July 02, 1979 12:00 PM

For more than a decade the group Poco “was like the farm team” of country rock, says Rusty Young, its pedal steel guitar virtuoso. While Poco sales averaged a plodding 250,000 for its first 13 LPs (counting even the classics, A Good Feeling to Know and Crazy Eyes), ex-Poco members like Jim Messina were moving onward—and upward—to million-sellers on their own or for other acts like Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. But now Poco and Young, 33, the lone survivor of the group’s 11 years, have belatedly made the major leagues themselves. Justice was delayed but not totally denied.

“We almost folded,” admits Paul Cotton, 34, the other veteran, who replaced Messina in 1971. Then in 1977 the remaining duo hired a pair of young British rockers on drum and bass and gave a last-ditch try with the 14th Poco LP, Legend. Between Young’s liltingly harmonized acoustic smash of the spring, Crazy Love, and Cotton’s current pop ballad, Heart of the Night, the record became Poco’s first gold album and is on its way to platinum (signifying million-plus sales).

“We never believed,” says Young, “that we’d go from such a dismal period to a Poco that was happening. But it’s not my style to quit. We couldn’t just sink Poco.” Aside from the more contemporary pop/R&B feel on some of the tracks, the breakthrough could also be attributed to the deep respect Poco has built over its struggling years. “People we grew up with in the business looked out for us,” says Young, graciously. “They thought we made worthwhile music and deserved to make records. It was uncanny. Promo men from almost every major label have been pushing Legend along with their own product.” That sounds preposterous in such a cutthroat industry but is true. In the words of Eagle guitarist Joe Walsh: “It’s about time.”

Young used exactly the same expression a few weeks ago when he celebrated Poco’s success by making a June bride of his lady of three years, Annie Emery. She’s a Baltimore-bred heiress of the air freight entrepreneur and a free-lance artist in stained glass and porcelain. Young, the son of a Denver electrician (and C&W buff), took on the steel guitar at age 6 (“It made me different”). After local honky-tonk gigs with an all-girl band, to which his parents drove him, he spent two and a half years at the University of Colorado. In 1968 he quit to record Kind Woman with Buffalo Springfield. When that group broke up, Rusty teamed with two of its members, Messina and Richie Furay, and what was to become Poco was rounded out by drummer George Grantham and bassist Randy Meisner (later of the Eagles). (The name Poco was previously Pogo, like the comic strip, until cartoonist Walt Kelly brought suit.)

Cotton grew up in a windowless apartment behind his musically inclined parents’ grocery store outside of Chicago. He took up guitar in eighth grade, adapting his own Presley-inspired rockabilly flair to play local weddings. He started as a butcher, then attended a Chicago barber school (“practicing on derelicts”). While there, he won a battle of the bands playing with Illinois Speed Press before falling in with Poco in L.A. Cotton lives with his girlfriend, model Freida Winkle, in Studio City. His ex-wife, Charlotte, and 12-year-old son, Chris, live a half hour away. Says Cotton of his guitar-wielding son: “If he doesn’t become a rock star he’ll break a lot of girls’ hearts.”

As for the two British latecomers to Poco, bassist Charlie Harrison, 26, is house hunting in L.A., while sun-dreading drummer Steve Chapman, 29, prefers “laying in bed, watching movies and taking drugs.” He eventually plans to buy a yacht. Since the Legend recording, Poco has grown back to a quintet, adding keyboardist Kim Bullard, 24, a native Atlantan who has gone L.A. full tilt—”jogging, tanning and roller-skating,” he says, with his wife, singer Cecelia Bullard.

Harrison brazenly claims he always sensed stardom was just one Poco LP away: “I knew Legend was it.” Young, though, still finds the big leagues “downright unbelievable,” though he admits he “always made good money.” He and Annie live in a large Sherman Oaks home and drive a Porsche Turbo Carrera. Suddenly it’s beginning to sink in. “Now,” he grins, “we just may be the hot band of the ’80s.”

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