Pure Prairie League is an United states|American country rock band whose history goes back to 1965 and Waverly, Ohio, with Craig Fuller, Tom McGrail, Jim Caughlan, and John David Call. In 1970 McGrail named the band after a fictional 19th century temperance union featured in the 1939 Errol Flynn cowboy film Dodge City. The band had five 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. As of 2015, they are still doing at least 100 shows a year.
Although the band has its roots in Waverly, Ohio, it was actually formed in Columbus and had its first success in Cincinnati. Fuller, McGrail, Caughlan and Call had played together in various bands since high school, notably the Omars and the Swiss Navy.
In 1970 the first solid PPL lineup was Fuller, McGrail, George Ed Powell, Phil Stokes on bass and Robin Suskind on guitar and mandola, with steel guitar player John David Call joining the band later that year. Call's steel guitar added country credibility and sparked guitar duels with Fuller that reinforced the signature sound of the band.
In 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.
Early on, the PPL 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 Jim Westermeyer, PPL's roadie, Abramson saw the band at New Dilly's, a nightclub in the Mt. Adams area in Cincinnati and later signed them to a management contract. Abramson was able to obtain a contract with RCA Records. He then placed Pure Prairie League as an opening act with many of the concerts he was producing. Their eponymous first album used a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover featuring a trail-worn cowboy, named Luke, who would appear on the cover of every PPL recording thereafter. After releasing their debut album in March 1972 (recorded in New York City) and embarking on a nationwide tour, Call, Caughlan and Lanham left the band.
At that point the band owed RCA another album. Fuller, Powell, and producer Bob Ringe decided to record the album in RCA's Toronto studio, so in the summer of 1972, they began work on album number two, Bustin' Out, which was produced, as was their debut, by Ringe and featured the songs of Fuller and Powell. Billy Hinds from Cincinnati (drums, percussion) and Hinds' friend, Michael Connor, contributed piano to 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, contributed string arrangements on 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 them in early September 1972, after the record's completion. 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 PPL 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 juncture. 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 played in a popular Ohio band called The Sacred Mushroom.
PPL 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.
A hit at last:
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 in late 1974. It peaked at No. 27 on April 26, 1975, just as a minor bluegrass revival was underway on midwestern college campuses.
RCA re-signed PPL and their third album, Two Lane Highway, was released in April 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 releases as If the Shoe Fits (January 1976), Dance (November 1976), Live, Takin' the Stage (September 1977) all made the Top 40 on Billboard Charts. 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 found Vince Gill (vocals, guitars, mandolin, banjo, fiddle), who had played with the bluegrass outfit Mountain Smoke, as well as Boone Creek (with Ricky Skaggs) and Byron Berline and his band Sundance. Further auditions brought in L.A. musician Steve 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 a primarily disco label, signed PPL and other non-dance acts to its roster in 1980. In January, guitarist Jeff Wilson came in to replace Bolin and the band's 1980 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 PPL in the charts with "Still Right Here in My Heart". However, as fate would have it, Casablanca went bankrupt and was completely sold to Polygram Records. Polygram dropped most of Casablanca's roster, including PPL. Gill left in early 1982 and pursued a hugely successful solo career.
The later years:
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. 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 PPL 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 their 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 PPL for their final shows in the spring of 1988.
A decade later, PPL 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, 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, PPL has continued to tour, playing a handful of shows every year. Donnie Lee Clark replaced Curtis Wright in 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 PPL 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.
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 PPL 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 pursue a career in real estate.
The band endorses a number of charitable efforts, Pittsburgh's ongoing BurghSTOCK Concert Series among them.