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Pure Prairie League ‘basically chomping at the bit’ to play

Pure Prairie League, Orleans & Catfish Murphy

Friday, June 25 at 4 p.m., McGrath Amphitheatre, $10-40


Pure Prairie League plays McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids on June 25. — Laura Schneider

There haven’t been too many summers over the last 50 years when Mike Reilly, Pure Prairie League’s longtime bassist and bandleader, hasn’t been onstage somewhere, harmonizing on the chorus to “Amie.” After 18 months of waiting, he’ll finally be able to do it again when Pure Prairie League plays with Orleans and Catfish Murphy at the McGrath Amphitheatre tomorrow, June 25. The show begins at 4 p.m.; tickets start at $10.

Reilly says the last time Pure Prairie League played a show in front of an audience was on February 25, 2020. In the year and a half since, he’s been doing what most people have: woodshedding at home.

“I got a ton of stuff done at my house. I built a little studio. I worked in the yard. I’ve been able to spend a lot of quality time with my wife, which you know, is really a good thing when you can work on your relationships,” Reilly says from his home in Long Island, New York. He says he’s also been putting together a live record full of “selected greatest hits and misses” from their shows in 2019 and 2020, prior to the pandemic.

Along with Reilly, current band members Randy Harper, John David Call, Donnie Lee Clark and Scott Thompson make up this lineup of Pure Prairie League. Their return to the road in 2021 celebrates Pure Prairie League’s 50th year as a seminal recording and touring country rock band. In their early days, the band released five consecutive Top 40-charting records in the ’70s, adding another in the ’80s. Their legacy is often tied up with that now ubiquitous song, “Amie,” but Pure Prairie League has also been a consistent starting point for young country musicians to hone their craft and gain exposure.

“It always has been basically a kind of a springboard or a platform for a lot of artists,” Reilly says. He lists a few names: George Ed Powell, Jeff Wilson, Gary Burr, Larry Goshorn, Fats Kaplin and, perhaps most notably, Vince Gill.

Gill had opened up a show for PPL in his hometown of Oklahoma City. He was in a bluegrass band at the time, and Reilly invited him to come onstage and play a few songs with PPL. After the show, Reilly says he offered him a job in the band.

“He said, ‘Nah, man. I’m a bluegrasser,’” Reilly says.

“A couple of years later we were in LA. We were auditioning guitar players and Vince showed up with his buddy who wanted to audition, which he did. But the guy actually blew chunks,” Reilly says. “That was the end of the day so you know I said to Vince, ‘Hey, you feel like sticking around and jamming for a little while and he says ‘Yeah, I’ve got my guitar in the car.’ So we played for four hours, and then at midnight that night I said, ‘Well how about now. What do you think? Want the gig?’ He said ‘Yep I’m in.’”

As the lineup has shifted over the decades, the only other consistent “band member” besides Reilly has been the mustachioed Sad Luke, who has graced the cover of every album the band has ever released. Reilly says they found Sad Luke after they’d already named the band after a fictional women’s temperance union from the 1939 Errol Flynn cowboy film, Dodge City.

“They were sitting in one of the offices with the A&R, just paging through this Norman Rockwell book, and they happened on this Saturday Evening Post cover from 1927. It was Sad Luke sitting there in front of his gramophone and that was actually from a photo that Rockwell had taken of his model that he used a lot,” Reilly says. “His name was James K. Van Brunt and Rockwell dropped in on him, basically kind of unannounced and saw Van Brunt sitting there just like the picture: all dressed up in his old cowboy regalia and he had that Enrico Caruso record in his hands called Dreams of Long Ago, and he was sort of like just thinking about his wife who had passed away and his old cowboy days and stuff like that and we just thought that that fit perfectly.”

“It was branding before branding was even a term,” he adds. “We didn’t know it, we just loved the guy and Rockwell loved that we had used the cover. We got to meet Rockwell in 1975. We went to his studio and all that and he loved what we were doing with it, really.”

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As for “Amie,” the band’s most well-known and often-covered song, it almost never got released as a single at all. The song was included on the band’s 1972 record, Bustin’ Out, sandwiched closely with its companion song, “Falling In and Out of Love.” It wasn’t released by RCA as a single until three years later, in 1975, after PPL had played hundreds of shows at colleges, bars and concert halls across America.

“Basically, the reason that “Amie” became a success is because we crammed it down all those college kids’ throats for several years,” Reilly says.

“Craig Fuller, the guy that wrote the song, had left the band in February of 1973 due to draft problems with the Selective Service. We decided, ‘Well are we going to continue or are we going to let this thing just fade away,’ so to speak, and you know the other five of us said ‘Wait a minute, this is too important just to let go by the wayside,’” Reilly says. “We have a lot more music and you know everybody believes in what we’re doing, and you know it just opened the door.”

That door has never closed for Pure Prairie League and Mike Reilly, who also plays in a jazz supergroup called Ricky and the Rockets when he’s not on the road with PPL. It consists of singer and keyboardist from Supertramp Rick Davies and G. E. Smith, longtime guitarist from Saturday Night Live.

“We play a couple of little clubs and stuff like that and some fundraisers and charity events, but it’s great. It’s a lot of fun. We play some Supertramp songs and some old Art Blakey and Mose Allison and a lot of blues and jazz. That keeps us busy,” Reilly says.

He promises to always keep Pure Prairie League rolling on, though, as long as he is able, well path its fifth decade.

“The first time I saw PPL play it was one of their first gigs in 1970 and I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are really good, I like what they’re doing and, and I want to do this someday.’ So, you know, a couple years later when I had gotten back from living in England for a year and playing with a band in England and touring, they called me up and said, ‘Hey man, we need a bass player and you’re it, so let’s go,’” Reilly says.

“I’ve always believed in this band and the music and the musical direction. It’s just been one of those kinds of things where I love doing this and you know, if you got to work, you better love what you do.”


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