The prairie landscape has grown up a bit since the 70’s but around the campfire, the sound is still as pure as it was way back when country rock first ruled the radio. The Pure Prairie League rose to fame with the classic hits like “Amie” and “Falling In and Out of Love.” Founding member and bassist Mike Reilly has been along for the ride since the start and he still loves getting out there and doing what he was meant to do.
Reilly and the Pure Prairie League with founder and original steel guitar player John David Call, drummer Scott Thompson, Donnie Lee Clark on lead guitar and vocals joins forces with 70’s` counterparts Firefall and Poco on July 9 at The Florida Theatre. “It’s going to be a fun gig,” he says. “One of the most identifying factors of Pure Prairie League’s music is John Call’s steel guitar playing. It’s a four-piece band. It’s tight and the vocals are great and we get it done.”
As the elder statesmen of country rock, Pure Prairie League originally came together 47 years ago and developed a reputation for its rich harmonies, textured melodies and whiskey-smooth sound most notably recognized on the album “Bustin’ Out” featuring Craig Fuller’s hit single “Amie”. The band continues to influence generations of musicians who have followed the same footsteps down the country rock path.
“The whole country rock thing started around ’68 or ’69 with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash, Poco, Pure Prairie League and other bands that were playing country styled rock. That’s where I think the whole thing came from – guitar players listening to country style music when they were growing up and kind of adopting that style into their rock approach,” says Reilly. “ I actually hate the idea of having to pigeon hole something so everybody can understand what it is. There is a lot more elements out there. There’s jazz and pop music and folk music and some R&B. It’s a lot of different influences inside the music.”
Besides the menagerie of flavors in the music, Reilly says the makings of a good song are in the elements of melody, structure and the heart and soul. “The elements are just elements without the heart and soul. The soul that’s inside the music that brings all those elements together into something cohesive that makes an impression on people,” he says. “When you know that you’ve touched them in some way and they’ve felt like they had something in common with the song,” he says. “When we write a song, we’re writing it for ourselves and the best validation as an artist that we can have is that it’s affected someone else.“
One of the most recognizable of the Pure Prairie League catalog is also the track considered largely responsible for the band’s “big break.” Reilly says the band was signed to RCA when the relationship dissolved. “Amie” famously caught the ear of a college radio DJ, who put the harmony-rich track into heavy rotation. The buzz caught on and the PPL star was on the rise.
“We said ‘thanks for nothing’ to RCA several times over the years. Especially on our 8th album, they changed the art work on us and I dropped a stack of the albums on the desk and said ‘I quit’. The president said ‘you can’t quit. You owe us two more albums’ so I said ‘then we’ll break up or disband but we will never record another song for you guys’.”
RCA “sued the shit out us”, says Reilly, but PPL stuck to its guns and never recorded under the label again. “We’ve never received a cent in our entire career from RCA for artist royalties. We sold seven or eight million albums and not one cent,” he says. “Only after the “Two Lane Highway” album where we retained our own publishing instead of giving half to them, that’s the only reason we made any money, besides touring, was writing our own songs and publishing our own songs instead of giving up our publishing rights to RCA.”
Reilly says the ownership of an artist’s music was not protected by today’s intellectual property rights and the record companies made a lucrative profit from someone else’s art. “That was rampant for years since recorded music started way, way back even in Al Jolson’s days,: says Reilly. “Artists were pretty pissed off about the whole thing but that was really the only way at the time to get your music out there. There was no grass roots movement, there was no internet. If you didn’t have a record deal, you weren’t going to get your music heard.”
Pure Prairie League continued to chart their own path, writing, publishing and touring on their own but when the band members collectively decided to stop the ride and live life off the road for eight years, the music hushed to an indefinite pause.
“We took off at the end of ’87 to raise families and just be normal human beings but we never lost the fire for performing, writing and playing. So in ’99 when the kids were starting into their teens and the wives were tired of us hanging around the house whining about playing music, we put it back together,” says Reilly. “And here it is 2016.”
Coming back around, Pure Prairie League took a record 24 years to put out the last original album in 2005. It was aptly titled “All in Good Time.” The band is playing three new songs in the current set and taking the approach to assembling new material “one song at a time.”
“What works on stage, what doesn’t work. There’s at least an EP in the works,” says Reilly. “If we get enough good songs, we’ll put together a 10 or 12-song CD. We’ve still got some creative juices flowing and we want to be able to express that. Music is a harsh mistress. You have to be able to answer that call.”
The band has also enjoyed the unique perspective of hearing other artists in the country and rock arena like Garth Brooks in 2013 and the Counting Crows on the “Underwater Sunshine” cover album in 2012 release their own interpretations of “Amie”. “For the most part, everyone has done some really incredible versions. A true musician will put their own stamp on whatever they do. We said ‘have at it’. We’ve had Randy Scruggs back in the 80’s and later Travis Tritt and Keith Urban. It’s a great thrill for us to be thought of. We’ve been together 47 years. To be considered elder statesmen is something that we wear as a feather in our cap as opposed to feeling like a has-been. To influence contemporary musicians to that degree is really gratifying for a bunch of old farts like us.”