Poco's Steel Guitarist Stretching Out
by Jim Crockett
"I'll do whatever it takes to make the pedal steel popular, to show people that it can fit into everything, that it's not just for Hawaiian music." So states Rusty Young of Poco, the man who uses Cry Baby wah, some fuzz, will bar with an aluminum kitchen chair, is experimenting with playing through a ring modulator, will triple-dub on record to lose-the traditional steel sound, is using a new bar to obtain a sitar-like feeling, will play through a Leslie for organ effects, and will turn to an electric dobro with humbuckers and a wah pedal.
Always on the lookout for new applications of the pedal steel, Rusty has used and discarded more gimmicks than most players see in a lifetime. Though he's only 26 years old, he has 19 years of steel experience and has worked professionally since he was 14. "All the gadgets," he says, "are just ways of trying to get people to see that the instrument has so many more uses than they think. We're only beginning to discover the pedal steel's real potential."
Rusty is the first to say that gimmicks aren't substitutes for technique. "You don't need all that, you don't need 15 pedals and 85 knee levers. I've seen Buddy Emmons sit down with just two pedals and'play more than guys with all the equipment in the world." Because they came from the pre-pedal era, Rusty feels, players like Emmons were deeply into technique, so that when Buddy converted to pedal steel there wasn't anything he couldn't do. "Gimmicks don't make the difference between the pro and the non-pro," Young says, "technique does."
In this respect, who does Rusty consider "pro" and who "non-pro9" He feels, "The professionals are guys like Jay Dee Maness, Ralph Mooney, Buddy, Lloyd Green, Hal Rugg, Pete Drake, people like that. The non-professionals are players like me, who can do some good things, but aren't really in the class with Buddy and the pros. Jerry Garcia is a non-professional, so is Sneaky Pete, Red Rhodes. Like, Red doesn't have the hands and feet of Emmons. He's awkward, but he still plays some nice stuff. They all do."
Rusty began with a lap steel when he was seven. "At that time," he recalls, "the teachers in Denver liked to start beginning guitarists with it, and then move them to standard guitar. This way they could sell the kids' folks two guitars." But Rusty decided to stick with steel, but with the result that when his friends were into surfing music in '64, the 16-year old was still saddled with an instrument that everyone thought was only good for country music. But country sounds came natural to Rusty since his parents loved C&W music, and used to take their young son with them when they went "honkytonkin'". "They'd sit me up on the bar, give me an orange soda and let me watch the country bands all night," he says.
Rusty played lap steel until 1960, then bought one of Denver's first pedals, a Fender 1000 doubleneck. Then, by 14, he was working the hillbilly taverns in towns like Cheyenne for $5-15 a night. "One time, I remember, during the Frontier Days I hit my peak - $20." By his senior year in high school, Rusty Young had abandoned hopes for a scientific career in favor of music, and was working six nights a week after school in clubs.
Even when he enrolled in Colorado University, his schedule remained unchanged: Classes until two, giving lessons until late evening, playing in a bar until the early morning. Fortunately for his physical and academic wellbeing, Poco came up at the end of his second year of college.
A close friend who doubled as equipment manager for both the Turtles and Buffalo Springfield had been trying to find a band that Rusty's pedal steel could fit in with. In 1968 he let the guitarist know about a Springfield record session and an audition with the International Submarine Band (later the Burrito Brothers) in California, so Rusty packed up and headed west.
He did the steel track on "Kind Woman" for Springfield's Last Time Around album, and went over so well that Jim Messina and Richie Furay, who were splitting from the band, asked Rusty to join the new country-rock group they were forming. That agreed, the trio began searching for drummers. After many months and many a disappointment, Rusty recalled a Denver friend, George Grantham. "George had been out looking for a straight job," Rusty remembers, "so when he showed up in penny loafers and short hair, Richie and Jim thought I'd lost my mind. But he played just the kind of drums we needed and could sing. He was perfect."
The steel guitar would be good for unusual sounds, but just wasn't a strong enough lead instrument. Richie only played rhythm then, and Messina was playing bass. Another Denver friend, Randy Meisner (now with Eagles) came to the rescue and played bass so Jim Messina could move to lead.
When Messina later left the band, Richie turned to lead.Six months of rehearsals came to a head when the band, now known as Poco, played a half-hour Monday night audition at Los Angeles' Troubador at the end of '68. From that came their first gig, playing there second-billed to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for $500 a week. Five record companies came calling as a result of the appearance. Atlantic Records had been fronting some studio time, but when Poco signed with Columbia the band had to re-pay Atlantic. "We were all so new," Rusty says, "that we didn't know when we were getting burned. We signed for 12 albums in four years, which is way too many. We had to get a lawyer so we could at least reduce it to nine."
The Fender 1000 double neck was Rusty's first pedal steel. He played it until 1964 when he made an endorsement arrangement with ZB which lasted until early in 1972 when he switched to Sho-Bud. The change from ZB shocked Rusty's fans, and probably even the ZB people. "I went to Sho-Bud," he explains, "because ZB hadn't changed or, improved. Tom Brumley was the president for a while, but he was a musician and couldn't get into the business part of it. The new owners are interested in steel, but are carpet business people, and care primarily about things like costs and such. They'd try to cut corners by using the cheapest keys and things. The strings were hard to get to when they needed changing, and here I was one of their endorsers but they wouldn't listen to me when I offered suggestions on things like that. And because I travelled, all over the world, my instrument would get beat up, but the people couldn't understand it, and they'd hassle me all the time about it."
A Denver friend, Don Edwards, runs Guitar City there, and turned Rusty on to a Sho-Bud Professional. "Don is like my mentor," the guitarist says, "and when he said he'd found a model I might like I went right in and tried it. It has Grover keys, the best pedal changer system I've played, and I can change tuning in an hour instead of having to send away for parts."
Rusty has always used Fender Twins for amps, and puts in Lansing speakers because he likes their sound with the Fender reverb. "And I prefer tubes, too, because the sound doesn't decay as fast as with transistors. I used to modify the Twins to have twice the power with Altec speakers, but that was just too strong for our sound, so I went back to new Twins, which are just as good as the old ones." Rusty's love for tubes, though he admits it's all personal preference, reaches fanatic proportions. "Tubes are very important to the sound," he claims, "as important as the speakers. We prefer RCA's, and like to find perfectly matched ones, so will try out a whole bunch until we'll find two that are as identical as possible."
In addition to the Twins, Rusty plays through a Leslie, beefed up with heavy 15" speakers, and powered by a Fender Showman top. Poco carries its own sound company on. the road to control all of this. The band prefers to play with the minimum amount of amps, going through the PA system instead. "The PA man can better balance the sound," Rusty feels, " "and a wall of amps just fight him. He can make the sound as loud as necessary, while we can hear ourselves better on stage. A mess of six-foot amps really isn't necessary. They're just for show."
National fingerpicks and a Dobro medium thumb pick are his favorites, and he uses Don Edwards Custom Strings on the Sho-Bud. This man who loves any new gadget that will enable him to play better, is most proud of another Edwards innovation, a light beam volume pedal. "I used to use a Bigsby," he says, "but this one is quieter and has a more even sound. A volume pedal has to be accurate and fast. The Edwards one works on a photo cell, so there's no pot to wear out. And if it breaks down on the road, all I have to do is go to any gas station and buy a simple light bulb." For the wah-wah effect, Rusty likes the Cry Baby, "because the bass and treble are so well balanced at the same level."
Equipment, as might be suspected, plays a major role in Rusty, Young's music. "Every piece is important, because I depend on, everything being exactly the same each night. Our equipment manager is really great this way. I know the strings are always right, the picks and bar are there and I'm the same exact number of inches from my amp."
Rusty's tuning (see "Suite Steel" article in Sept. GP) is basically standard. The C6th neck (based on chords) is his favorite and is used for the swing and semi-jazz things. It goes through the Leslie. The'E Chromatic neck (based on intervals) is mostly for country. "Using what people call a `universal' type tuning doesn't make sense to me," Rusty claims, "because any tuning that is both, loses a little of each. The C6th and the E Chromatic are each different and for different styles. A real pro can play both of them well."
For a couple of years, Rusty has been developing a pedal steel method book, but as yet no publisher has taken him up on it. "They either want to promote the name `Poco,' or want to change the book around. I think I know what a lot of the younger steel players want in a book, so I'm not about to change things because some editor who never played steel will like it."
The book was the logical outgrowth of Rusty's years of teaching, his experience, and his realization of the lack of many steel methods. He believes in his book as, much as he believes in his music, so it will eventually find the kind of publisher Rusty wants. Eventually.
"I learned to play," he says, "by copying licks over and over from every steel record I could find until I could understand the principle of solos, then I started making up my own licks. And I'd go see every steel player who came through Denver. They'd talk to me, show me things and ask me to play a little so they could give me a tip or two. It was all great learning experience, but I think any young player needs a teacher most of all: The best equipment, all the steel records he can find, and a good teacher. When I was 15-16 I idolized Ralph Mooney. He was with Buck Owens then. I memorized every one of his albums. That's a good way to start."
Rusty realizes that his dream of the pedal steel being an established instrument is a long way off. "Even in Poco, it's just a gimmick. It's there for style, it's the sweetening. Without it, everything would sound alike. In the beginning, Poco was more of a country band, but for commercial reasons we've gone more rock. But the steel is important to Poco. If it weren't, I'd leave."
The Tip Jug
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