How a founder of country rock found Christ
Q&A | Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Richie Furay now pastors a church in Broomfield, Colo.
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 10/18/14, 08:52 am
Richie Furay, a former member of the band Buffalo Springfield, became a pastor after the band broke up. The band’s iconic song “For What It’s Worth,” written by Stephen Stills, had such a great impact on popular music that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Buffalo Springfield in 1997, even though the band only lasted two years. After the breakup, Furay and bandmate Jim Messina started the influential country rock band Poco. That band’s 1969 album, Pickin' Up the Pieces, is considered by some to be the first country rock album, leading the way for later bands like the Eagles. Today, he pastors the Calvary Chapel Church in Broomfield, Colo., where we had this conversation.
In preparation for this conversation that you and I are having, I went on YouTube and searched for Buffalo Springfield, and one of the first videos that came up was a 1967 television appearance of the band singing “For What It’s Worth.” There were 7 million views of that video. Does that seem surreal to you? When you give me those numbers it sounds surreal. When I think of the song and the impact that it has had in American music, in the American culture … it’s been almost known as the protest song of the nation, and a lot of people don’t even know what the song is about. Ahmet Ertegun was the president of Atlantic Records. He is an absolute legend in the music business. Ahmet came out and he was listening to songs. Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and I played all the songs that we had. We were putting our guitars away, and Stephen said, “Oh, I have another one, for what it’s worth.” That became the song.
“For what it’s worth” doesn't appear in the lyrics of the song at all. Ever. No.
That song is a protest song, and it came to represent the progressive movement, the protests of the 1960s against the Vietnam War and everything else. How do you feel about singing that song today? Does it still resonate with you in the same way that it did then? Probably not in the same way as it did then. The fact is, I would have missed it. When Stephen actually started playing the song, it sounded like a nice little folk song. … It was about a problem that was going on [in Los Angeles] at Laurel Canyon, Crescent Heights, and Sunset Boulevard. The police were trying to shut down a gathering place of young kids, and Stephen happened upon it. It had nothing to do with the Vietnam War. That’s just how that song was absorbed. It certainly had an impact upon the world. … It’s on all the time.
I never played the song in any of my groups outside of Buffalo Springfield until a year ago when my band was invited to come to Japan. Part of the deal was, would you play “For What It’s Worth?” Today, I don’t mind playing it. It’s okay. I don't think there's anything offensive about the song.
After Buffalo Springfield, you started the band Poco with Jim Messina. Your first album was called Pickin' Up the Pieces, which was your way of saying you were picking up the pieces of Buffalo Springfield and moving on as this new band. That is true; that's very accurate. … I wrote “We’re pickin’ up the pieces, moving on.” We wanted to cross that line between country music and rock and roll. It’s interesting that we never really got the opportunity to play at the Grand Ole Opry or any of that, but that was what we had in mind.
Do you think Poco will ever be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Country rock and the whole Americana music movement that we are in the midst of today really owes a huge debt to Poco, wouldn't you say? I couldn't agree with you more. Somebody had to pioneer. Somebody had to pave the way for the bands, and you know what, Poco was that band, for sure.
I want to fast forward to 1989. Poco got together with some of the original band members. You all had a hit called “Call It Love.” I want to ask you about that song, in particular, because you’re a pastor now; you’re a committed believer. The song itself is not super suggestive, but the video was, shall we say, hot. Did that cause you any anxiety? Absolutely. I left the band because of it. I was told that I would have input and oversight over any video that was released. I talked to Michael Bay, a very famous producer and director today who made the video, and was assured that there would be nothing offensive to me and that before it was released I would be able to comment on it and make any changes. As it turned out, Poco was in Nashville at the national convention for RCA Records at the time, and I find out that the record had already been released. When I went downstairs to get confirmation on that, I pulled a Neil Young on the band, if you will, because we were going to play that night before the RCA convention. I just went to the airport and got on the plane and left. I said, “Listen, if you won’t listen to my words, maybe my actions will make a difference.”
I was just disappointed that they released that video without really giving me input because when Nancy and I did see it, I checked off a lot of things. Maybe today I wouldn’t have checked off so many things, thinking it was not so suggestive. I’m not only a Christian, but I’m a pastor of a church. The first person who saw that video that I know of was my pastor, Greg Laurie. It was, oh, my goodness, how am I going to talk about this and justify this? Today, maybe it wouldn't seem quite as … dramatic as it did back then, but I think the principle of the thing was that they gave me their word that I would be able to talk to them and have my input and have any changes that I felt was necessary and, bingo, they put the thing out on VH1 and it was like it doesn’t matter.
I will say, though, the video just blew up and turned that song into a hit. The video aside, it’s a great song. It is a good song. It’s got a great hook; it’s got a great melody.
After you left Poco, you formed the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. There was a guy in that band who ultimately led you to Christ. Can you tell me about that? All this time that Souther-Hillman-Furay is getting together, there was this guy Al Perkins that I did not want in the band. Chris Hillman came and said, “Look, he’s a great guitar player. He’s a steel guitar player, a banjo player, a Dobro player. This guy is a great player. Got to have him in the band.” I said, “No. Absolutely not. … He’s got this little fish sticker on his guitar that says ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and I know that will be the end of our group.”
Chris won out and Al joined the band, and it sure wasn’t long before Al started sharing his faith. He’d say, “You want to pray?” No. “You want to pray? You want to pray?” He’d just keep on and on and on for a couple of months. Finally, one day we were in Aspen, Colo., and I go to Al, “Yeah. I want to pray.” We prayed that night. I got on the phone with my wife the next morning. I called her on the phone and told her, “Honey, I’ve accepted the Lord.” I knew she had accepted the Lord before, which is another story that I should have probably led up to it. When I told her that I accepted the Lord, there was dead silence on the other end of the phone. She was already, in her mind, out of the marriage. The last thing she wanted to hear was that I had become a believer in Jesus Christ. That kind of put a little bit of a damper on her decisions and how she was going to navigate through the rest of this.
When I came back home, she came over to get me. We rode back home in probably the longest and coldest two or three hours that I can ever remember. She told me she wanted out of the marriage. I got on the phone with Al Perkins. I left my home that next morning and went to California. Nancy and I were separated then. We separated for seven months after being married for seven years. Al took me down to Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., with Pastor Chuck Smith, and that’s where I really got grounded in my faith and tried to get Nancy to come out for counseling. She did one time. … That’s when she actually even told me to come get my stuff, move it out of the house; we’re done here. It was a pretty intense time, to say the least, but the Lord was working.
What got you through all of that? What got me through it was Al Perkins was right there by my side, plus lot of friends that I had in California: friends from the group Love Song, John Mehler and Jay Truax and Tom Stipe, and a guy named Steve Julio that we called Bugsy. Bugsy was a road manager, and he was definitely encouraging. These guys kept around me because things got so serious I even came close to that line of thinking, this isn’t even worth it anymore; I just don’t even want to live anymore.
They walked you back from that? They were there for me to nurse me all the way through it. We were recording and just about ready to finish up the second Souther-Hillman-Furay record, and Nancy called me. This was probably five and a half, six months into it. She called me and she said, “Timmie wants to come up and see you.” Timmie is my oldest daughter. I said, “Fine. Bring her up.” I think Nancy’s heart was being softened this time, though we did not get back together then. I did have to go back to California. We had made some kind of agreement between ourselves that after about another month had passed by I would come back and we’d start to work on our marriage. …
It wasn’t like just flipping on a switch and everything is blue skies, green lights, and tops-down weather. It wasn’t like that. It took a little bit of work. Nancy this day would tell you, “I didn’t love him. I didn’t have love in my heart, and I just asked the Lord”—she had accepted the Lord before me—“put that love back in my heart.” Here we are today, 47 years. …
Just after you came to the Lord and during that season when you were away from your wife, you mentioned the guys from Love Song being among those guys who came around you to sustain you through that time. A couple of those guys became part of your band as well. They became the first incarnation of the Richie Furay Band. Tom Stipe, who now pastors out here, wrote songs. Jay Truax was then in the band. John Mehler was the drummer. … Believe me, before this band got together, I had no intentions, no desire. Before Nancy and I separated, all I wanted was to be up there on that same level as Stephen Stills and Neil Young and Jimmy Messina and Randy Meisner and on down the line. When Nancy and I separated, all I wanted was Nancy back and my family. There were just a whole lot of changes, and starting another band was one of the farthest things from my mind. But the Lord just brought musicians into my life, and we started talking, we started playing. … We made a record called I’ve Got a Reason.
It was on Asylum Records, as I recall? Yeah, it was. It was part of my makeup for leaving Souther-Hillman-Furay. I owed [them] a couple of records, so that was one of them. … It’s interesting that it got great reviews coming right out of the box. The record industry magazines, Cash Box, Billboard, Record World, gave it great reviews. I can remember as I was finishing it up, David Geffen came to me and he said, “You’re not going to give me any of the Jesus music, are you?” It’s interesting that the word “Jesus” is not mentioned on that record one time, but you can tell exactly who is underneath and the influence of that music. It talks about Nancy’s and my relationship, our separation, our coming back together. “Mighty Maker” is about crying out to the Lord to put our lives back together, our marriage back together.
I found myself like I have in so many places, particularly with Poco. When we started Poco, we were too country for rock and we were too rock for country. With I've Got a Reason, I found myself also in a dilemma that I was too secular for the Christian world and too Christian for the secular world. As Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s the power of God, the salvation to those who believe, to the Jew first and then to the Gentile.” Once I made that decision to put my hand to the plow, there was no looking back. There was no looking back whatsoever. Nevertheless, the Christian world would not embrace that record like I thought that they were going to. I wanted … to put together the rock and roll band for God, but I think that’s really an impossibility, to tell you the truth.
Why is that? I just don't believe the world, and particularly as you look at the world today, are they ever going to accept something as cut and dry. … I did a tour a couple of years ago with Chris Hillman. Chris is a believer, and he’s still a great friend of mine. We were out together doing a show, and I got a call from Nike up in Oregon, my manager. They wanted to know what Richie’s set list was going to be. My manager was inquisitive and asked them, “What’s it about?” “Well, we bought all these spaces for our group and our company to come to the show. We just want to make sure that we’re not going to be getting some … ” Going to church, in other words. We assured them that it wasn’t going to be like that, although we do play, obviously, what I do. There’s a threat because I have always been up front with my faith and my belief. I’ve always been up front. Once I put my hand to the plow, there was no looking back.
Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s full conversation with Buffalo Springfield member Richie Furay on Listening In: