Michael Connor joined PPL in 1972, in time to be included on the group’s second album – Bustin’ Out – which debuted “Amie”, one of the band’s best known songs. His piano playing added a new depth and richness to the band’s sound. His Gospel, Country and Rock stylings became a cornerstone of the PPL sound.
You Can Go Home Again
PPL’s rich history goes back to 1969 in the Southern Ohio area where a group of young musicians initially played cover tunes at local bars. Original member Craig Fuller and early member George Powell were beginning to hone their songwriting skills around the time original drummer Tom McGrail happened to catch a late-night Errol Flynn movie called “Dodge City”. The film’s “Pure Prairie League” was a woman’s temperance union attempting to clean up Kansas’ most lawless town.
RCA signed Pure Prairie League after seeing them play in Cleveland, Ohio in 1970. It was Craig, George, Billy Hinds on drums, and Phil Stokes on bass that played that night. Phil Stokes reminisces, “the Cleveland concert (booked by our manager Roger Abramson) that got us signed to RCA included John Call playing steel guitar on that date. The first album – eponymously titled “Pure Prairie League” – was released the following year. ” One of the most memorable things about that first record, besides the music, was the Norman Rockwell picture from a 1927 Saturday Evening Post cover, featuring the old cowboy “Sad Luke”; it was branding before branding became a popular term” recalls bassist Mike Reilly.
Reilly’s first gig with the band was on Labor Day 1972, thanks to members Mike Connor and Billy Hinds, with whom he had worked previously. PPL’s second album, “Bustin’ Out” was finished and they hit the road to promote the music. In February, 1973, however, Fuller received Uncle Sams’s summons to enlist. He applied for conscientious objector status and ended up doing alternative service in a hospital in Covington, KY for his two-year service. The band was dropped from RCA soon after. “The band was struggling at that point and we eventually parted ways”, recalls Fuller. “Even though Craig was the main founder of the three original members,” says Reilly, “Craig saw that we picked up the torch and stayed with it.” Reilly soon added an old friend -guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Larry Goshorn, and the band hit the road, playing an average of 250 shows yearly for nearly a decade. Incredibly, college stations around the country continued to play cuts from “Bustin’ Out” until RCA was forced to seek out the group’s whereabouts. Re-signed in 1975, the band recorded “Two Lane Highway”. While they were in the studio, RCA released “Amie” from “Bustin’ Out” as a single, and while not a Top Ten hit, “Amie” has endured as a classic, being played constantly in several formats to this day.
The changing musical times made it difficult for PPL to continue creating its same sound. As Disco dominated the airwaves, the band became aware that it too, had to make some stylistic alterations to stay current with the times.
In 1978, someone auditioning for the spot of the departing Goshorn brothers brought along a young man named Vince Gill. He hadn’t intended on trying out for PPL, but after jamming with the band, they immediately offered him the job. “We had seen him play in 1976 when the band he was playing with opened up for us in Oklahoma City”, remarks Reilly. “We offered him the gig then, but he said, ‘Oh no, I’m playing bluegrass”. Two years later he came to Los Angeles with Byron Berline and Sundance, and after we jammed again for a few hours, we offered him the job on the spot and he accepted”.
For their final RCA offering in 1978, “Can’t Hold Back”, Gill, along with the other new member, Patrick Bolin, wrote more rock influenced country material and they added David Sanborn’s distinctive alto saxophone to the tracks in place of pedal steel guitar. After “Can’t Hold Back” Casablanca Records signed the group and they enjoyed their biggest success with the first single from “Firin’ Up” titled “Let Me Love You Tonight,” reaching No. 7 on the Pop Charts and No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary Charts. Personnel changes at Casablanca resulted in the loss of their deal once again and Gill departed for Nashville and Country superstardom in 1981, after three albums in as many years with PPL.
Reunited to treat us to music that sounds even better today than it did when they first performed, PPL is touring and enjoying every minute of it. PPL has been playing true to its original form. “People come to hear the music the way it was played back then,” Fuller asserts.
PPL in the new millennium may be a curious prospect to some, but the bands longevity is a testament to the timelessness of the music. As they write for a new project, they’ve returned to their roots–no sax, but pedal steel master John David Call returning–and it’s no surprise that after all these years their sound is what Country Radio is all about, proving that good music is good music no matter when it’s made or played–and you can go home again.
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