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Pure Prairie League is an American country rock band whose origins go back to 1965 and Waverly, Ohio, with singer and guitarist Craig Fuller, drummer Tom McGrail, guitarist and drummer Jim Caughlan and steel guitar artist John David Call. Fuller officially started the band in 1970 and McGrail named it after a fictional 19th century temperance union featured in the 1939 Errol Flynn cowboy film Dodge City. The Pure Prairie League scored five consecutive Top 40 LPs in the 1970s and added a sixth in the 1980s. The band has had a long run, active from the 1970s through the late 1980s and was revived in the late 1990s for a time, then again in 2004. Pure Prairie League continues to tour and performs over 100 concerts a year, primarily in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic regions of the United States.
Although the band has its roots in Waverly, it was actually formed in Columbus, Ohio and had its first success in Cincinnati. Craig Fuller, Tom McGrail, Jim Caughlan and John David Call had played together in various bands since high school, notably the Vikings, the Omars, the Sacred Turnips and the Swiss Navy.
In 1970 the first solid Pure Prairie League lineup was Fuller, McGrail, George Ed Powell (a popular Cincinnati folk singer), Phil Stokes (bassist in Columbus bands Sanhedrin Move and J.D Blackfoot) and Robin Suskind (a popular guitar teacher in the University of Cincinnati neighborhood) on guitar and mandola, with John David Call joining the band later that year. Call's steel guitar added country credibility to the band's playlist and sparked guitar duels with Fuller that created the signature sound of the band. They rose to popularity in the fall of 1970 as the house band at New Dilly's Pub in the Mt. Adams section of Cincinnati.
In the summer of 1971 McGrail and Stokes left the band to rehearse with Bill Bartlett (of Beechwood Farm, Ram Jam and The Lemon Pipers fame). Jim Caughlan, who'd played guitar and drums with Fuller, Call and McGrail in earlier bands, took over on drums and Jim Lanham from California replaced Stokes on bass.
Early on, the Pure Prairie League was looking for national artist representation and they made contact with a well-known Cleveland-based rock and roll promoter, Roger Abramson. At the behest of the group's roadie (who had also roadied for the James Gang) Jim "Westy" Westermeyer, Abramson saw the band at New Dilly's Pub and later signed them to a management contract. Abramson was able to land a contract with RCA Records. He then placed Pure Prairie League as an opening act with many of the concerts he produced at that time.
Their eponymous first album used a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover showing a trail-worn cowboy, named Luke, who would appear on the cover of every Pure Prairie League recording thereafter. After releasing their debut album (recorded in New York City) in March 1972 and embarking on a nationwide tour, Call, Caughlan and Lanham all left the band.
At that point, Pure Prairie League owed RCA another album and Craig Fuller agreed to record the second record in RCA's Toronto studio with the help of George Ed Powell and Bob Ringe (who had also produced the first album). Bustin' Out (begun in the summer of 1972) was produced by Ringe and featured the songs of Fuller and Powell. Billy Hinds from Cincinnati (drums, percussion) joined the band and Hinds's friend, Michael Connor, played piano on most of the sessions and would become a regular in the Pure Prairie League line-up for years to come. Mick Ronson, of David Bowie and Mott the Hoople fame, added string arrangements to several tracks, most notably "Boulder Skies" and "Call Me Tell Me". Michael Reilly, who would become the longtime bass player and front man for the band, joined in early September 1972, soon after the record was completed. Bustin' Out was released in October 1972.
Shortly afterward, the group returned to Ohio and Fuller had to face trial for charges of draft evasion in Kentucky. Before conscientious objector (C.O.) status could be arranged, he was sentenced to six months in jail and forced to leave Pure Prairie League in February 1973. At this point, RCA dropped the band and their future looked bleak.
By August 1973, the band members were in Cincinnati and managed to persuade Call to return. Fuller, though out of prison by now, was working the late shift in a community hospital to satisfy his C.O. requirements and was not inclined to rejoin at that time. (He was eventually given a full pardon by President Gerald Ford). Reilly took over as the band's leader and brought in his friend Larry Goshorn (vocals, guitars) to replace Fuller in November 1973. Goshorn had played in a popular Ohio band called The Sacred Mushroom.
Pure Prairie League hit the road and began playing gigs constantly, mostly in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast. As a result of their heavy schedule, particularly at colleges, their songs became well known; "Amie" (Craig Fuller's ode to an on-again/off-again relationship), from the second album, became a particular favorite.
As "Amie" grew in popularity, radio stations began receiving requests for it. As a result, RCA re-released Bustin' Out and issued "Amie" as a single for the second time in late 1974. It peaked at No. 27 on April 26, 1975, just as a minor bluegrass revival was underway on mid-western college campuses.
RCA re-signed Pure Prairie League and their third album, Two Lane Highway, was released in June 1975. It featured guest appearances by Chet Atkins, fiddler Johnny Gimble, Don Felder from The Eagles and Emmylou Harris, who dueted with the band on the song "Just Can't Believe It", which received much airplay on country stations. Highway was the band's highest 'charter' at No. 24 and Bustin' Out reached Gold status. This began a string of five consecutive Top 40 album releases as If the Shoe Fits (January 1976), Dance (November 1976), and Live, Takin' the Stage (September 1977) all made the Top 40.
In 1977 Call left because of increasing back troubles. Larry Goshorn's brother, Tim, joined in time to record Just Fly (March 1978).
In 1978 there was a mass exodus as the Goshorns left to form their own group, The Goshorn Brothers, and Powell, the last remaining original member, retired from the road to run his pig farm in Ohio. But the group soldiered on as Reilly quickly brought in temporary members, California country rocker Chris Peterson (vocals, guitar) and the group's soundman, Jeff Redefer (guitar), to play a few shows until new, permanent players could be located.
In September 1978, auditions led to the hiring of Vince Gill (vocals, guitars, mandolin, banjo, fiddle), who had previously played with the bluegrass outfit Mountain Smoke, as well as Boone Creek (with Ricky Skaggs) and Byron Berline & Sundance. Further auditions brought in L.A. musician Steven Patrick Bolin (vocals, guitars, flute, saxophone) in January 1979. This revamped lineup recorded Can't Hold Back (June 1979), which turned out to be their last for RCA. Sax player Jeff Kirk accompanied the band on some of their dates during the 1979 tour.
Casablanca Records, who at this time was trying to play down its reputation as primarily a disco label, signed Pure Prairie League and other non-dance acts to its roster in 1980. In January, guitarist Jeff Wilson came in to replace Bolin and the band's next release, Firin' Up (February 1980) spawned the hits "Let Me Love You Tonight" and "I'm Almost Ready", both sung by Gill, with saxophone accompaniment by David Sanborn. A second Casablanca release, Something in the Night (February 1981), kept Pure Prairie League on the charts with "Still Right Here in My Heart". However, as fate would have it, Casablanca ultimately went bankrupt and was sold to Polygram Records. Polygram then dropped most of Casablanca's roster, including Pure Prairie League. Both Gill and Wilson left in early 1982 and Gill pursued a successful solo country career.
Despite the lack of a recording contract, the group still found itself in demand as a live act and played in clubs and at outdoor festivals.
Tim Goshorn returned in 1982 and Mike Hamilton (vocals, guitars, from Kenny Loggins' band) also joined the same year and was there for 6 months (until mid-1982). Al Garth (vocals, woodwinds, fiddle, keyboards), another Loggins alumnus (Loggins & Messina, also Poco and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), joined as well, from 1982-1985.
Longtime drummer Billy Hinds retired from the road in 1984. He was first succeeded by Merel Bregante (also ex-Loggins & Messina and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and then by Joel Rosenblatt (1985-1986) and Steve Speelman (ex-Steele) (1986-1988). Sax player Dan Clawson took over for Garth in 1985 and Gary Burr (vocals, guitars) was there from 1984 to 1985.
1985 also saw the return of the group's co-founder Craig Fuller (who had fronted the groups American Flyer and Fuller/Kaz in the mid-to-late '70s after he'd returned to music).
Mementos 1971-1987, which contained re-recordings of their best known material plus four new songs, was released on the small Rushmore label in December 1987 and was recorded back in Ohio, where the band had returned to their home base. It featured guest appearances from many of the band's alumni, including Gill, Powell, the Goshorns, Call, Burr, Rosenblatt and Mike Hamilton.
In 1988 the band decided to call it quits. Fuller, who had already joined a reformed Little Feat in 1987, played with Pure Prairie League for their final shows in the spring of 1988.
A decade later (in 1998), Pure Prairie League was back with a lineup of Fuller, Connor, Reilly, Burr, Fats Kaplin (pedal steel guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, accordion, washboard) and Rick Schell (vocals, drums, percussion). After two years, Burr was succeeded by Curtis Wright (vocals, guitars) in June 2000. The group began work on a new album in 2002, yet abandoned the sessions and separated again after Schell became busy with other projects. After a long battle with cancer, Michael Connor died on September 9, 2004.
Following Connor's death, the group resumed touring once again with Fuller, Reilly, Schell, Wright and Kaplin (when available) and released All in Good Time in November 2005. Their first album in 18 years, this release appeared on the small Drifter's Church label.
Since this time, Pure Prairie League has continued to tour, playing a handful of shows every year. Donnie Lee Clark replaced Curtis Wright in late 2006 after Wright joined Reba McEntire's band. Mike Reilly was sidelined in 2006 after he was forced to undergo a liver transplant. Jack Sundrud (from Poco) came in to sub for Reilly. Rick Plant also did a brief stint with them on bass before relocating to Australia in late 2006. Jeff "Stick" Davis (from Amazing Rhythm Aces) sat in on bass for Mike in 2007. In May 2007, Reilly appeared at a few shows and played guitar yet was unable to come back full-time until 2008. John David Call played some concerts in 2006 & 2007, standing in for Kaplin, and returned to the band full-time in June 2010.
As of May 2011, it was announced, via the Pure Prairie League website, that Fuller would not be appearing at all of the band's shows that year since he decided to take a break from touring. He ended up leaving the group again altogether by 2012.
On February 10, 2012, at The Syndicate in Newport, Kentucky, Fuller, his son Patrick, Tommy McGrail, and George Ed Powell (a frequent guest at their Ohio shows in recent years) took to the stage to join the current Pure Prairie League lineup of John David Call, Mike Reilly, Rick Schell and Donnie Lee Clark.
In May 2012 Scott Thompson (vocals, drums, percussion) replaced Rick Schell, who departed to continue to grow his real estate business.
Former member Tim Goshorn passed away on April 15, 2017 at age 62 at his home in Williamstown, Kentucky after a bout with cancer.
The band endorses a number of charitable efforts, Pittsburgh's ongoing BurghSTOCK Concert Series among them.
|Year||Album||Peak chart positions|
|1972||Pure Prairie League||--||--||--|
|1975||Two Lane Highway||24||--||68|
|1976||If the Shoe Fits||33||--||89|
|1977||Takin' the Stage||68||34||58|
|1979||Can't Hold Back||124||--||--|
|1981||Something in the Night||72||--||--|
|1987||Mementos 1971-1987 (re-recordings)||--||--||--|
|2005||All in Good Time||--||--||--|
|Year||Single||Peak chart positions||Album|
|US||US AC||US Country||CAN||CAN AC|
|1973||"Amie" (charted in 1975)||27||20||--||40||19||Bustin' Out|
|1975||"Two Lane Highway"||97||--||--||--||--||Two Lane Highway|
|1976||"That'll Be the Day"||106||--||96||--||--||If the Shoe Fits|
|1980||"I Can't Stop the Feelin'"||77||--||--||--||--||Firin' Up|
|"I'm Almost Ready"||34||--||--||--||--|
|"Let Me Love You Tonight"||10||1||--||14||1|
|1981||"Still Right Here in My Heart"||28||4||--||--||--||Something in the Night|
|"You're Mine Tonight"||68||--||--||--||21|