Jeanne and I were returning from vacation recently, listening to The Bridge on Sirius XM, when a song by Pure Prairie League came on.
That’s not unusual for that channel, but the PPL song you most often hear there is “Amie,” the 1975 release that was a No. 27. This was “Let Me Love You Tonight,” the group’s highest-charting single, No. 10 in 1980. As soon as the lead vocal started, I turned to my wife and said, “That sounds like Vince Gill!”
(We’re both Vince fans, for his and wife Amy Grant’s Christmas music, but I also like his work with a variety of country and bluegrass artists and groups. We saw them do their Christmas concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville a couple years ago, and years earlier we caught a Gill concert in La Crosse; he is an immensely talented musician.)
I knew Gill had played with Pure Prairie League, but I didn’t think it was for much more than a cup of coffee. So I did some research, and it turns out that it was four years that he was a member of a band whose lineup has changed constantly over the years but, a half-century after being established, is still touring (although it did have a 10-year period of inactivity back in the 1980s and ’90s).
Backing up, I’ve been listening to PPL music for at least 47 years. I remember hearing “Amie” back in 1973 on a trip from Madison to Milton, and already being familiar with it. That still-popular song was a cut from the band’s second album, Bustin’ Out, released in October 1972.
I’m sure that, like a lot of the music I’ve listened to for the last five decades, I was turned onto PPL by Radio Free Madison, the Capitol City’s “underground” radio station. But by the spring of 1974, influenced by “Amie” and the other cut or two that aired on RFM, I had a copy of Bustin’ Out.
I listened to that LP a lot — kind of wore it out, actually. (Part of that was the result of inferior equipment — not quite lo-fi, but not audiophile quality.) I liked pretty much every cut — “Jazzman,” the album’s first track, for instance, more than “Amie.”
But the latter tune is preceded on the LP by “Falling In and Out of Love,” which segues into “Amie” and creates a mini-suite that opens Side B, and makes the hit song better. The band’s sound blends country and rock, featuring nice guitar bits, tight arrangements and strong vocals.
(The hit status of “Amie” post-dated the album’s release by almost three years; when Bustin’ Out dropped, there were no single releases from it. But PPL toured extensively and played a lot of college venues. The popularity of the song with those live audiences generated radio station requests, which prompted their record company to reissue the LP and release “Amie” as a single.)
I knew that there was a PPL album that had preceded Bustin’ Out, and I had since heard cuts from their third LP, Two-Lane Highway. But as much as I liked their sophomore effort, and the band’s sound, I never bought another album. Don’t know why, but there was a stretch there from the late ’70s into the ’90s when I didn’t buy much in the way of new music.
In the meantime, PPL had been going through constant personnel changes and running into some bad luck and not-music-related problems. Founding member Craig Fuller, who was part of the band for 20 of its 40 functioning years, was convicted of draft evasion and had to leave the band to do jail time; after he was granted conscientious objector status, he had to do community service to maintain it, working a hospital night shift that kept him from rejoining PPL. Another band member had to leave because of back problems.
After the band landed Gill at auditions held in 1978, it had some of its best success, including “Let Me Love You Tonight” and the album it was off of, Firin’ Up, a No. 37. But PPL had signed to a new label, Casablanca — and it soon went bankrupt and was bought up by Polygram, which in turn dumped most of Casablanca’s acts, including the League.
Gill, who had replaced Fuller as the principal songwriter, left before long, four years after joining PPL. The band lacked a recording contract — 1981’s Something in the Night was its last LP for 25 years, other than greatest hits albums — but continued to tour extensively. The lineup continued to change, including the return of Fuller, but in 1988 its members agreed to call it quits.
Fuller wasn’t in the band at that time, having left to join a reunited Little Feet a year earlier, but he was one of the former members who reassembled PPL in 1998. The League released only one more LP, 2006’s All in Good Time, but continues to tour.
Fuller had bailed nine years ago, though, and there was but one original member in the most-recent lineup, John David Call — who had played in the band for “only” 16 of its 40 active years. Thirty musicians have played in the band over that time.
I’m going to look for some more PPL albums, definitely for Two Lane Highway. That LP includes contributions from legendary guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, Western Swing fiddle ace Jonny Gimble, Eagles’ lead guitarist Don Felder and the sublime Emmylou Harris.
Oh, about the band name. It comes from, of all things, a 1939 Errol Flynn movie, Dodge City; that film includes a fictional temperance group named the Pure Prairie League. And the cowpoke who appears on the cover of the band’s albums originated as a Norman Rockwell poster image used on the front of their debut, self-titled LP.