Poco’s Rusty Young, RIP: A Bandmate Offers an Appreciation of a Hero Turned Friend… and Last Words About Tuning

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Courtesy Michael J. Media Group

Poco’s co-founder and longtime frontman, Rusty Young, died Wednesday night. (Read Variety‘s obituary here.) He had no more fervent acolyte than Tom Hampton, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter who has been a session player and touring musician with the Marshall Tucker Band and other groups, and who had officially joined Poco last year after sitting in with the group for a number of dates. Hampton shares his memories of his hero turned friend turned bandmate, whom he’d expected to go out on tour with in a matter of days.

Whoever said that you should never meet your heroes never met Rusty Young.

I became aware of Rusty in my teenage years as the maverick pedal steel virtuoso in Poco, a band already on their way to becoming one of my favorites at age 15. It was a time when it was still common to become aware of a band in the middle of its trajectory – to have the now-largely extinct experience of going back and discovering an artist’s older works, tracing the path from their own origins up to the point you had boarded the bandwagon. By the time I’d gotten on board, Poco had morphed from their origins as the midwives of Country Rock into a more mainstream sound, and I went on the adventure of going back through their catalog and discovering that they were there — in the room where it happened — when my personal favorite musical movement was conceived.

These were still my formative years; I’d started out as a drummer and had only just begun to pick up the guitar and learn other people’s songs. My kid brother and I shared a room, and he asked for a stereo for Christmas – his only demand being that it have both a cassette deck AND an 8-track player. I went to buy my first 8-track tapes and found copies of both “Legend” and “Indian Summer,” and bought them both. I’d put them in and let them cycle on repeat while I slept, further engraining those songs and that sound into my musical DNA. To say I was a fan was something of an understatement. But in those days, the thought of actually meeting any of the guys in the band felt as unlikely as the notion of being knighted by the Queen of England.

I continued buying up the entire back catalog whenever I’d find a copy of something I didn’t have, and that pursuit became a lot easier when I left home and set out into the world. I bought a Tascam 4-track recorder at 18 and one of the first songs I recorded on it was a cover of JJ Cale’s “Magnolia,” which I only knew to be a Poco song in those days, since my cassette copy of “Crazy Eyes” didn’t have liner notes. My musical aspirations had taken over every ounce of ambition I possessed; I honed in on songwriting, started playing live shows as a one-man act, and recorded my first release in 1991, which featured a cover of Rusty’s song “Made of Stone” (from the “Under the Gun” album).

After having made that record, I actually got an opportunity to meet Rusty and Paul Cotton not long afterward. I sheepishly handed Rusty a cassette copy of the album after the show and said, “If I’d thought there was a chance in hell you’d ever be hearing this, I’d probably still be working on it.” He was kind and gracious, and signed the copy of “Legend” I’d brought with me for an autograph with “Tom – it’s great to meet you! Keep on pickin’!

It was a four-hour drive from that show in Pittsburgh back to Reading, PA, where I lived. The sun was up when I got home, but I was still wide awake. That was over 30 years ago. I’ve known Rusty for well over half my life.

There are a hundred more stories from the years since, as Rusty morphed from a hero to an acquaintance to a friend to a peer and, eventually, to a bandmate. Time passed and we exchanged phone numbers, occasional Christmas cards, and played together on the same bill many, many times… and he always had a kind word, always had time to talk shop.

There was a show at Sellersville Theater a decade ago that I played with Tracy Grammer, opening for the band… when Rusty made a point of remarking about how much my playing had been improving, my phrasing and intonation. He didn’t have to say that, and he wasn’t exactly known for bullshitting people or handing out compliments for the sake of flattery. As such, kind words from Rusty went a long way.

The one that will stick with me was our show in Modesto, CA last year: I was in my room, using my phone to record a video playing mandolin and singing a John Moreland song when there was a knock on the door. Apparently we were next door neighbors in the hotel and Rusty came over with his acoustic to sit down and play a bit, with an eye on working out a specific part for “Rose of Cimarron” for the show. As he left, he was effusive about what a great job I’d been doing — how the vocal blend was the best it had been in a long time, how well everything seemed to fit musically…

That kind of praise is inspiring. Words like those become fuel… and that kind of fuel burns a long, long time. Thankfully, because my phone was still recording, I have the whole exchange as a keepsake. It made me want to be a better player, to be deserving of that kind of praise from someone who’d been a big part of the reason I chose this path in the first place.

Wednesday night, he texted the band to let us know that a planned event was being postponed from May until the fall… I quipped that “by then, maybe I’d have figured out those 9 mysterious notes in ‘You Better Think Twice that had been eluding me…

He texted back: “I can show you that! G tuning!

I replied with a video of myself playing the lick that I’d figured out with a note about the part that I hadn’t gotten the hang of yet…and I figured that we’d circle back and run through it when we started rehearsals in a few weeks.

Jack called me unusually early Thursday morning. We were planning to get together tomorrow for another vocal run-through, and I thought that maybe something had come up with regard to timing or something of that nature… but I answered the phone and he simply said “Rusty died.”

I told him I was gonna need a minute to process this. I got out of bed and stumbled into the shower, as I had a full plate at work. I guess I figured that if I pretended I hadn’t heard, maybe I’d wake up for real and none of it would be true.

I got in the car to head to the office and “Rose of Cimmaron” started playing when I turned on the ignition. I immediately turned it off and drove to work in silence… with Rusty’s pedal steel guitar gently shifting about in the back of my car, having just been picked up from the shop the day before.

The loss is compounded by knowing how much he was looking forward to taking this version of Poco back out into the world. He seemed re-energized in a way that seemed to have been missing for some time, and I’m not the only one who noticed it. And while Rusty’s passing wasn’t COVID-related, it can certainly be said that the pandemic robbed us all of what could’ve been if we’d been able to see this phase of the band to fruition.

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Poco in concert in 2020 (with Tom Hampton, left, and Rusty Young) Courtesy Tom Hampton

I suppose that writing this remembrance is an effort on my part to make it real to myself, to try to accept the fact that this has happened, that my friend and bandmate is actually gone, that it’s not something I’m going to wake up from like so many bizarre COVID fever dreams from this past year.

It’s not really working.

I’m not really ready to say goodbye to him.

So for now, I’m just going to say thank you. Thanks for everything you did — whether consciously or otherwise — to help me make my way down this trail.

See you on the other side, cowboy.