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Poco co-founder, guitarist and pedal steel great Rusty Young dies aged 75

Rusty Young performs during an evening with Rusty Young from Poco at The GRAMMY Museum on February 8, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
(Image credit: Timothy Norris/WireImage)

Rusty Young, best known as pedal steel guitarist, guitarist, singer and co-founder of the country-rock band Poco, has died aged 75 after suffering a heart attack at his home in Davisville, Missouri on April 14. His death was confirmed by a spokesperson, Mike Farley, and his Poco bandmate and fellow co-founder Richey Furay, who told Variety:

"I just received word that my friend Rusty Young has passed away and crossed that line into eternity. My heart is saddened; he was a dear and longtime friend who help me pioneer and create a new Southern California musical sound called ‘country rock.’

"He was an innovator on the steel guitar and carried the name Poco on for more than 50 years. Our friendship was real and he will be deeply missed. My prayers are with his wife, Mary, and his children Sara and Will.”

Norman Russell Young was born February 23, 1946, in California, and grew up in Denver, Colorado. He began playing lap steel guitar at the age of six, recalling in an interview:

"They hadn’t invented pedal steel in 1952. It came later in the ‘50s. I began playing a lap steel guitar. Happy Logan’s was the big music store in Denver, Colorado in the ‘50s. They had these big music classes and if you were going to learn to play guitar the first thing, they gave everybody was the lap steel. You took lap steel lessons for six months and then you would move into a standard guitar. I think it was that way just so they could sell you two guitars instead of one.

“I remember sitting in a classroom with thirty other people and playing our weekly lesson from the sheet music. If you did well, they had stars, red, silver and gold. I kept playing the lap steel even when the pedal steel came out. Then the folk era hit, and I learned to play the banjo and I learned to play the mandolin.”

As a teenager, Young taught guitar and pedal steel, and performed in bars playing country and psychedelic rock music. In 1968, he was summoned to LA by Furay, then playing with Buffalo Springfield, who was looking for someone to play steel guitar on the band’s song, Kind Woman, on their final album, Last Time Around. Buffalo Springfield’s road manager knew Young and had him come to the sessions.

“Rusty had to borrow a steel guitar,” Furay recalled to Rolling Stone, “but he put that part on and Jimmy [Messina, producer and bass player on Last Time Around] and I looked at each other and said, ‘There’s our guy.’ ”

Following Buffalo Springfield’s dissolution, Young joined with Furay and Messina to form Poco. The band was rounded out by bassist Randy Meisner and drummer George Grantham, although Meisner, who would later co-found the Eagles, left during the recording of their 1969 debut, Pickin’ Up the Pieces. He was replaced by Timothy B. Schmit, who would eventually join the Eagles as well.

Though Poco never reached the sales heights of bands like the Eagles, they were known for helping to pioneer the same country rock sound, and built a reputation as a crack live act, as exemplified on 1971’s concert document, Deliverin’, which showcased Young’s pedal steel, which he would often run through a Leslie cabinet to achieve a tone similar to a Hammond B3 organ. His sound and style were so dominant that he even appeared on a 1972 cover of Guitar Player magazine.

Poco’s lineup was unstable throughout the decade, with Messina and Furay eventually leaving. After Furay’s departure, Young took on more writing responsibility in addition to his work on pedal steel, guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin and vocals. He wrote two of Poco’s best known songs, 1976’s Rose of Cimarron and 1978’s Crazy Love, the latter of which remains the band’s biggest hit.

Young continued to lead Poco well into the 21st century. Their most recent album was 2013’s All Fired Up, and the same year, Young was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.

Young released a solo album, Waitin’ for the Sun, in 2017, but he continued to tour with Poco as recently as 2020, when the pandemic put a hold on any subsequent live work. He is the only member of the band to have played on every album, and at every show, of Poco’s more than 50-year career.

Young is survived by his wife Mary, their daughter Sara, son Will, and three young grandsons Chandler, Ryan and Graham, as well as Mary’s three children Joe, Marci and Hallie and grandchildren Quentin and Emma.

A memorial service will be held October 16 at Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville, Missouri.

Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.