harris and percussionist named Joe Lala. When the Stills-Burritos amalgam—dubbed Manassas— congregated in the studio, something clicked. The 1972 debut double-LP Manassas, featuring the singles “It Doesn’t Matter” and “Rock & Roll Crazies,” peaked at #4 on the charts. On stage, Manassas gained fame for its nearly three-hour shows with an opening rock set, followed by Stills playing solo acoustic, Hillman and Perkins playing bluegrass, and the band then returning for country, more rock and an acoustic finish. After touring, Hillman took several weeks away to record a reunion album with the Byrds, his pre-Burritos band. Manassas then regrouped.
A second album, Down the Road, was completed at James William Guercio’s Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado. It peaked at #26 on the Billboard charts, and “Isn’t It About Time” reached #56 on the singles charts. Hillman made a future commitment to the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band (which would include Perkins, Harris and Lala), and Stills regrouped with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for sessions that were ultimately aborted. When Stills reassembled Manassas, he hired bassist Kenny Passarelli of Joe Walsh’s Colorado-based band Barnstorm
Following the last shows of its late fall 1973 tour, Manassas announced its breakup. Stills spent a few years working with Donnie Dacus, a guitarist who played an integral role in the making of Stills’ next two albums. Many recording sessions for Stills and Illegal Stills took place at Caribou Ranch.
An original member of the Byrds, left with Gram Parsons to develop acoustic country sounds in the Flying Burrito Brothers. The group had undergone many personnel changes when Stephen Stills oered him a partnership in the formation of Manassas. Moving to Colorado, Hillman co-wrote songs and contributed vocals and instrumental versatility. When Manassas broke up, Hillman produced his Burrito bandmate Rick Roberts’ second solo album, She Is a Song. He then joined forces with J.D. Souther and Richie Furay in the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band; the group recorded two albums and toured nationally before splitting up in 1975.
Back in Colorado, Hillman prepared his first solo album, Slippin’ Away, which reached #152 on the charts. He then produced the demos that led to Roberts’ band Firefall landing a recording contract; he also manned the board for former Dusty Drapes & the Dusters member Dan McCorison’s self-titled solo album.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
A move to Colorado triggered The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s rise in both commercial and creative stature.
Coming out of the fluid California scene of the late 1960s, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band hit upon a unique Americana style. The thread of Je Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson’s acoustic guitars and brother-like harmonies, John McEuen’s string wizardry, Jimmie Fadden’s utilitarian prowess, and Les Thompson’s mandolin rounded out the sound. At shows at Denver’s Marvelous Marv’s nightclub in early 1970, the band played to enthusiastic crowds.
In 1971, the band left Los Angeles to relocate in the Colorado mountains, the members settling into their respective wooded communities. Success arrived with their fifth album, Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy; Hanna’s take of Jerry Je Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” made the Top 10 pop charts. The new Colorado residents went to see traditional country music icons Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson perform at Tulagi in Boulder on consecutive weeks. They both consented to take part in recording a selection of traditional country numbers, with the band allowing the spotlight to fall on the old masters who had greatly influenced them. The resulting album, Will the Circle be Unbroken—an unprecedented, groundbreaking three-LP set, recorded two-track life, with no mixing or overdubs— elicited appreciation from both rock and country listeners. It even earned a gold album, the first for Scruggs, Watson, Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Roy Acu, and others. The circle was ultimately inducted into the Library of Congress as “one of America’s most important recordings.”
In 1977, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band became the first American group selected by the Soviet government to tour the USSR. The band spent a month in Russia, Armenia, Georgia, and Latvia playing to sold-out audiences, with an estimated 145 million people tuning in to the group’s one-hour performance on Moscow Television. The following years saw members come and go. Bob Carpenter, based in Aspen with the band Starwood, became an invaluable addition on keyboards and vocals. The back-to-back hits “Make a Little Magic” and “An American Dream” with Linda Ronstadt was released under the name the Dirt Band.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was recast as a country act, eventually scoring 17 consecutive Top 10 country songs. “Colorado Christmas,” recorded in 1983, has remained a radio staple around the holidays. In 1986, a 20-year anniversary concert at McNichols Arena in Denver was a sell-out, with guests such as Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, John Prine and others. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band continues to record and tour, and Hanna, Fadden, Carpenter and McEuen will celebrate “50 Years of Dirt” in 2016.
Steve Martin learned the banjo with help from high school friend John McEuen, and the instrument became a staple of the young comic’s stand-up career. Martin performed at Tulagi in Boulder and Ebbets Field in Denver, and then discovered the charms of Aspen and rented a home. By 1978, the Colorado transplant had earned the level of commercial success reserved for rock stars. The second side of his comedy album A Wild and Crazy Guy was recorded at Red Rocks Amphitheatre; it reached #2 on the Billboard pop albums chart, was certified double platinum and won a Grammy. A Wild and Crazy Guy contained the novelty single “King Tut,” performed by Martin and the Toot Uncommons, actually Je Hanna and others from the Nitty Gritty
Dirt Band camp. Produced by William McEuen at his Aspen Recording Society
studio, “King Tut” sold over a million copies.