Pure Prairie League
Pure Prairie League
When Pure Prairie League formed in the late 1960s, no one had put a label on the music they played. Although the band drew heavily from 1960s' rock, the group added a heavy dose of country and high-flying harmony that gave it a unique sound soon to be known as country-rock. Pure Prairie League, along with groups like the Eagles, reached mainstream radio listeners by the mid-1970s, as singles like "Amie" climbed the Billboard charts. This success, however, obscured the band's early accomplishments and the rocky road it had faced attempting to establish a new style of music. In spite of numerous fluctuations in personnel, record label changes, and legal problems, Pure Prairie League continued to record, tour, and place singles on the charts.
Singer-guitarist Craig Fuller, singer-guitarist George Powell, bassist Jim Lanham, and drummer Tom McGrail formed Pure Prairie League in 1969 in Columbus, Ohio. McGrail borrowed the band's name from a women's temperance league depicted in Errol Flynn's 1939 movie Dodge City. Over the next year the group established itself in Ohio, developing a strong following in Cincinnati and winning a contract with RCA in 1970. The band added steel player John David Call before its first recording session, and replaced McGrail with Jim Caughlin. Pure Prairie League was released in March of 1972, and while critics retrospectively considered it one of the group's better albums, it sold poorly. In the wake of the album's failure the band fragmented, with Lanham, Caughlin, and Call departing.
Remaining members Fuller and Powell quickly reformed, recruiting drummer Billy Hinds, keyboard player Michael Connor, and bassist Michael Reilly. They also recruited Mick Ronson, an associate of David Bowie's, to play guitar and arrange strings on the band's sophomore effort. "The songwriting team of Craig Fuller and George Powell was one of the finest in the business," wrote Richard Foss in All Music Guide, "and on Bustin' Out they made an album that is unequalled in country-rock." Despite critical response, bad luck plagued Pure Prairie League, and when their second release failed to reach the charts, RCA dropped the group. To further complicate matters, Fuller, who had avoided the draft by registering as a conscientious objector, became embroiled in legal difficulties. Although then-President Ford would eventually pardon him, Fuller was forced to leave the band in order to perform two years of community service in a hospital in Kentucky. Larry Goshorn replaced him and John David Call rejoined the group.
Although Pure Prairie League seemed to be falling apart and remained without a record label, the group continued to tour in the Midwest. Their efforts paid off in 1974, when radio stations began to play "Amie" from Bustin' Out, leading RCA to reissue the album and re-sign the band. In 1975, nearly two-and-a-half years after its release, Bustin' Out reached the top 40, eventually earning a gold record, and "Amie" became a top 30 hit. "FM radio automatically soaked up the single, as did the country stations," recalled Mike DeGagne in All Music Guide, "and 'Amie' soon became one of the decade's most popular country-rock tunes."
Pure Prairie League soldiered on without Fuller and released its third studio album, Two Lane Highway, in the spring of 1975. The recording featured guest appearances by Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, and fiddler Johnny Gimble. Two Lane Highway reached number 24 on Billboard 's album chart, the highest charting album in the band's history, and the title track became a minor hit. If the Shoe Fits followed in 1976, producing another minor hit with a version of Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day," which, surprisingly, reached the country charts. This unexpected crossover between the pop and country charts continued with Pure Prairie League's next two albums, Dance and Live!! Takin' the Stage, with both reaching the country and the pop charts in 1977.
In 1977 and 1978 the group's popularity diminished, and once again the band began to fragment. Call left after the release of Live!! Takin' the Stage and was replaced by Larry Goshorn's brother, Tim. Following Just Fly, the group's seventh album, George Powell quit to spend time with his family, while both Goshorn brothers departed. Hinds, Conner, and Reilly, none of whom were original members, were left manning the ship and, since none of them were lead singers, the group was forced to chose a new front man in order to continue.
The three friends held auditions and finally settled on guitarist-singer Vince Gill. Gill had started off playing bluegrass in the 1970s while he was still in school, and his band Mountain Smoke had opened for Pure Prairie League. Steve Huey wrote in All Music Guide, "In 1979, [Gill] accompanied a friend to audition for Pure Prairie League, mostly out of curiosity as to whether they remembered his high-school band, and they wound up hiring him." The band also hired reed player Patrick Bolin, and then returned to the studio to record Can't Hold Back.
Poor sales, however, led the band to jump from RCA to Casablanca, a label more noted for disco than country-rock. After replacing Bolin with Jeff Wilson, the band recorded Firin' Up and released the single "Let Me Love You Tonight." The single reached the top ten, and for the next two years the band was as popular as ever, charting with "I'm Almost Ready," "I Can't Stop Feelin'," and "You're Mine Tonight." Once again, however, Pure Prairie League's good luck was short-lived. Following the release of Something In the Night in 1981, Casablanca went bankrupt and Gill left the group to start a solo career.
Despite frequent personnel changes and unfortunate luck over the course of its career, Pure Prairie League managed to keep on when many bands would have unplugged their amplifiers and gone home. The band's earliest albums, Pure Prairie League and Bustin' Out, were trendsetters in their time and remain country-rock classics today. "Amie" remains a perennial favorite on Oldies radio. Pure Prairie League also continued to tour during the 1980s and 1990s, often joined by previous members such as Craig Fuller and Michael Connor.
Pure Prairie League, RCA, 1972.
Bustin' Out, RCA, 1972.
Two Lane Highway, RCA, 1975.
If the Shoe Fits, RCA, 1976.
Live!! Takin' the Stage, RCA, 1977.
Just Fly, RCA, 1978.
Can't Hold Back, RCA, 1979.
Firin' Up, Casablanca, 1980.
For the Record …
Members include John David Call (left group, 1975), steel guitar; Jim Caughlan (left group, 1972), drums; Michael Connor (joined group, 1972), keyboards; Vince Gill (group member, 1978-1981), guitar, vocals; Craig Fuller (left group, 1975), guitar, vocals; Larry Goshorn (group member, 1975-1977), guitar; Tim Goshorn (group member, 1975-1977); Billy Hinds (joined group, 1972), drums; Jim Lanham (left group, 1972), bass, vocals; George Powell (left group, 1977), guitar, vocals; Michael Reilly (joined group, 1972), bass, vocals.
Group formed in Columbus, OH, 1969; signed with RCA Records, early 1970s; released self-titled debut, 1972; charted with "Amie," 1975; re-formed with singer-guitarist Vince Gill, 1978; signed to Casablanca, late 1970s; reached number one on the Country chart with "Let Me Love You Tonight," 1980, and number four on the adult contemporary chart with "Still Right Here in My Heart," 1981.
Addresses: Record company—RCA Music Group, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036, website: http://www.rcarecords.com.
Something in the Night, Casablanca, 1981.
Marsh, Dave, and John Swenson, editors, Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1979.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martin's, 1983.
"Pure Prairie League," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 2, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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