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Pure Prairie League co-headlines Whistlestock benefit

Pure Prairie League co-headlines Whistlestock benefitAsk music fans who came of age in the 1970s what they remember about the country rock pioneers Pure Prairie League and chances are they’ll recall the Ohio-born band’s most memorable hit, “Amie,” a tune with a hook that’s so irresistible that it defies you to forget it once it gets into your head.

Pure Prairie League will of course play that signature song, infecting a whole new generation, when the band co-headlines — with Jesse Colin Young — the fourth annual Whistlestock, a Sept. 24 benefit concert for Marin Senior Coordinating Council, aka Whistlestop, a San Rafael nonprofit that has been caring for the needs of older people in the county since 1954.

Written by band co-founder Craig Fuller, “Amie,” wasn’t released as a single when it came out as a track on the group’s second album, 1972’s “Bustin’ Out.” After Fuller applied to become a conscientious objector, refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, he was sentenced to six months in prison for draft evasion. With the band’s future in jeopardy, RCA unceremoniously dropped the group from the label.

Fuller later won conscientious objector status and was eventually given a full pardon by President Gerald Ford. But, at the time, all the remaining members could think of to do to keep the band working was to hit the road, playing a heavy schedule of mostly college gigs up and down the East Coast and throughout the Midwest.

“When RCA finally re-signed us in 1975, it was because we had been playing 275 college dates a year, cramming ‘Amie’ down every college student’s throat,” says 68-year-old Mike Reilly, the band’s bassist and spokesman for 45 years. “That’s the story of the success of that song.”

After radio stations began playing “Amie” by popular request, RCA finally put it out as a single. It climbed into the top 40 on the pop charts and was so ubiquitous on college campuses that Amie (more commonly spelled “Amy”) became one of the most popular girls’ names of the decade. In fact, Whistlestop CEO Joe O’Hehir named his daughter Amy after the song.


Ironically, Reilly says, “There never was anyone named Amie that the song was written about.” Fuller, he explains, was inspired by “mon amie,” a French phrase for a female friend.

“A lot of Amys come up to us and say, ‘That song was written for me, right?’” Reilly says. “We say, ‘Of course it was.’ But the genesis of the song remained shrouded in mystery until this very moment.”

Pure Prairie League, named after a fictional 19th century temperance union that was in the 1939 western movie “Dodge City,” continued to score hits like “Two Lane Highway” in 1975 and a duet with guest singer Emmylou Harris on the country song “Just Can’t Believe It.”

The group went through numerous personnel changes over the decades. It enjoyed its greatest commercial success after future country star Vince Gill joined the band in 1978. He sang lead on the singles “Still Right Here in My Heart,” a number seven chart hit, and “Let Me Love You Tonight,” a pop song that featured a saxophone rather than a pedal steel guitar and shot up to number one on the Adult Contemporary charts. Gill left in 1982 to pursue his successful solo career.


“We’ve been a springboard for a lot of artists who went on to bigger and better things,” Reilly says. “Vince just happened to be the golden boy.”

Reilly, who lives in Sag Harbor on Long Island in New York, came back from a life-saving liver transplant in 2006 to lead the band alongside guitarist-singer Donnie Lee Clark, drummer-singer Scott Thompson and founding member John David Call. They’re all in their late 60s and early 70s, and still play about 55 dates a year.

“We’re getting a little long in the tooth, but I’ll tell you this, we still go out there on stage with fire in the belly,” Reilly says.

The idea for the Whistlestock benefit concerts came from Pete Slauson, a former Marin music business insider who is now Whistlestop client. He’ll serve as this year’s stage manager.

The first three Whistlestock concerts were staged at Rancho Nicasio with such heritage acts as Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe McDonald, It’s a Beautiful Day and the Quicksilver spinoff Imperial Messenger Service. Each one raised about $140,000 to support Whistlestop, which offers transportation and food services for seniors, plus peer counseling, classes and workshops. And they proved that you’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll.

This is the first year Whistlestock will be at the county fairgrounds, a much larger outdoor venue with the potential to raise twice as much money as the previous shows. The goal this time is $300,000.

“This is absolutely our biggest single fundraiser of the year,” says Jennifer Golbus, Whistlestop’s marketing strategist. “And it’s a feel-good thing, too, bringing a concert like this to a community that has supported us all these years. And we’re trying to bust that old stigma about older people. Yes, we have services that older adults need, but we’re also about fun and enjoying life.”

If you go

What: Whistlestock, with Pure Prairie League, Jesse Colin Young and Rewind

When: 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 24

Where: Fairgrounds Island, Marin Center, San Rafael

Admission: $69 to $129


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