You already know who Pure Prairie League is. No really, you do. They sing that song "Amie," that goes, "Amie, whatchoo wanna do? I think I could stay with you for a while, maybe longer if I do."
It was a big hit in 1975, at the height of a bluegrass renaissance the likes of which seem to cycle around every few years — kind of like the one we're going through right now. Despite many lineup changes and hiatuses, bassist/singer Michael Reilly has been with the Southern Ohio-based group since September of 1972.
"The only reason a band that's been around for 45 years can go still into places and sell them out is because people remember you," Reilly says. "It's not like there's the novelty of, 'Hey let's go see a country rock act.'"
Pure Prairie League was in the process of recording its second record Busting Out (which contains "Amie") when Reilly joined.
"I was born and raised across the river in northern Kentucky," he says. "I saw them when they first started playing around the clubs in Cincinnati in 1969, and I really liked the band."
Reilly says that at the time, the Ohio music scene was one of the most vibrant in the country.
"Northern Ohio was more of a rock 'n' roll thing — Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown — that area fostered bands like the James Gang, the Black Watch and Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders. And then Southern Ohio had a lot of the country influence, because of being right next to Kentucky and West Virginia. But Cincinnati also boasted James Brown [Brown was signed to King Records for some time, a Cincinnati label, and he hired many Cincinnati musicians], Bootsy Collins... and Lonnie Mack from southern Indiana was a terrific blues influence."
(No, not the Black Keys... the Black Watch. But yes, they are from northern Ohio too.)
PPL, as they're commonly known, built a following the old-fashioned way, by touring frequently, especially at colleges in the Midwest and along the East Coast. The band almost ended abruptly in 1973 when founder Craig Fuller was drafted to go to Vietnam. He applied for a conscientious objector status and ended up doing alternative service at a hospital in Kentucky, but during the intervening confusion the band was dropped from its label, RCA. PPL and Fuller parted ways, and the remaining members kept hammering away on the road. And their strategy worked. There was enough of a buzz created by their constant touring that RCA sought the band out and re-signed them in 1974, and that's when "Amie" was finally released as a single.
Life was good for a while — and then disco hit. PPL's pedal steel player John David Call was having rather nasty back problems by 1977, and he needed a special kind of bed/couch custom built for him so that he could tour.
"Once we finished the live album, that was basically it for him," says Reilly. "He went into the hospital and had surgeries and years of rehab and stuff like that."
Call was replaced with a saxophone player. The band's sound changed dramatically, with more of a rock emphasis. A young country musician named Vince Gill (yes, that Vince Gill) was tapped to sing and play guitar for the next three-year span.
"We wanted to stretch the boundaries," Reilly says.
One single, "Let Me Love You Tonight" reached number one on the adult contemporary charts. But once Gill left, the band once again found themselves without a contract. More years passed. Come 1985, Craig Fuller rejoined his old friends again.
Fast-forward to just a few years ago; in 2008-2009, PPL reunited with John David Call and fully regained their original sound.
"It's definitely a homecoming for us, because John Call's pedal steel guitar playing is one of the defining characteristics of Pure Prairie League's music," says Reilly.
Nowadays, the band plays about 40 or 50 shows a year, occasionally crossing paths with old friends like the New Riders of the Purple Sage who are also still on the road playing similarly-styled tunes.
"It's funny because those guys get the same thing we do," says Reilly. "People are asking us all the time to play 'Panama Red' and they're always asking the New Riders to play 'Amie.' Maybe someday. Wrong band, but maybe one of these days."
Two of those 40 or 50 shows this year will be in Connecticut this week: Thursday at the Kate in Old Saybrook, and Sunday at Fairfield Theater Company's StageOne.
"This is our Old Men Throw Down Not Up tour," jokes Reilly, who has enjoyed playing FTC in previous visits.
"It's like playing in a recording studio with seats there, with a live audience," he says. "It's really an interesting type of venue to play, and we thrive on those kind of things because basically we're in the audience's lap, and they can see warts and all. It's a great experience being that intimate with an audience. We're looking forward to it."
Pure Prairie League
Thu., Aug. 1, 7:30 p.m. The Kate, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook. (877) 503-1286, thekate.org, $50-$55; Sun., Aug. 4, 7:30 p.m. Fairfield Theatre Company's StageOne, 70 Sanford St., Fairfield. (203) 259-1036. fairfieldtheatre.org, $60.