Look Homeward Angel: The Life and Music of Steve Young
When singer-songwriter Steve Young died in hospice care in Nashville on March 17 earlier this year, his son, Jubal Lee Young, issued a note of grace: “My father, Steve Young, passed peacefully tonight in Nashville. While it is a sad occasion, he was also the last person who could be content to be trapped in a broken mind and body. He was far too independent and adventurous. I celebrate his freedom, as well, and I am grateful for the time we had. A true original.”
I read this news with a sense of shock and sadness. I did not know Steve on any deep personal level. We met in the mid-90s when he was based in LA and I was booking music for the Ash Grove. On occasion we talked before or after shows about music, politics, and our mutual Southern upbringing. I hadn’t seen or heard much about him in years. Still I always feel a heavy sadness when an artist who has touched my life passes on. Though not having any direct intimate friendship with the artist, the ties forged with artistic expression can sometimes resonate one’s deepest sorrows and joys. That emotional bond can also make an artist a friend and lasting presence in one’s life.
So it is, when this friend dies, it’s a time of mourning. Perhaps, if this friend has been very popular, this mourning may reveal itself on a mass scale, as with the passing this year of Prince, David Bowie, Ralph Stanley, and Merle Haggard. Yet as sad as these losses are, they at least deliver a degree of resolution through a broad communal response.
This is not what happens, however, when the passage is of an artist little appreciated in their lifetime. For those touched by this kind of artist there is certainly a more solitary grief because fewer feel the loss. But it is also a grief that inevitably comes with unsettled feelings about the origins of a tragic neglect.
“For that voice, that guitar, and those songs to come together in one person is a wonder.” Van Zandt
“Steve is in a league with Dylan and Hank Williams, and he sings like an angel.” Lucinda Williams
“Steve Young is the second greatest county music singer behind George Jones. He has no idea how great he is.” Waylon Jennings
Steve Young as one of the prime movers of the so-called “outlaw country” movement of the 1970s had a moment of popular appeal as the writer of hits such as “Seven Bridges Road,” recorded by the Eagles, “Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean,” for Waylon Jennings, and “Montgomery In the Rain,” covered by Hank Williams, Jr. As a singer-writer-guitarist, Young also gained critical acclaim and the respect of renowned peers such as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Dave Alvin, and Lucinda Williams. But because he came to loath the marketplace compromises inherent in building a career in music, Young turned away from the big time commercial world of music making to follow a more pure quest for spiritual and social truth. Today virtually all his albums are out of print or near impossible to find.
“Obscurity didn’t scare him, but the thought of being the organ grinder’s monkey scared him,” Young’s son Jubal tells me in a conversation discussing his dad’s renegade spirit. “He had a pretty low threshold for bullshit and he was so unique musically and personally that he was going to clash with the suits at the record labels. He was notorious for telling them off and he did sabotage his career. He was not going to give up his principles or his personal freedom. The idea of going out there and doing all that stuff to promote a record— smiling and signing records, being put on the road and told where to play and what you could and could not talk about—he was just not going to do.
“Someone recently told me,” Jubal continues, “that in a confrontation with either A&M or Warner Brothers, I’m not sure, he told them, ‘I know I’ve killed a lot of brain cells over the years but I’m still not dumb enough to be a country music star.’” Not surprisingly, after 1978, Steve Young did not record for a major label record company.
Born in Georgia in 1942 and raised in Gadsden, Alabama, Steve Young seems to have wrestled with feelings of not fitting in throughout his life. Close friend and longtime musical collaborator Van Dyke Parks sums up Young’s alienation: “He was a sharecropper’s son, born and grown in poverty and he talked a lot of his poverty and feelings of not belonging. It was with him early in life in the South, but he also never felt like he belonged in Nashville or LA. And I think these feelings fueled an exploration of self and the world that was lifelong.”
The most visible expression of this search was music. In a 2015 interview with Frank Gutch, Jr., for No Depression, Young describes growing up in a constantly moving, “really dysfunctional family” that left him “uncertain and troubled.” Nevertheless, he found solace in music.
“My mother sang and my father was fascinated with music and sang some, so I ended up latching onto music myself. That was the one thing which to me was very rich and beautiful—the imagery and sounds of Southern music. And that means folk, bluegrass, gospel, blues, country—all those different forms.”
A largely self-taught musician, Young picked up the rudiments of these traditions by listening to local singers and pickers on the streets of Gadsden. Through radio and records there was exposure to Elvis and the Sun Records roster, R & B, and the emerging folk boom. As a teenager, through an awe inspiring concert by Carlos Montoya at a Texas community college, he was introduced to flamenco. Later he would draw in Celtic and Native American traditions. From these varied influences he created a completely original style that could not be easily pinned down and labeled. “He was simply picking up on everything he liked and then putting it together,” says Jubal. “Even today I’m trying to sort it out.”
With the guitar also came songs and singing. In his interview with Gutch, Jr., Young recalls as a child making up songs on a little toy guitar and banging and howling on endlessly until told to stop. By his teenage years, he was performing publicly and “never thought about studying or doing anything other than music.”
After his mom remarried and moved to Beaumont, Texas in his high school years, Young began landing local gigs, made a record with Cowboy Jack Clement, and following his graduation from high school, returned to Alabama to join in the small “beatnik” scene in Birmingham. Along with his expanding and passionate pursuit of music came alcohol and drugs. Following a brief sojourn to New York City to explore the Greenwich Village folk scene, Young returned to the South singing songs stoked by liquored rage and an increasingly political bent. A loose give-a-shit tongue added further antagonism to his relationship with audiences in Montgomery and Birmingham. Years later, this frame of mind would show through in “Montgomery In The Rain”: “All you people don’t look at me and frown/I don’t want to stay here/And I’m just passing through your town…And if it’s all right with you/before I get back on that train/I want to go out by Hank’s tombstone/And cry up a thunderstorm chain.”
In a conversation with me in 1996, sharing love-hate feelings about his Southern roots, Young described his brand of music during the early 60s as being perceived as a kind of treason. As a teenager he had become acquainted with Sing Out! magazine, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. And in Greenwich Village he’d been inspired by the folk protests of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan.
“All of that,” he explained, “really reinforced my rebellious attitude. Woody Guthrie was especially important to me because he sang about the lives of people like I grew up with. A lot of the country singers I liked sang about poor and working people. But Woody went further. He was taking on the ruling powers and pointing a finger. As for the younger crowd, they were writing and singing about things going on now.
“At the same time, back home, because I didn’t share the religious views or ideas of patriotism of most of the people around me, I stood out. I was drinking a lot then and that added to the problem,” he continued. “But I was sincere in what I was singing about. Like Dylan and others, I was singing about injustices of race, class, and war, but I wasn’t doing it in Greenwich Village. Where I was, it was crazy and dangerous. I didn’t fit in and didn’t want to fit in.”
It was about this time that Young hooked up with fellow Gadsden musicians Richard Lockmiller and Jim Connor. Lockmiller remembers: “I’d finished two years in the army and I met Jim Connor in Birmingham after he had dropped out of Harvard. We’d known each other since junior high days. He played banjo, accordion, piano, and guitar, and I had played guitar since I was 12. So we started to get serious about music, playing clubs and had a tour to Europe in 62 and made a record. This guy at Capital heard it, got a hold of us and wanted us to come out to LA and make a record.
“Around this time a friend told us there was this guy in Gadsden who played guitar and wrote his own songs. We thought we could use another guitar player, so we went to find the young man and discovered him living in his grandma’s garage with just a bed, some clothes and a guitar. We shared some songs. His voice and guitar playing were very entertaining and he wrote great songs. So we invited him to come to California with us. He said yes and we packed up a 1963 Impala Station Wagon and headed west.
“By the time we did the Folk Songs and Country Sounds album session in LA,” he adds, “Steve was the leader of the group and the album included three of his songs. Sometime after that I introduced him to Van Dyke Parks and those two developed a long term relationship and did a lot of work together.”
As Parks recollects, it was late 1963 that he first heard Steve Young with Richard and Jim at LA’s legendary folk club, the Ash Grove. At the time, he was connected to the folk scene through playing gigs up and down the California coast with his older brother Carson.
“Musically I was blown away with his playing, the incredible voice, his intensity. But there was more. This was the time of race riots and Selma, and we’d both come from the South and our feelings about the South were something we had in common. He was living in a little place on Mariposa at the time, where this little strip of apartments that housed Southern exiles was known as Tobacco Road. In Steve’s apartment was a framed picture of Governor George Wallace of Alabama and Steve had drawn this Hitlerian mustache on Wallace which I thought was very funny. He had a great sense of humor and we hit it off, as much as anyone could because Steve was basically a solitary spirit.
“At the time, LA was really beginning to find itself as a music center,” Parks explains. “In the East there had been the Brill Building songs, Doo Wop, the folk scene of Greenwich Village, stuff out of Philadelphia. Of course, there were the Beatles and Rolling Stones. But in LA at that time there was an appetite to develop a music scene that had never existed. And I got a record contract around that time and Steve Young became the lead guitarist for my group which later became known as The Gas Company. Steve Stills came on as the rhythm guitarist. It was really a misadventure, but it gave me a chance to get to know Steve.
“In those days, he was playing ‘That’s All Right Mama’ because Elvis had made a great impression on him. But he was also into church music, R & B, essentially white boy blues. And he had every reason to have the blues—growing up poor and issues with his father who had abandoned the family. Aside from that I was impressed with what he did with literature, like his interpretation of the “The Ballad of William Sycamore” by Stephen Vincent Benet and his family connection to an Indian and Scottish heritage. All of that made up the contradiction of Steve Young and I enjoyed that contradiction. So despite the fact that I was sort of a city slicker, we hit it off very well. We got high together, got drunk together, and had an easy affable time. And I knew the talent I was seeing was only the tip of the iceberg.
“Anyway, for many reasons Gas Company was short lived,” Parks says. “As for Steve, I knew I wasn’t really in his league and I was interested in arranging and accompanying but not being the main man. So our paths split and he joined a group with Richard Lockmiller called Stone Country. After 1965 we were no longer together. But we never lost touch and when we did see each other we picked up where we left off. And I was always fascinated by his imaginings and finding out new things he was into like Selena and Mexican culture. It was an enduring relationship.”
The break-up of The Gas Company left Young scrambling for gigs, and for a brief stretch taking on day labor as a mailman in LA’s Silverlake neighborhood. Young had also married singer-songwriter Terrye Newkirk during this period. The offer to join Stone Country came along at the right time. As Lockmiller describes it: “Stone Country was a mix of pop, country, and rock that was really unusual. Maybe it had too much going on, but the one album we did had some very good Steve Young performances on it, a nice cover of George Jones’s “Why Baby Why” and Steve’s tunes “Woman Don’t You Weep” and “Magnolias.” He came out of it with a reputation and from there he was off with his own recordings.”
What followed were two albums that pushed Young’s music into the vanguard of the “outlaw country” movement. Rock, Salt & Nails ( A&M 1969), featuring support from the Byrd’s Gene Clark and Chris Hillman, and Gram Parsons of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Seven Bridges Road (Reprise 1972), loaded with high quality Nashville session players such as Fred Carter, Jr., Charlie McCoy, David Briggs, and Weldon Myrick, contained what would become Young’s three best known songs: “Seven Bridges Road,” “Lonesome On’ry And Mean,” and “Montgomery In The Rain.” Nonetheless, his albums sold poorly. Scarred by the experience of commercial and artistic indifference in the major label music business, Young began his retreat from the chase after big time success.
In 1969, he moved with his wife Terrye to the rural community of Rancho Nicasio in Northern California and opened the Amazing Grace music store in San Anselmo. In 1971, his son Jubal was born in San Francisco. Although the guitar store became a growing business and a popular hangout for local musicians, including Jerry Garcia and Van Morrison, within two years, Young was feeling restless. Life in California was good but too expensive. A small farm outside of Nashville seemed a better option.
Jubal recalls childhood memories of this period as “sort of flashes of him and my mom being together. I really don’t remember much about Rancho Nicasio because we left when I was only 15 months old. I do remember the early years in Nashville. I remember Waylon Jennings being around and people hanging out and playing music. Of course then I had no frame of reference to understand or appreciate all this. As far as my Dad, I had no idea how he was viewed by this group. It was just a musical house and this was just Dad’s crowd. Looking back I think wow, I was surrounded by legends, all these cult figure underground musicians of Nashville. I mean Townes Van Zandt was there and he would chit chat with me and sometimes talk on the phone with me.
“But aside from the music, at some point in these years, the marriage was getting really bad and my Mom took me while my Dad was on the road. He had gotten back to drinking and drugs and she just had enough. Now when he finally did give up drinking and drugs, he never went back. From 1979 on, he never touched anything. But in these years, with all the pressures he was facing in the music business, he was having a hard time. He was an original outlaw in country music, but that image of drinking, drugging and being a bad ass that was hyped was not him. At its core, his fight was about wrestling artistic freedom from the record labels.”
The repercussions of this artistic struggle effectively roadblocked Young from recording his songs until recording and publishing contracts expired. With limited income from record and song royalties, Young returned to the troubadour life on the club circuit, which proved, despite ups and downs, a saner way to make a living. Speaking with writer/musician Trevor McShane in a 2010 interview Young explained: “Over the years I became more respected, slowly but surely people heard things and liked them…between getting some royalties and doing some gigs that I really wanna do, I can make a living…pretty much on my own terms.”
This turn away from the star making machinery led to a string of excellent albums, artistic growth and the steady build of a devoted cult following. Honky Tonk Man (1975), for the small indie label Mountain Railroad, mixed country classics by Johnny Horton, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams, bluegrass rooted cuts with Doc Watson, and a cover of Robbie Robertson’s “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” with the stunning Young gems “We’ve Been Together On This Earth Before,” “Vision Of A Child,” “Alabama Highway,” and “The White Trash Song.”
Young’s full dropout from the “commercial” music world, however, was interrupted by one last fling with a major label. Renegade Picker (1976) and No Place To Fall (1978), both on RCA, were meant to ride the wave of “outlaw country.” With a stellar array of Nashville pickers, and a program of Southern roots material mixing Young’s most recognized work with classic tunes from Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Jo Shaver, and Merle Haggard, the two albums earned strong reviews and a bit more name recognition, but still non-charting record sales.
Years later, in a 1996 conversation, Young would tell me: “After those albums, I just dropped out. I was still playing some gigs, but drinking and drugs were taking a toll. It was a miracle I was still alive. I mean I was drinking and using everyday. For good reasons, a lot of people didn’t want me around. It got down to change or die. So finally I got treatment, started meditation and taking a serious look at myself. That song “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” from years before, was really just me saying I didn’t want to be this way.”
Discussing Young’s inner turmoil brought on by his experiences in the music business, Van Dyke Parks comments, “To brand Steve as incapacitated by alcohol and drugs is unfair. It may have sharpened his anger because he was a very angry young man. But a lot of young people back then were angry and took drugs. It was part of a political and cultural revolution. And an image formed around that. But Steve really was very gentle and not macho.
“He was just very sensitive to the deceit and criminality of the record racket,” he says, and that made the road he chose very difficult. There are really very few people in the business with his quality of character. He was odd man out of country music. I mean politically, he was left of Marx. And it’s amazing how this cotton picking kid had somehow instructed himself in literature, music, history, and religion. He had no interest in celebrity or playing the game. He was after unvarnished truth.”
Jubal Young adds, “My Dad carried a lot of scar tissue. It wasn’t just the music business, he had a rebellious streak in regard to what was around him. As far as the South, I think in some ways he was ashamed of it, while also holding onto the good things about it. I mean he saw himself brutalized by a kind of hillbilly Christianity, but he also carried a kind of euphoria about the good things of the way of life that seemed organic—the connection to the land, growing your own food, more simple ways and, of course, the music. It’s complicated and it’s a mystery to me how he overcame the programming of that time and place. He was just always searching and certainly by the latter part of his career he was just writing and singing what he wanted whether or not it was commercial or what people wanted.”
Freed of ties to record companies, Young hit the road during the 1980s slowly expanding his fan base in the US and Europe with stirring solo performances showcasing his superb songcraft, emotion charged vocals, and dazzling picking. Periodically indie label album releases, To Satisfy You (1981), Look Homeward Angel (1987), and Long Time Rider (1990), gave evidence of an ever restive, unpredictable spirit impossible to fit in any market niche. On To Satisfy You, an all covers album but for one original tune, Young shows off his not exactly country tastes on material by Buddy Holly, Jagger-Richards, David Olney, and Cat Stevens. Look Homeward Angel and Long Time Rider, by contrast, are defined by confessional tunes striving to come to grips with a failed marriage, alcoholism, and the strains of fatherhood while vowing a mission to sing for those who “can’t get no lower and they can’t get no higher.”
By the 90s, though his albums sold little, Young had achieved, largely through club appearances, a small but loyal audience and revered status among songwriters and musicians in the resurgent roots music scene. Describing his appeal, Van Dyke Parks observes: “Well his songs were profound and illuminating, but to be in the room with Steve and hear that voice, a vocal presence as astonishing as someone like Roy Orbison…it would just energize the whole house. And on guitar, with chops galore, he would propel a song forward with such a sense of physicality, soaring from a rhythm up the neck of the guitar to a solo and then back to the rhythm, it was almost like listening to two people. All that talent together commanded your attention.”
Eventually that talent also commanded another recording contract. Through well received club dates in Austin, Texas during the 80s, Young discovered a kindred spirit among the city’s musicians and audiences that felt like home. Overtime, he also developed a relationship with Watermelon Records owner Heinz Geissler that led to his first live concert recording, Solo/Live (1991), and a studio follow-up Switchblades of Love (1993). Together these two albums marked an artistic reemergence and reevaluation of Young’s talents as a writer and performer.
Recorded at Houston’s Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant, Solo/Live presents some of Young’s most beloved and celebrated originals alongside a diverse mix of covers including “Tobacco Road,” “Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Drift Away,” and “Go To Sea No More.” Stripped of band arrangements and studio production, listeners get to hear Young’s raw honesty in its most self-revealing context.
Two years later, Switchblades of Love captured this same incisive introspection on a late career studio masterpiece collecting nine new Young compositions and a poignant translation of David Olney’s “If My Eyes Were Blind.” An exceptional lineup of supporting players, including Van Dyke Parks, Benmont Tench, J. C. Crowley, Katy Moffat, Greg Leisz, and son Jubal, deliver sparse, sensitive backing to tunes layered with questions about self-delusion, mortality, violence, and life’s purpose.The title track probes all these themes in a social-psychological examination of violence. Rejecting any appeal to a God above, Young demands earthly responsibility from “those that struck the blows,” including himself:
Me, I think I’m gonna go out and here and put my switchblades down
Way on down in the ground
No applause, there won’t be a sound
Just a rusty spade down in that honest earth
I will bow down to the stars
I’ll ask forgiveness for the scars
That I have made
In the name of love
Elsewhere Young’s songs are no less autobiographical as he recalls a journey that’s given “a glimpse of heaven and at least half of hell” (“Midnight Rail”), spaces of hope and refuge out West (“Going Back To California” and “Silverlake”), blessings of love (“My Love,” “Love Song,” and “Shelter You”), and cosmic perspective (“Have A Laugh”). All in all, a wrenching opening of the soul rivaling the best work of many more heralded singer-songwriters.
Despite glowing reviews for Young’s Watermelon releases, indie record sales remained too minuscule to throw much light on the music of even a much praised “songwriter’s songwriter.” A life of club dates and an infrequent small label studio recording had become, by the 90s, Steve Young’s career. Six years rolled by before his next record.
In 1999, Bill Musselman, of the politically minded, US based Appleseed Recordings, agreed to license and distribute the album Primal Young from Shock Records, a small independent label in Australia. Balancing a set of covers and originals, Primal Young is a masterfully executed all-sided portrait of Young’s political, spiritual, and musical worldview.
J. C. Crowley, whose vocals, guitar, and keyboards helped color the backdrops of Switchblades of Love, plays the producer role on Primal Young. “I first met Steve when I was asked to work on the album Switchblades of Love,” Crowley recalls. “I was familiar with some of his music, but I hadn’t listened to all of his albums. I certainly knew who he was, some of his high notes and well known stuff. But what really hit me was when I came over to the studio and he was running over the song “Switchblades of Love.” I went wow. Then I heard more of his songs and focused on the lyrics. It was clear this guy was a songwriter who was a searcher and a spiritualist. And as a guitarist, he had a really completely unusual style. He’d have this intense rhythm thing going on and then he’d just fall into this sweet lazy lead and then back to the rhythm. Finally, there was the voice. I thought it sounded like Moses. It was just so big and expressive.”
Describing his immediate, “unspoken connection” with Young, the Texas raised Crowley adds, “We were both from the South and both songwriters so that was part of it. But more than anything we just had a feeling of simpatico. We could sit outside looking at the stars for an hour and not say anything, but feel connected. He could be quiet and maybe distant, but my personality was also kind of like that. I didn’t mind that way of being. I saw Steve as having one foot in the temporal world and one foot in the spiritual world. It was evident in his everyday relating and it was evident in his songs.”
Accordingly, for Primal Young, Crowley talked at length with Young about selecting songs expressing intimate personal truth and life vision. “It didn’t really matter if it was a cover or an original,” Crowley says, “we wanted good songs.” In the end, the album contained six new Young tunes and five covers. “He was a great interpreter of other people’s songs and throughout his career he’d covered songs and writers that spoke to him deeply,” Crowley continues. “As for his own songs, he didn’t talk a lot about the genesis of a song, where all this stuff was coming from, so all the tunes fit together pretty seamlessly. In all the songs, I never had the sense that there was anything going on except a man exploring whatever subject he was focused on with honesty.”
The opening track “Jig” begins the exploration with impressionistic recollections of Southern childhood set against quiet, haunting strands of mountain music:
There’s a jig in my mind
I hear it all the time
It comes from the mountains
Across the mists of time
Man the little jig is fine
It came into my life
On an old ancient street
Part of the ancestors dream
“Scotland Is A Land,” following in the same vein, pays homage to Celtic family roots and Scottish poet legend Robert Burns “that ever nourished me/long before I reached that shore.” From Scotland also comes the inspiring class struggle anthem “Worker’s Song,” written by Ed Pickford, but introduced to Young on Scottish singer-songwriter Dick Gaughan’s 1981 album Handful Of Earth. Here, in contrast to Gaughan’s traditional folk rooted version, however, a march like arrangement carries a more contemporary Clash-like call to arms. With the heavy acoustic strumming of Young and the buzzing electric guitar of Crowley slowly rising in volume, Young’s vocal fury calls forth centuries of systemic hypocrisy and injustice.
From here he returns to Southern roots and influences in a blistering guitar driven Celtic blues take of the folk standard “East Virginia,” covers of Frankie Miller’s ode to hard labor and love of the land (“Black Land Farmer”) and Tom T. Hall’s boyhood remembrance of small town life and the passing of a local guitar legend (“The Day That Clayton Delaney Died”). A slow, yearning version of Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and the deeply sorrowful “Sometimes I Dream” follow as respectful bows honoring the artistic sway of hillbilly heroes, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard.
Appropriately, Primal Young concludes with three remarkable Young compositions. “Heartbreak Girl,” described by Young in the album’s liner notes as “true life,” is a longing ballad about a woman enduring a world with “rain swept streets all shut down” and a man “who don’t give a damn.” The song ends with Young pledging to stand with his heartbreak girl against this heartbreak world “to show you your beauty’s crown.”
“No Longer Will My Heart Be Truly Breaking,” inspired by a news story about AIDS infected children in a town in Florida having their home burned down by terrified neighbors, though making no reference to this real life event, is an expression of overwhelming grief in the face of human cruelty.
I don’t know how long it may be in coming
I don’t know how long it may be taking
But my deliverance is promised now
No longer will my heart
Be truly breaking
“Little Birdie,” a traditional tune rewritten and arranged by Young, concludes the album on an eloquent note of transcendence with Young’s voice soaring over Parks’s delicate fluttering accordion and Vern Monnett’s muted pedal steel:
Little Birdie, little birdie
Little Birdie, little birdie
What makes me love you?
It’s because you see me in my sorrow
But I’m searching for a patch of blue
Just like you
Little Birdie, little birdie
Come and sing me one song
I got a short time to be here
Got a long time to be gone
Though receiving favorable reviews upon its release in 1999, Primal Young, on the small independent Appleseed label, didn’t have the promotion or distribution clout to stir big record sales. With a long memory of dashed commercial hopes and most of his past work contractually blocked from re-release, Young’s music making options gradually reduced to home studio recording and club dates. In 2006, he re-recorded 10 tunes from his early “outlaw” years for a self-financed album called Songlines Revisited,Vol. 1. A live recording, Stories Round The Horseshoe Bend, documenting a concert in Youngstown, Ohio, appeared in 2007. But in the final nine years of his life, Steve Young would perform music only in occasional live gigs, his home studio, and get togethers with friends and family.
Speaking of his father’s creativity in these later years, Jubal Young says, “His life offered more freedom at this point and his writing was growing in terms of influences, subject matter, and outlook. I’ve got a lot of material I hope to get out someday of all kinds of stuff that is really amazing, like this 14 minute epic he wrote about the West influenced by Marty Robbins’s “El Paso.” But if you go back through all his records, you’ll find that questioning and searching running through so many songs. It wasn’t new. It was continual throughout his life.”
It was also a questing, Jubal adds, that was evident in all aspects of his life. “He became a vegetarian, although now and then he ate meat. He was a Buddhist, but wore it pretty loosely. Most of all he was obsessed with the great mystery of existence. He questioned and investigated all religions. Among the books he read, you’ll find Buddhist and Hindu stuff, Native American stuff. He read Steven Hawking and watched all kinds of science documentaries. He was checking it all out.”
According to Jubal, his father maintained this questioning spirit into his final years. However, with the onset of cognitive issues, his independent spirit was severely challenged. “A couple of years ago, he started talking to me of confusion and memory problems,” Jubal recalls. “We went to various doctors and took various tests and they said yes there is some dementia. It was slowly accelerating and I moved to Nashville to help him sort things out.
“Then in October of 2015 he fell and hit his head. So he had a brain injury with dementia. Over time his personality started to change and I was there at all hours to take care of him. In the six months or so that I was with him, we were able to have some conversations we needed to have and settle some unfinished business. But his condition was obviously distressing and scary. He was not made to be trapped in a broken mind and body. And he was curious to know what follows this life.”
Of the musical legacy left behind, Jubal says, “There was no one like him and he had a major influence on country music in being one of the first to combine these various roots music forms. He’s kind of a Van Gough in that he had little commercial success in his lifetime. But I have enough faith in humanity that I think people will recognize the value of work that will stand the test of time.”
Elaborating on the enduring qualities of Steve Young’s music, Van Dyke Parks describes an appeal that is both historical and transcendent. “His music is an American treasure in the way it defined America. It reflected the history of the South, its racism and class oppression, and its struggles toward transformation. It also gave us the journey of tears of the Native American peoples. It registers the moment of the counterculture and movements of civil and human rights. But beyond that he gave us illuminations of the sacredness of life coming out of Buddhism and many other religions of the world. As you get older you can lose corroboration of what you knew and saw and experienced—you lose history. But the works Steve left behind continue to help us witness the past and the now in a real way. He had a very pure mission. It’s probably best summed up in the words of his song “Look Homeward Angel”:
Well I did not come here today
To try to build up my puny little name
And I certainly did not come here today
To impress anyone with my pitiful little brushes with fame
I came here hoping to find the courage
Just to sing one line about the truth
I think it’s time I looked at that
Right here in front of you