Pickin' Up the Pieces

Richie Furay found something unexpected on his way to country-rock stardom: salvation.

The final chords of "You Are My King" soon give way to worship leader Sellen, who again launches into a prayer. "As we prepare to hear what You have for us in your word," he says, "we ask you to anoint Pastor Richie as he teaches us here today..."

Pastor Richie listens to these words, head bowed, waiting to feel the hand of the Lord on his shoulder.


Praise the Lord, he saw the light: Richie Furay traded the rock-and-roll lifestyle for eternal life.
Praise the Lord, he saw the light: Richie Furay traded the rock-and-roll lifestyle for eternal life.
Richie Furay as he looked in 1969.
Richie Furay as he looked in 1969.

With Buffalo Springfield finished, Furay and Messina, who'd grown close, began mulling over what they should do next. It didn't take them long to decide. "Jimmy had even more of a country influence than people said I did," Furay notes. "And when we put our heads together, we thought, let's incorporate steel guitar, have a lot of vocal harmonies, and work toward a bridge between country and rock."

This idea was in the air in 1968, and Furay's pal Gram Parsons, who died half a decade later, deserves much of the credit. That year, Parsons's group, the International Submarine Band, issued Safe at Home, which dared to place covers associated with the likes of Merle Haggard in a rock context -- and after the Submarine Band fractured, Parsons joined his cherished Byrds long enough to put his imprint on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a platter that became a country-rock signpost.

As these albums circulated among the cognoscenti, Furay and Messina were gathering kindred spirits. They wound up with two Denverites, drummer George Grantham and Rusty Young, whose steel guitar had graced "Kind Woman," plus bassist Randy Meisner. Their original moniker was Pogo, after the Walt Kelly comic strip, but under the threat of legal action by Kelly, the band replaced the "g" with a "c."

Poco's 1969 bow, Pickin' Up the Pieces, reissued on CD last year, is among the genre's brightest moments. The sense that the players were heading into unexplored territory is palpable, and their innocence and enthusiasm contrast sharply with the smarmy slickness that would taint much of the country rock that came afterward. "It was raw, and it had that raw excitement to it," Furay allows. "We were the house band at the Troubador [in Los Angeles], and we had a great time seeing the people that were getting turned on by the music." One such fan was future Eagle Glenn Frey, who "used to come over to our house when we were rehearsing and watch us work out our vocal harmonies," Furay says. "He took a lot from us" -- including Meisner, as it turned out.

Frey also had a commercial knack that eluded Poco. Pieces wasn't the smash it deserved to be, and management problems nearly prevented the band from waxing a followup. Furay credits Geffen with straightening out the latter mess, but he wasn't able to fix every disaster. "Poco was asked to play Woodstock, but our manager said, 'No, I've got a better gig for you,'" recalls an incredulous Furay. "And since I can't even remember the other gig, you can guess how much better it must have been."

Even so, Poco was able to keep recording despite personnel changes -- Messina was replaced by Paul Cotton, while Timothy B. Schmidt took over bass duties from Meisner before later flying to the Eagles, too. But Deliverin', a more rock-oriented offering than Pieces, went nowhere, and From the Inside, produced by Steve Cropper, wasn't a good fit. Furay felt more confident about the commercial prospects for A Good Feelin' to Know, but his hopes came crashing down on the way to a show in Connecticut, when he turned on the radio and heard not Poco, but "Take It Easy," by the Eagles. "That's when I thought, 'It's not going to happen for us,'" he says. He stuck around for the making of one more album, Crazy Eyes (it was the band's bestseller until 1978's Legend, for which Furay briefly returned), before taking the advice of Geffen, then the boss at Asylum Records, and joining the Souther Hillman Furay Band, an attempt at creating a country-rock variation on Crosby, Stills and Nash. But its two long-players, Souther Hillman Furay Band and Trouble in Paradise, failed to meet sales expectations -- and worse, Furay was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. "My marriage was falling apart," he says.

He'd married his wife, Nancy, in March 1967, and the relationship had lasted through innumerable tours and an early-'70s separation precipitated by a mistake on his part that he declines to detail, but which sounds an awful lot like infidelity. There was also the little matter of a conflict in beliefs. Nancy had "received Christ in her heart," as Furay puts it, after reading a Hal Lindsey book called Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth that was given to her by Debbie Perkins, wife of Al Perkins, the pedal-steel guitarist in the Souther Hillman Furay Band. Furay, meanwhile, remained unsaved.

Al, who had formerly played with the Flying Burrito Brothers, another country-rock combo founded by Gram Parsons, had been working on changing that. One night after dinner, he'd sat Furay down and played him two tapes of Calvary Chapel pastor Chuck Smith. But Furay resisted further entreaties until one night in July 1974 when, after a rehearsal in Aspen, Al asked if he'd pray with him. Furay's still not sure why he accepted this invitation; perhaps it had something to do with being away from Nancy, who was in their home in the Boulder area, where they'd moved four years earlier because of their growing disgust with Los Angeles. But for whatever reason, he joined Al in prayer -- and before the evening was out, he says, "I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord."

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