116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Pure Prairie League fans can get their hands on a collectors’ item June 25, when the band kicks off its latest tour during The Roundup — a flavorful festival blending award-winning barbecue and hit-making music at the McGrath Amphitheatre in downtown Cedar Rapids.
Among the various items on the merchandise table will be T-shirts trumpeting the band’s 50th anniversary — in 2020.
“We did five shows last year in January and February, and then (the pandemic) shut us down,” said Mike Reilly, bass player, vocalist and one of the longtimers in the band that emerged from Ohio in 1970.
He had the T-shirts already printed up. “But that’s OK, now they’re collectors’ items,” he quipped by phone from his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., on the east end of Long Island.
The band has evolved in the years since pedal steel guitarist John David Call and his buddies in Waverly, Ohio, began playing cover tunes in 1965. Five years later, Call fired up Pure Prairie League, and the hits started rolling through the airwaves like “Amie,” “Two Lane Highway,” and “Let Me Love You Tonight.”
The band’s sound has been called country-rock, and its cover of “That’ll be the Day” has blazing rock guitar one minute, giving way to twangy country guitar the next. But that’s not how Reilly sees it. He calls it a “Midwestern” sound.
“We grew up in Cincinnati,” he said. “We had a great jazz scene, a great blues scene, a heavy country scene, and a lot of bluegrass and a lot of R&B — and James Brown was there recording, too, so there was soul music.
“We had a real diverse background growing up, then playing in the clubs and bars. We played everything from the Beatles to Lonnie Mack. Plus, Poco had just come out with their first record in ’69, and we individually wore those records out,” he said. “We were big fans of the Byrds and Poco, and basically, that’s what we wanted to do — play rock music with country meanings and country instruments.”
One of the biggest stars to have joined the band before spinning off on his own is Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill. He played with Pure Prairie League from the late ’70s to early ’80s, taking lead vocals on “Let Me Love You Tonight,” a Top 10 hit for the band in 1980. After departing, he racked up a slew of solo awards, and now is singing with The Eagles.
What: Pure Prairie League in concert during The Roundup
Where: McGrath Amphitheatre, 475 First St. SW, Cedar Rapids
When: 6 p.m. June 25; Music Park gates open at 4 p.m. with Catfish Murphy up first and Orleans at 8 p.m.; BBQ Food Court opens at 11 a.m.
Tickets: $10 to $40 VIP, creventslive.com/events/2020/pure-prairie-league
Band’s website: pureprairieleague.com
Co-founder Call still is with group, as well as Reilly, who joined in 1972, and coming onboard in the 2000s, Donnie Lee Clark on guitars, Scott Thompson on drums, and Randy Harper on guitar and keyboards. They all share vocals on the band’s signature tight harmonies, except for Call.
“We don’t let John sing anymore,” Reilly said. “We call him a backup singer, because when he sings, people back up.”
Like so many bands these days, the members are scattered all over, with two in Nashville, one in Georgia, one in Ohio and Reilly in New York. They’re gathering the week before the Cedar Rapids tour relaunch, to rehearse in Clark’s basement in Nashville.
After five decades, “I think we know the songs,” said Reilly, who spent the pandemic year building a studio in his basement, as well as tackling 10 years of honey-do lists.
He said now that the band members are in their 60s, with he and Call in their 70s, they’re pleased to look out over their audiences and see three generations grooving to their music.
“I’d like to think that good music doesn’t go out of fashion,” he said. “Good music is good music.”
Still, he wants listeners to get their money’s worth, playing the hits as well as new material.
“We want them to be entertained — (that’s) the biggest thing,” he said. “We’re not a flashy band. We don’t put on a big stage show — there’s no dancing girls or animals involved. But the reaction we get most of the time, is when we look at audience, we see people sitting there with their eyes rolled back, looking off into space and they’re mouthing the words to the songs, because they’ve known them so long. And they’re transported back into a time when that music was part of their soundtrack.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to deliver. Our band is a great band. We’re all very well-accomplished players, and we kick it right in the rear. Every time we go onstage, we don’t leave anything back, so they get what they’re paying their money for, and we give it to them good. That’s just respect — they’re paying their hard-earned money, especially these days. …
“We don’t take our job for granted.”
But the years haven’t all been smooth sailing. Reilly has worn many hats with the band. He joined in 1972, right after the album “Bustin’ Out” was released. He was already in rehearsals with Maria Muldaur, and wasn’t available for that project.
Shortly after joining Pure Prairie League, however, he stepped into the lead role when co-founder and guitarist Craig Fuller was denied conscientious objector status for draft evasion and was sentenced to six months in jail. He served his time in 1973, and President Gerald Ford eventually pardoned him. But Reilly said Fuller’s heart was no longer in the music, and after playing a few shows with the band, he left the group.
While Fuller’s troubles “threw a monkey wrench into the works,” Reilly said the rest of the crew “decided to keep the torch in the race” and forge ahead.
That attitude has been the secret to their success.
“The main thing is, we all believed in the music and what we’re doing, and we like playing together,” he said. “It’s just one of those things where love what we do and made it a life’s work.”
Reilly has had to overcome another huge hurdle, as well, when he had a liver transplant in 2006. He suffered from an undiagnosed case of hepatitis C, contracted from a blood transfusion following a motorcycle accident in 1969. The disease didn’t show up until around 2000, he said, when it went chronic. By 2006, he was in the hospital, waiting six months for a donor liver.
“I’m like the poster child for successful liver transplantation, although I did have it done by the right hand of God,” he said.
But that wasn’t the beginning or end of his ordeal. He has a rare blood type, and on what would become the night before his transplant, he told his wife to bring his sons to the hospital at 9 a.m., convinced “they were going to pull the plug at noon.”
“That’s how close I was,” he said. “They woke me up at 5 o’clock in the morning and said that a guy in Los Angeles who matched my blood type had a motorcycle accident, and they didn’t even have to transport the liver. They harvested the organ right there (and) drug me onto the table. I’m one lucky sun of a gun.”
And then his luck almost ran out.
“Stupid me, I got out of the hospital after the initial transplant, and six weeks later I went to San Diego to do a gig to prove to myself that I’m invincible, I can do anything, and I wound up back in hospital for six more months. So I learned my lesson. …
“Obviously, God wanted me to play some more Pure Prairie League music.”
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