Pure Prairie League is a country-rock band which originated in Southern Ohio. Founding members include singer/songwriter/guitarist Craig Fuller and pedal steel guitarist John David Call.
The band is named after a fictional 19th century women’s temperance union which appeared in the 1939 Errol Flynn cowboy film, Dodge City. The group’s self-titled first album featured a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover painting of a cowboy named “Sad Luke” who went on to be featured in some form on every subsequent PPL release.
Bassist Mike Reilly joined Pure Prairie League during the 1972 recording of the group’s second album, Bustin’ Out. Nearly two and a half years after its release, Bustin’ Out rose into the Top 40, eventually going gold in 1975. Also that year, “Amie,” a Craig Fuller composition from the album, became a Top 40 hit, although by that point, Fuller was no longer in the band.
Pure Prairie League’s third album, Two Lane Highway, had guest appearances by The Eagles’ Don Felder, guitarist Chet Atkins, and singer Emmylou Harris. In 1978, Vince Gill joined the group’s lineup. Gill’s lead vocal can be heard on the group’s Top 10 hit from their 1980 album, Firin’ Up, “Let Me Love You Tonight,” along with saxophone playing by jazz musician David Sanborn.
Over the years, Pure Prairie League influenced a number of notable country rockers including Keith Urban, Nickel Creek, and Counting Crows. More recently, the group has been touring the USA with long-time members Mike Reilly and John David Call, along with newer additions Donnie Lee Clark on guitar, Scott Thompson on drums, and Randy Harper on guitar and keyboards.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Mike Reilly, who talked to us about his childhood musical roots, the rise of Pure Prairie League, and about what he and the rest of the band are up to these days.
Spotlight Central: We’re told you come from Fort Thomas — a town in Northern Kentucky near the Ohio border — but were you born into a musical family?
Mike Reilly: No, my dad could whistle and my mom could sing, but that’s about it.
Spotlight Central: What kind of music did you listen to while you were growing up?
Mike Reilly: All the early rock and roll stuff was just the best — Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly, and all the usual influences — but my dad always had what we called the “ hillbilly” station, WCKY in Cincinnati, on the radio in the morning when he’d get up to go to work. So we listened to a lot of bluegrass and a lot of country music when I was a kid, and that definitely had a big influence on me.
Later on, when I was getting into high school, the Cincinnati area was a hotbed for a lot of different kinds of music. There were great jazz musicians there, and James Brown, of course, was recording at Starday-King studios. Lonnie Mack, the blues guitar player, was always playing around — as a matter of fact, the reason I started playing music was because I had snuck into a club in Kentucky when I was way underage to see Lonnie Mack and when I heard him play and sing I said, “That’s it! That’s it for me!”
Spotlight Central: When did you get interested in playing the bass?
Mike Reilly: I never had any musical training whatsoever, so I actually went out to Sears and bought a Danelectro Silvertone bass — with the amplifier and speaker in the case — and I started teaching myself how to play it at age 14.
Spotlight Central: As you were growing up, did you play in any bands?
Mike Reilly: Oh, yeah! Right out of the eighth grade, I got a couple of guys together I’d gone to school with and we formed a band called the Marc IV. We played swim clubs and sock hops and stuff like that back in 1964.
Spotlight Central: Did you play rock music or country?
Mike Reilly: We were just a cover band, basically, so we were doing Beatles’ songs, and Byrds’ songs, and “Gloria,” and other stuff from that era.
Spotlight Central: Didn’t at one point you play with The Lemon Pipers, the Ohio group which had a 1968 hit with “Green Tambourine”?
Mike Reilly: I did. It was basically a tour, and it was the last incarnation of The Lemon Pipers. I wasn’t on the original recordings, and I wasn’t touring with the original band, but they were from the same area I was from: Oxford, Ohio. As a teenager, I used to play the bars in Oxford every weekend, and I knew all the guys who had been in that band. Bill Bartlett was a great guitar player and Dale Brown, the lead singer, had a band called Ivan and the Sabers, which was a huge Cincinnati band.
There was a lot of music going on at that time, so there was never any shortage of different kinds of music to play. They had a big country music club, Bobby Mackey’s, in Northern Kentucky and, once again, there were a lot of jazz clubs — The Dee Felice Trio played in Northern Kentucky in Covington — so it was just a really great area for music at the time.
Spotlight Central: We’re told that when you joined Pure Prairie League, you were in the midst of rehearsing for a tour with a country blues band which was the opening act for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Tour.
Mike Reilly: That’s right. I was living in Woodstock, NY at the time, and we had a band called the Robert Lee Band with this singer/songwriter from Florida named Robert Lee. Michael Conner and Billy Hinds — the piano player and drummer from Pure Prairie League — were living in Woodstock, too, and we got a chance to record an album. They said, “Do you want to do it in L.A. or in London?” so we all said, “London,” and we moved to England for a year. We rented a house outside of London, recorded the album there, and went on tour and did a bunch of gigs. We did all the usual clubs — the Top Hat in Manchester and the Marquee in London — but then our booking agent also booked Bowie so they put us on a bunch of those dates.
Spotlight Central: That’s very cool! You’ve said that you were brought into Pure Prairie League just as they were recording Bustin’ Out, an album which includes the group’s first hit, “Amie.” You’ve probably been asked this a zillion times, but is there an actual “Amie”?
Mike Reilly: No, there was never an actual person named Amie; there are other people who influenced the song who were real people, but no one was actually named Amie. Basically, it was just a take on the French verb, amier, which means “to love,” but I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, especially people named Amie.
Spotlight Central: That’s our daughter’s name, so we had to ask!
Mike Reilly: There you go. It’s funny, because we get so many people saying, “I know you guys wrote and recorded that song for me!” and people named their daughters and granddaughters Amie after the song, but I wish I had a nickel for every Amie who was named for that tune.
Spotlight Central: What were your thoughts on that very unique so-called “medley” on Bustin’ Out which opens with the “Falling In and Out of Love with You” intro and then segues into “Amie” before circling back to the “Falling In and Out of Love with You” reprise?
Mike Reilly: Well, those are actually two different songs. “Falling In and Out of Love with You” was a song that just couldn’t get finished. It was the producer, Bob Ringe’s, idea to just combine the two: start out the song with the reprise from “Falling In and Out of Love,” and then do the song, “Amie” — which, strangely enough, was a much harder rock tune than the way it finally turned out — and then, reprise back into “Falling In and Out of Love With You” at the end. So it was just one of those serendipitous things that really seemed to work.
Spotlight Central: When “Amie” first appeared on Bustin’ Out, it wasn’t a hit, but it became one two-and-a-half years later. How did that happen?
Mike Reilly: We recorded “Amie” in 1972. It was released around Christmas of ’72 or January of ’73, but we started touring for that album in September of 1972.
By the way, the first show I ever played with Pure Prairie League was on Labor Day of ’72 and that was at the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival in Bull Island, Illinois. Most of the Woodstock lineup, along with 300,000 people, were there, so it was quite a way to start!
But we were out on tour, and “Amie” had not yet been released as a single at this point. We signed with a booking agency in Minneapolis called Variety Artists International, and they were one of the biggest college booking agents in the country. So we went out and we started touring at different colleges doing 250–275 shows a year for eight or ten years in a row.
Spotlight Central: And that helped propel interest in the song?
Mike Reilly: That was it — pretty much, it was us jamming “Amie” down every college student’s throat. Plus, lots of kids in college at that time wanted to learn how to play guitar and “Amie” was a pretty easy song for them to learn on, so it became a popular college hit. All the college radio stations started playing it, and then other radio stations were picking it up, too, and then RCA finally perked up and said, “We gotta find these guys and see what’s going on.”
Spotlight Central: You’ve said that Pure Prairie League plays “good time music” with “a certain brand of country harmony and rock ’n’ roll voices.” Is this something the band members consider during the songwriting process — keeping in mind the unique Pure Prairie League voices and harmonies?
Mike Reilly: Well, those are considerations, but they’re not the primary influences; we just write what we write. But, yes, Pure Prairie League has a sort of — I’d be feeling like I was bragging if I said, “We had our own sound” — but it is fairly unique for a bunch of guys from the Midwest who play country and rock and roll music. So, yes, those are considerations, but it just turns out that that’s what we do and that’s what we’ve done for the last fifty years: heavily harmony-influenced music with good musicianship.
Spotlight Central: So you’re saying it’s more of an arranging consideration?
Mike Reilly: Yes, that’s right. The writing part comes from each individual’s experience and writing his own tune, and then all the lipstick on the pig comes afterwards.
Spotlight Central: Pure Prairie League started out playing a blend of country and rock, but in the disco era, you scored a huge hit with “Let Me Love You Tonight.” How did you guys come up with that very cool pop/country-rock/jazz arrangement?
Mike Reilly: In 1977, after we recorded the Live! Takin’ the Stage album, our pedal steel guitar player, John Call, was suffering from really bad back problems, and when we finally finished up the Live! album tour, John had to retire from the band. I’m sure you remember the big disco scare in the late-‘70s and the ‘80s? Well, RCA was pressuring us to be a little bit less “Pure Prairie League”-sounding and a little bit more “pop”-sounding. They wanted us to sound more like bands like Ambrosia and Player.
In 1978, Can’t Hold Back was Vince Gill’s first Pure Prairie League album, and we also had David Sanborn playing sax with us — he’s an old friend of mine. So Jeff Wilson was the songwriter — and, actually, in ’78 on Can’t Hold Back it was Patrick Bolin who was the other guitar player with Vince, and Pat and I wrote several songs together — plus Vince, of course, had just started to become a songwriter. And so those tunes were based on the songs that we were coming up with and the production that lent itself to — I guess you’d say — “pop” music more than country-rock. I mean, you can’t help sounding country on songs like “White Line” by Willie P. Bennett — a song that Vince did on that record, and other songs like that — but there were a lot more R&B influences and even some jazz on that album.
Spotlight Central: After the “Let Me Love You Tonight” single started rising and the group became more and more popular, the band appeared on a number of television shows including American Bandstand with Dick Clark, Solid Gold, Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, The Merv Griffin Show, and many more. Do you have any particular memories of those experiences? For instance, we’re thinking about when Dick Clark met you and suggested that you and Vince were super tall?
Mike Reilly: That was kind of funny — and Dick Clark was the nicest man in the world — but Vince is 6’2” and I’m 6’3” and when we did the show and Dick Clark was standing in between us, he said, “It’s like being in the Land of the Giants!” And then Vince put his arm around him and Dick looked up and joked, “Don’t touch me!” but he liked the band and he was just a super generous and warm guy to us.
And, yes, we did all kinds of shows. We did The Captain and Tennille Show, The John Davidson Show, The Midnight Special, Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, Austin City Limits — and, in fact, I just got an email from them. They’re gonna do a Best of Austin City Limits DVD boxed set and they asked us if they could use one of our performances, so that will be kind of neat.
Spotlight Central: You wrote a number of songs for the band — “All the Way,” which had Emmylou Harris singing on the recording — and you co-wrote other songs like “Fade Away.” Do you have a favorite Pure Prairie League song you’ve written that you like to play or listen to?
Mike Reilly: I really do like the song, “Fade Away.” It was the first song Larry Goshorn and I wrote together when we moved to L.A. in ’75. I was going through a relationship breakup, and it’s just one of those songs that came from personal experience that’s about someone you still have a warm spot in your heart for.
There was even a guy — a creative writing professor in Connecticut or New Jersey — who held a class on songwriting and used that as an example of how to craft a good song. I don’t consider myself a great writer, but I’m a really good collaborator — Larry and I wrote well together, and Pat Bowen and I wrote well together — so it’s just one of those things where, yeah, I was pretty lucky even to get a song on a record because we had a lot of good songwriters in the band over the years.
Spotlight Central: We’ve seen the band in person and we’ve noticed that you have fans consisting of two and even three generations who come together to see you perform. That has to be really special to have families of multiple generations who love your music, isn’t it?
Mike Reilly: It’s really gratifying to see people who are our age — you know, most of those people were in college in the ’70s, and we were one of their first dates, or first concerts, or whatever — and those memories kind of flood back when they come to see the show. But then the next generation of people, and even the next after that — I mean, people are bringing their grandchildren and they come up to us and say, “We really like your Two-Lane Highway album,” or “We really like the Bustin’ Out album.” And then, of course, there are the legions of Vince Gill fans who were big fans of the band in the ’80s. So we’re really lucky and blessed seeing the range of the demographic that comes to see our shows.
Spotlight Central: Since concerts have been suspended, what have you and the rest of the PPL band members been up to?
Mike Reilly: We’re all trying to keep ourselves busy staying at home; everybody’s got projects to do. After not being home in the summertime for the last 12 years, the “honey-do” list has grown to epic proportions, so that’s being whittled down. But we’re still playing — each of us has a little studio in our house — and we’re all trying to stay involved and keep our chops up and keep watching the calendar to see when we’re gonna get back on the road. You just never know with this Covid-19 thing. It’s very difficult. And because of my age and John Call’s age, we’re in the prime risk category for it — and I’m certainly not complaining — but you have to be extra cautious these days to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.
Spotlight Central: Absolutely. Before we wrap things up, is there anything else you’d like to add — or anything special you’d like to say to all the fans of Pure Prairie League’s music?
Mike Reilly: We’re getting ready to start another record in July. At the end of the month, we’re gonna begin recording in Nashville, and it’s gonna be another kind of a “retrospective plus new songs” thing, sort of like the Mementos Vol. I album we did in 1987. It’s gonna have a lot of guys from the band over the years — Vince Gill and Craig Fuller, Gary Burr and Curtis Wright, and a lot of other people — and we’re gonna re-record ten songs that we’ve been playing on stage and really enjoy playing, and then we’ve got five new tunes that we’re gonna put on there, some of which we’ve been also been playing on stage.
Spotlight Central: We’re already looking forward to hearing it!
Mike Reilly: We’re looking forward to recording it. That’s one of the things that’s been keeping us busy — putting together arrangements and charts, and arranging the vocals and stuff like that. We keep in touch — we all talk every week — and we’re just working on our parts and stuff so that when we get down to Nashville at the end of next month, we’re gonna rehearse for a few days and then go into the studio and start cutting. And, you know, hopefully, we’ll get something ready by Labor Day — or by Christmas at the latest — so we’re looking forward to that and to getting back on the road.
In the meantime, we hope everybody knows to stay safe, and to be smart, and to act responsibly — and that’ll get us all back into the theaters and concert halls even sooner!
To learn more about Pure Prairie League, please go to pureprairieleague.com. To learn more about Pure Prairie League’s upcoming concert with Orleans and Poco — currently scheduled for Friday, October 30, 2020 at BergenPAC in Englewood, NJ — please click on bergenpac.org.
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