Country-rock band Pure Prairie League is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. It is one of the most successful bands of that genre. Their classic hit song “Amie” is instantly recognizable by many, and it’s darn near impossible not to find oneself singing along to the chorus.
Pure Prairie League helped country music star Vince Gill get his start. Gill played with the band from 1978 and sang lead vocals on their Top Ten hit “Let Me Love You Tonight.”
Guest artists such as Emmy Lou Harris, Chet Atkins, Johnny Gimble, Renee Armand, Ronee Blakly, Don Felder, and David Sanborn have played on their albums. Co-founder and original lead vocalist Craig Fuller retired from the group in 2011, but still gets together with them to play on a regular basis.
The current lineup of Pure Prairie League consists of John David Call (pedal steel guitar), Mike Reilly (basses, vocals), Scott Thompson (drums, percussion, vocals) and Donnie Lee Clark (electric and acoustic guitars, vocals).
Pure Prairie League will be putting out a long-awaited new release in 2015. The band will be sharing a bill with Firefall on January 23 in Green Bay at the Meyer Theater. With a winning combination like that, this should be an amazing, do-not-miss show.
I caught up with Pure Prairie League vocalist and bassist Mike Reilly at his New York home not long ago.
Jane Spietz: What is the origin of the name of the band?
Mike Reilly: We took the name after watching a late night movie called Dodge City, made in 1930 starring Errol Flynn. Pure Prairie League was the name of a women’s temperance union, a bunch of Hatchet Annie, Carrie Nation types that used to parade down Main Street of Dodge City, Kansas. We know Dodge City’s reputation, one of the most lawless towns in the Old West. This was a bunch of women that would parade down the street with a banner that said ‘Pure Prairie League’ and signs that said ‘Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.’
JS: Tell us about the connection with Norman Rockwell in establishing the old grizzled cowboy as your “brand,” so to speak, on the band’s album covers.
MR: When we were recording the first album in 1971, the steel guitar player, John David Call, and an A & R (artists & repertoire) executive from RCA Records were sitting in the studio leafing through a book of Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers. They came upon this one cover that had this cowboy sitting in front of a Victrola with a sad look on his face. John said, ‘This looks what the name (of the band) sounds like.’ So the Pure Prairie League thing fit with the type of music we were playing and that Rockwell cover fit the character of the name. They marched right up to the executive office of the president of RCA to talk to him. The president made a call to the art director and told him to make it happen. The rest is history. Plus, the art director was a friend of Rockwell. We got to meet him in person in 1974. Made him an official ‘Prairie Dog!’
JS: Earlier on, RCA’s Nashville division felt that the band wasn’t country enough for Nashville, and their L.A. division said that you were too country to be put on rock stations. Your thoughts about this Catch-22 scenario for Pure Prairie League?
MR: Country-rock hadn’t been idiomized or named yet. The record companies, being the bean counters that they are, just couldn’t figure out how to pigeon hole us. So they didn’t know how to sell us. ‘Do we try to market it to the country audience? Do we try to market it to our rock audience?’
JS: The band was invited to play the Grand Ole Opry. Describe that experience.
MR: Everybody there at the Opry was so gracious. Little Jimmy Dickens, who introduced us, came up to our dressing room and said, ‘It’s taken us way too damn long to get you guys on this stage.’ Then he said, ‘I just want to show you something.’ He brought out an eight-track tape of the Two Lane Highway album and said, ‘I keep this in my truck all the time.’ (Laughs) We were long overdue for recognition in whatever area. But once people started calling our music, the music of Poco, and the music of the Byrds country-rock, then it finally had a label. Of course, they still didn’t know how to market it! (Laughs)
JS: What sets Pure Prairie League apart from other country rock bands?
MR: I think it was just the type of music that we were playing. We weren’t an L.A. type slick outfit. We were Midwesterners that grew up listening to country, rock, bluegrass, R & B and kind of incorporated those influences into the music. As opposed to, let’s say, the Byrds or the (Flying) Burrito Brothers, who were L.A. configurations and obviously more on the pop end of things.
JS: “Amie” could arguably be called Pure Prairie League’s signature song. Tell the story of how you met three generations of ‘Amies’ from the same family at one of your shows.
MR: Oh yeah, that was in Longmont, Colorado, a few years ago. We’ve played there every year for their summer concert series. It was quite the show because they packed the whole downtown part of Longmont. People on every side street as far as you could see. There was a lady down in front sketching the band as we were playing. After the show, this woman came up and said ‘I just wanted to see if I could get a picture with you guys. My name is Amie, this is my daughter Amie, and this is my granddaughter Amie.’ And, so course we took a photo with them and they got a charge out of that. They sent us a copy of it. Grandma had named her daughter after the song. It was pretty amazing––three generations of Amies. And they all loved the tune!
JS: Pure Prairie League helped to give Vince Gill his start. Talk about Vince’s involvement with the band.
MR: Originally we were playing a concert in Oklahoma City at the Civic Auditorium. That’s Vince’s hometown. He was playing with the opening act––a bluegrass group from there called Mountain Smoke. We heard these guys play and heard him singing and playing. After their show, I asked him if he’d like to sit in with us. So he came up and played banjo, guitar and fiddle. I asked him on the spot if he’d like a gig playing rock ‘n’ roll. Vince said, ‘Oh no, I’m a bluegrasser, but thanks.’ So, two years later we’re in L.A. and we were going through some personnel changes. We were auditioning people there. Vince showed up with a buddy of his that wanted to audition. The guy couldn’t really cut the mustard for what we needed. So I said, ‘The auditions are over for tonight, how ’bout hanging out and just jammin’for a little while?’ We wound up playing for about three hours. I finally said to Vince, ‘So now how ’bout the gig? Would you like to join the band?’ And he said, ‘Yup.’ That was it. We did three albums with Vince, toured for three and a half years and had our only number-one song, “Let Me Love You Tonight.” That sort of gig is a jumpstart in the rock ‘n’ roll business.
JS: Have you played with Vince since he left the band?
MR: Oh yeah. In fact, the last time we played the Opry last year, Vince was the host, and he played both nights with us. It was great. He’s very gracious about acknowledging the part that Pure Prairie League played in his career. He’s just a sweetheart of a guy. A couple weeks ago, Vince was getting the Irving Waugh Award of Excellence at the CMA (Country Music Awards). They showed a clip of Vince with Pure Prairie League on the Dick Clark American Bandstand show. People were sending me texts saying, ‘Hey, I just saw you on the CMAs!’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m asleep in bed at home in New York.’ They also showed a clip of Vince singing “Let Me Love You Tonight” and some other things.
JS: What lies ahead for Pure Prairie League?
MR: We’ve got a half a dozen songs right now that we feel are in good enough shape to be ready to record. While we’re taking it easy in the wintertime, we’re only doing a couple of shows a month, and we should be able to get into the studio and start putting some of these things down. So maybe by summertime, we’ll have a CD or an EP, and we’ll have it at the shows and it will be online.
JS: Is there anything you would like to let your fans know?
MR: This being our 45th anniversary, we feel extremely blessed and thankful that our fans have stuck with us all the way down the line. Also, that we can still go out and do what we love, which is playing music and it’s our music. There are people who still want to come hear us. They tell us how much our music was a part of their lives and what it has meant to them. Those are some pretty heavy-duty bragging rights. (Laughs)