Interview with Steve Young
Steve Young is a phenomenal singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose work has been covered by the likes of Dolly Parton and Eagles (“Seven Bridges Road”), Hank Jr. (“Montgomery in the Rain”), and Waylon Jennings (“Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean”). He has been making music since the late 50s, when he worked with famed Sun Records producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement. His latest record is a live album, Stories from Around Horseshoe Bend (2007). I spoke with Steve over the phone from his home in Nashville
(This interview originally appeared in Noise Noise Noise, July 2011)
Interview by Josh Medsker
Tell me about the newest record, Stories from Around Horseshoe Bend. How did it come about?
This guy, Tom Sailor put on [a] gig in Youngstown, Ohio. It was his idea to hire me to do it, and then he recorded the show. It’s unusual for me to think one of my recordings was good. I was pleasantly surprised by the whole process.
I like having [recording equipment] around, but then I get tired of it, and walk away. As I get older I find it harder to finish. I don’t feel like I’ve ever truly expressed my entire spectrum. I eventually would like to finish some of these ideas and get them recorded.
You have said “most artists are failures as human beings”. What do you mean when you say that?
Most real artists, like Vincent Van Gogh, and so on… It is kind of a bleak attitude I suppose…I think that real artists are warped as human beings, like they had a hard time growing up, somehow. Van Gogh is, to me, the ultimate artist.
In an interview, you mention the Village scene, which you say you were on the periphery of. That you admired the folkies “sociopolitical leanings” even though you couldn’t go that direction yourself. Why do you think you didn’t go that way?
I embraced the politics of the New England folk singers, but I just couldn’t get it going with that group of fans. I would have liked to. Pete Seeger and that whole crowd, had a more political leaning… embracing Woody Guthrie and folk singers like that. But I was never able to fit into anyone’s category. I don’t really understand why. I wanted to be part of that, but I never could quite make it work.
So, you worked with Jack Clement, huh?
The first record I ever did. Jack Clement had a little studio in Beaumont. He lived in Beaumont, Texas, then . Now he lives in Nashville and has for some time. My mom had remarried. Beaumont was an armpit of the world, and the folk thing was starting to happen, and I had a little folk group. We went down to his studio. I was just a punk kid and I would argue with him. We wound up doing one 45 with Jack. At first he wasn’t interested in doing it, but then The Brothers Four came out, and he said come on back. He is, was quite a character. One of the most unique guys in Nashville.
Have you ever played in Alaska!? They’d love you up there!
Once a long time ago, I went on tour and played a few gigs. I remember Talkeetna most of all. Went to Denali or McKinley as the white people call it. I saw unusual things… [Like] the blue ice that’s probably melted by now! I had a good time on that little tour.
You mention in an interview that you won’t work with big record labels anymore, and prefer to do things independently… What’s your take on the digital music revolution? Has it truly helped young artists or independent-minded artists?
Well I just sort of take it that it’s going to happen. It’s not really right exactly, but the genie is out of the bottle. In my case most of the people who are into doing that are young people… and most people who want to buy cuts of my records would be older people. If I want to learn a song or something, I might go to YouTube and learn it, and put it on my computer.
I’m not officially anything, in that I haven’t taken Buddhist vows, but I’ve always been attracted to eastern philosophy… I have become a hard-line agnostic. I’m not a typical southerner. I grew up with a lot of Southern Baptists in my face. It turned me off. I really appreciate the Zen approach, no dogma.
The thing that best sums it up for me is clear running water. I can’t achieve a lot of [the] ideals, being free, non-attached, being as generous as one might want to be, but I admire Buddhists. I always wanted to be a beatnik. Some of those guys in the beat generation really did it. Gary Snyder. Kerouac could never do it but he admired it. It was odd that a kid in the Deep South would have that feeling.
You have been hailed as a pioneer of “alternative country”, having played with Gram Parsons, and the other Byrds, your connection to Waylon Jennings, and so forth… Why did folks apply that label to you, do you think?
I don’t know. People just have to do that. Personally I think it’s a misnomer. People, they evolve…people call them a pioneer of this… but people just do their thing. When I was teenager, Elvis made a big impression on me. I loved his Sun sessions. I listened to blues. Around me at the time was gospel music. I was born in 1942, and music wasn’t as homogenized as it is now. One thing the south had to offer is the rich roots of music. The south tended to hold things longer. The south produced the roots of Americana music, as we used to know it. Also as a kid, there were street singers around,and lot of those guys were really good… I loved world music…the music of Spain.
You have a very unique voice, sort of a sing/speak thing. How did you find your style?
I don’t know. It’s just the way I hear things. I believe that my greatest talent is in arranging and interpreting. I always thought the guitar,vocals, and words were one thing. That’s kind of what drives what I do, in a sense. It’s just something that sort of pours out of me. The guitar accompaniment, I learned this from Spanish guitar, a guitar is like a symphony,and the flamenco guys really know that. You can work out this accompaniment that is right on.
When do you know you’ve written a good song?
I never know. In fact, I am never quite completely satisfied with anything. I discovered or realized I never wanted to finish anything. The great point is when you’re creating. It’s like a high, you know. When you are finished it’s like shooting a bird out of the sky. For example “Seven Bridges Road”, I didn’t know that song was finished, but then one day we recorded it accidentally. At the time I was doing Rock Salt and Nails. One day we ran out of songs, and James Burton was there, and I started playing “Seven Bridges Road” , and he said to [producer Tommy] LiPuma, hey let’s put this down. LiPuma was a little bit in awe of Burton, so he said hey, let’s record it.