Pure Prairie League “Pure Prairie League”

After spending the sixties ruthlessly disparaging country music, I experienced a Damascene conversion on catching the Eagles’ groundbreaking 1972 appearance on BBC TV’s Old Grey Whistle Test. Country rock, its reluctant antecedents and its bastard children became, and have remained, my favourite musical genre ever since, taking in everything from the Carter Family to the Drive-By Truckers. Yet the first I knew of Pure Prairie League was when I found out that Vince Gill had come to prominence with an early-eighties version of the band. PPL’s story is one of a couple of early near-misses at commercial success, followed by a long history as cult favourites with a small but faithful following, a bewildering sequence of line-up changes and periods of non-existence. After incarnations during which it contained not even one original member, the band prevails to this day, centred round prodigal returnee, founder Craig Fuller.

Originally coming out of the unpromising country-rock territory of Columbus, Ohio, the first stable line-up was led by principal singers and writers, lead guitarist Fuller and acoustic guitarist George Powell, and produced a sound not a million miles from the definitive LA country rock style of early Poco. The addition of pedal steelist John David Call strengthened the resemblance still further, but also allowed Fuller and Call to trade licks in a highly personal conversational style harking back to Western Swing. Their eponymous debut album appeared on RCA in March 1972, but after just one short national tour promoting it Fuller received draft papers and felt obliged to relocate rapidly to Toronto. The band promptly split, leaving the album largely unheard, and it disappeared without troubling the charts. This was a shame, because PPL could certainly have been as big as their Californian contemporaries: they had a memorable name (borrowed from the fictitious ladies’ temperance organisation in the Errol Flynn Western Dodge City), a distinctive image (reinforced by their logo featuring the Norman Rockwell cartoon cowboy character “Luke”) and undeniable chops as writers, singers and players. Moderate commercial success did come with the second album Bustin’ Out, recorded in October 1972 by just Fuller and Powell with session musicians and friends, but not until its re-release more than two years afterwards on the back of a hard-earned new popularity resulting from the reformed band’s gruelling touring. RCA did re-sign them and released a series of further albums throughout the seventies, but these generally failed to light up the record store tills.

Notwithstanding this, all of PPL’s recorded legacy is, perhaps surprisingly, still in print. The sophomore Bustin’ Out is a more mature album offering a more varied, more rock-oriented menu as befits its shifting personnel, plus the novelty of string arrangements by Bowie sidekick Mick Ronson. Personally, however, I prefer the inexplicably unappreciated debut’s softer, warmer, more countrified sound, with its ubiquitous lush harmonies and pedal steel licks and the occasional “blue” chord. The instrumental break in the gently swinging “Take It Before You Go” forefronts the interplay between Fuller’s squealing six-string and Call’s sinuous steel, while “Woman” is a magnificent guitar-driven song with power-pop overtones, and the closing “It’s All On Me” highlights Powell’s elegant fingerstyling and recalls the Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare” period. Available at the time of writing are an Acadia twofer comprising the first two albums complete and a Camden anthology which includes most of the debut, all of the follow-up and selected later cuts. Admirers of the Eagles, Poco, the Dirt Band, the New Riders, etc., should apply; they won’t be disappointed.

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“Take It Before You Go”

:) Orig Vinyl | 1972 | RCA Victor | search ebay ]

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  • Ogie

    Nicely done…a fave of mine since they’d first hit the scene, I too was resistant to country music, until I found the interactions and playful riffing so entertaining. Eagles, Poco…all good, but another band that fell through the cracks was Capricorn Records own COWBOY featuring Scott Boyer and Tommy Taltin. They released two albums, Reach for the Sky and 5’ll Getcha Ten, and then promptly fell off the map….UNTIL, the release of the Duane Allman Anthology where one of their songs, “Please Be With Me” was presented with Duane on Dobro. Capricorn then re-released both albums as a double L.P. called (appropriately enough) Why Quit When You’re Losing? Excellent country material with the vocal and lyrical quality found on PPL and Poco’s releases. Capricorn then signed Boyer and Talton to do some more Cowboy albums, none of which experienced any success other than to those who were already converted.

    Thanks again for the great albums!


  • Dan

    Holy crap. Why is this the first I’m hearing of these guys? Fantastic.

    Thanks for the nod!

  • Meir

    I prefer the first album to “Bustin’ Out”, even though the latter is considered a bona fide country rock classic and cornerstone.

    I think ‘Bustin'”signalled a real move to smoother production and easy listening values.

    And then of course there are the 2 offshoot American Flyer albums…

  • Tom

    Great post, great band.This release started it all for PPL and is still widely sought by country rock fans, it’s a gem.

    Here’s some more PPL info, to expand on their legacy.Hopefully you find it interesting.

    They were one of the earliest in the country rock game, forming in 1969.

    John David Call and Craig Fuller were friends in the same town, played what many would call country rock years before PPL began.They appeared in HS bands together, life long friends. Many times it’s been said that Call was “added” to the lineup, but John played with PPL at New Dilly’s in Mt Adams (pre-contract) , Mr Christians before that gig. John was in the lineup at the outdoor show in Cleveland where RCA showed up and signed them. He was also on the demo tape sent to RCA prior RCA seeing them. He was very much a part of PPL before their debut LP and was enormously influential in how their sound was developed.

    Call is still cited today as a major influence by steelers. He appeared on 5 of the first 6 LP’s, then again on Mementos in the mid 80’s. He was recognized back then as a pioneer of pedal steel from the moment the debut was released. A great steeler, they don’t make them any better, he’s been praised by some of the biggest names in country music.Craig and John cited The Byrds and Beatles as major influences, along with some folk singers.

    PPL and The Eagles were the two country rock bands most responsible for taking country rock into the national music mainstream.And as we know The Eagles turned to rock, but PPL continued on with their sound, playing about 200-250 shows a year right into the 80’s.

    PPL had tremendous critical and fan acclaim through the 70’s and 80’s. Their first two Lp’s, Two Lane Highway, Live! Takin’ The Stage and Firin’ Up have all been cited by various sources as some of the greatest country rock ever made. PPL’s first two releases have been hailed as “as good or better than anything be The Eagles.” Bustin’ Out is considered by many to be the most influential of the genre, “one of the artistic high points in country rock history”, “unequaled in country rock”.That release is platinum, maybe multiplatinum by now, and Two Lane Highway gold. TLH, 1975, was hailed by Roling Stone as ” a worthy companion to The Byrds Sweetheart of The Rodeo and other gems of the genre.” The Live LP in 1977 was called “one of the greatest live recordings made” by the RIAA. Firin’ Up (with a then unknown Vince Gill) has been praised.” There’s not a bad track on Firin’ Up, an album that’s a fine example of adult contemporary, rock, and country formats all merging in the 1980s. More of a classic than it’s been given credit for.”and “this is the most significant album by the group since their second, Bustin’ Out.”

    Obviously the band had a large and strong fan base in the 70’s up until they retired at the end of 1988. That’s the reason every single PPL release has at some point been reissued on CD.

    PPL had 5 straight releases that landed in Top 40 Billboard charts in the 70’s, a feat unmatched by anyone in country rock. They addd a 6th, Firin’ Up in 1980. Again,only PPL has 6.They were the band that truly married country music and rock, the basic premise of country rock, by cracking the Top 40 Country Charts twice, with Dance and Live ! Takin’ The Stage.

    PPL has been cited by many as extremly influential. Many groups claim to be an influence but PPL’s work has been recorded and /or performed and hailed by many of the biggest names in the business: Travis Tritt. Lonestar, Mick Ronson,Randy Scruggs, Patty Loveless, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Toby Keith, Keith Urban,Garth Brooks ( “I’m the world’s biggest Craig Fuller fan”),Dolly Parton and many many more.

    Today, PPL’s music appears on over 100 compilations.

    Vince Gill and the man who succeeded him in PPL, Gary Burr, were both inducted into The Nashville songwriters Hall of Fame on the same day.Gill became one of the biggest names to ever hit the country scene.Burr has written with the biggest names in business including Ringo.

    Fuller went on to form American Flyer, two LP’s with them, then did a release with bandmate Eric Kaz, The Fuller-Kaz Band.In the mid 80’s he returend to PPL, did Mementos, then left in the latter part of the 80’s to join Little Feat. No audition was requires as Barrere and the guys knew him from 1978 when Fuller-Kaz (along with John Call who Craig grabbed for the tour) opened for Feat. Feat brought Craig and John out each night to do a song or two with them. Craig started writing a few tunes with them back then of which at least one ended up on Let It Roll. Fuller added another gold LP to his collection as Feats first release Let It Roll, with Fuller doing the larger portion of singing and songwriting went gold.It is Feat’s largest selling studio LP to date. He did two more critically acclaimed LP’s with Feat before departing in the early 90’s for family reasons.He’s recognized today as a major talent and influence.

    Incredibly PPL came back. From 1998-99 they did a few shows. From 2004 until present they have been doing about 30-40 shows a year, all over the country and have done extremly well. In the last weeks of 2005 they released All In Good Time which featured CRaig Fuller and Mike REilly who joined during their 2nd LP and never left. Original steeler John David Call has also returned to the fold the past two years and the band has received huge acclaim. All In Good Time garnered the same critical acclaim PPL’s past releases did. Goldmine Magazine called it “an unlikely but potent candidate for CD of the year.” Numerous other magazines hailed it as a CD as classic.

    If they ever consider country rock artists for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (they won’t !! ) PPL belongs there. It’s unmatched critical and commercial success in country rock, it’s far reaching influence, the impact various band members have had on the music scene, it’s ability to take a genre national when large market radio stations wouldn’t promote it, all make PPL one very special band, one that still stands the test of time.

    Nice to see you here, all the best,
    Tom Sheridan

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