Country rockers Pure Prairie League play picks from their long, shape-shifting career | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

Country rockers Pure Prairie League play picks from their long, shape-shifting career 

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click to enlarge Pure Prairie League

Pure Prairie League

© Laura Schneider Photo

As I get older, I warm up more and more to laid-back Americana, delving far beyond the tunes of Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, and Townes Van Zandt that I revered as a wee lad. I’ve sought out vintage practitioners of acoustic twang such as Country Funk, Uncle Jim’s Music, and Hearts & Flowers, who are just as good but a bit more obscure—though of course, each band imploded after an album or two. Pure Prairie League fall firmly on the more mainstream end of the Americana spectrum, and while many people assume they’re a one-hit wonder thanks to the 1973 single release of “Amie” (it reached number 27 in 1975), the band actually had a long and varied country-rock career. Founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1970, Pure Prairie League took their name from a fictional temperance union in the 1939 Errol Flynn western Dodge City. After some early lineup changes, the band recorded a self-titled 1972 LP for RCA with a roster of singer-guitarist Craig Fuller, vocalist George Ed Powell, guitarist and mandola player Robin Suskind, steel guitarist John David Call, bassist Jim Lanham, and drummer Jim Caughlan. Unfortunately, the album wasn’t exactly a hit, and Call, Caughlan, and Lanham soon left the band. The group’s second album, Bustin’ Out, came out that same year and focused on Fuller’s songs; it also featured the first appearance of longtime member pianist Michael Connor, plus string arrangements from Mick Ronson, who was fresh from playing guitar for David Bowie and Mott the Hoople. Despite those strengths, Bustin’ Out initially faltered as well, and after Fuller was sentenced to six months in jail for draft evasion in 1973, the band was dropped by RCA. Fuller was soon pardoned, but he didn’t rejoin Pure Prairie League, even though his catchy Bustin’ Out single “Amie” was exploding in popularity, resulting in RCA re-signing the band and rereleasing the album in 1974. (Call did rejoin at around this time, though.) Despite even more lineup shuffles—including the addition of one Mr. Vince Gill in 1978—the next five PPL albums all went Top 40, and in 1980 the band signed with the mostly-disco-plus-Kiss label Casablanca. Fuller rejoined in 1985, after starting the soft, rootsy late-70s group American Flyer with the Velvet Underground’s Doug Yule, and played with PPL through what were assumed to be their final shows in 1988. The story doesn’t end there, though: a decade later, Fuller restarted the band with many PPL alumni in tow, and after he left in 2012, they went on without him. Now led by Call and vocalist-bassist Michael Reilly (an on-and-off member since 1972), Pure Prairie League seem to be struggling a bit without Fuller’s distinctive bluegrassy voice, at least if recent online footage can be trusted. But considering the group’s history of constant change, you might want to catch them now anyway.   v

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