STEVE YOUNG— Reluctant Son of the South
“I believe I did not achieve major success partly because I think I subconsciously did not want to make it.”
A Preface: I was sitting on my bunk in an Army barracks one cold January day in 1970 when a friend, Robert Hall, who had just returned from Florida on leave, tossed a couple of albums on my bunk. “Here are two albums you won’t be able to live without,” he said and walked away, telling me over his shoulder that he wanted them back. Those two albums were the first Allman Brothers Band album and Rock Salt & Nails by one Steve Young. I knew immediately upon hearing the first notes of the Allmans that what Hall had said was true but it took me a couple of years to understand the musical genius of Young. When I got it, though, I really got it and have been a staunch Steve Young fan since. Through the years I have grabbed everything I could by him and have never been disappointed. I shake my head every time I realize that he is not a household name. His voice is unique and amazing and his music timeless. If you’ve heard him, you already know. For those who haven’t, let me introduce you to one of the best musicians you might not have heard but whose music you most likely have, for his songs have been recorded by many.
Part One: The Long Way To Hollywood
If ever there was a personification of dichotomy, it is Steve Young. A musician by trade, he has fought constantly against everything that would have brought him success. He knows it, in retrospect, and accepts it and probably wonders on occasion what things would have been like had he been more amenable to the music business, but such was not the fabric of Steve Young the man, regardless of the makeup of his music.
“For one thing,” he explained, “I am not willing to do all the work that you need to do (to attain major success). I am not willing to give up my time to do everything in order to make people like you or notice you. I have always just wanted to do what I wanted to do. That’s all.
“I mean, I didn’t want to do it their way. I wanted to do it my way. I was stubborn and arrogant about that. I went through some very hard times and then started to survive which is what I have done to this day. As long as I can do that, that’s okay as far as I’m concerned.”
You think he’s kidding? Young has made music a career for over four decades and during that time has burned more than a few bridges. Sometimes it was due to his stubbornness, probably, but arrogance? It is not arrogance when you choose your own path in the face of the powers that be. That is personal choice.
There is a reason Young is the way he is and talks the way he does and to understand it, you not only have to know his music, you have to know his story. You have to know that not only could he have been a contender, he was and is one. The ups and downs of his journey is a fascinating story, told here in mostly his own words.
Born in Georgia to a sharecropper father, Steve Young started life at a disadvantage but to hear him tell it, you might not think so. He reflects on his youth rather matter-of-factly and without regret. Life was to him what life was and what the hell, there is no changing the past anyway.
“My father, who was part Indian, didn’t for some reason fit into society very well,” Young said in an early interview for this story. “He was ultra, ultra poor. He began sharecropping when he was only thirteen and his sister Eula, who worked with him, was ten. His father— my grandfather— had been killed about that time. It was a very brutal system.
“He would get into trouble and move around a lot, so we moved back and forth between Alabama and Georgia. The nearest thing I had to a hometown was Gadsden, Alabama where my mother’s mother lived. Most of my extended family was from Georgia, but we migrated around Alabama a lot.
“My life was somewhat troubled. I was from a really dysfunctional family. My father would just disappear sometimes. Though uneducated, he was an intelligent guy but we were very, very poor. He left us when I was very young.
“My grandparents— they admired Franklin Roosevelt because he was the only guy who ever gave them a break. They had come from the land. It was hard and bitter work with little to nothing to show for it at harvest time. They ended up living in these small towns. They had lost their roots, so to speak— their connection to the land. They had tried to sell out, to make something more, but it didn’t work out for them. They wound up losing it all.
“So my life at the time was very uncertain and troubled, but colorful. I remember there was always 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.
“As a very small child, I told people that I would become a singer/songwriter/musician. I had a little toy guitar and I’d make up songs that would go on for thirty minutes or more and people would finally say, man, we’ve heard enough. They were humoring me, of course, but I told them I was going to be a musician. Somehow I knew that.”
Music eventually became everything to him and he was soon on a quest for something beyond the toy he played.
“There used to be these ads on the backs of comic books,” he remembered. “You sell seeds and you get these prizes. I did that. I sold a bunch of seeds and got this prize that I thought was going to be a guitar, but what it turned out to be was a cardboard guitar. So I take it to these guys who have played a little and they say, man, this is not a real guitar. We can’t tune this thing. I mean, I still thought you could make it work.”
Spurred on by the music surrounding him, Young refused to give up.
“There were street singers who I heard on the streets of Gadsden and places like that and they were really important to me” he recalled. “I loved listening to them. Most people would just walk by and wouldn’t want to be bothered by them, but as a child I wanted to stand there and listen all day. It was fascinating to see the strings vibrating.
“Finally, I got my grandfather one day to take me to what they called trade day— kind of a swap meet. I found this old warp-necked Silvertone guitar and talked him into getting it for me. You couldn’t really play the thing and he didn’t want to do it, but he bought it for me.”
Young practiced on that old Silvertone until it became apparent that he was not going to quit.
“When I was about fourteen, my mother finally relented and said, okay, okay, I’ll get you a guitar. Sun Records was happening— Elvis and all of those guys who recorded for them. So I got a real guitar— it was a little Gibson ES 125 thin-body electric. We got that sometime in the fifties, maybe 1956, and it cost $125 which was a lot of money in that day and time. It had one pickup and some acoustic sound as it did have a thin hollow body. And I learned to play it. I had this childlike astral vision of the guitar— highly creative and colorful— bigger than life. That’s what a guitar was to me.
“Not too long after I got that guitar, my mother remarried and we moved to Beaumont, Texas. Johnny Winter and I were in the same graduating class. I began playing some gigs there and then moved back to Alabama. I never thought about going to college, never thought about studying or doing anything else other than music. I just started playing and the folk boom came along.
“I played a lot in Birmingham. We had almost a little beatnik thing going on there, believe it or not. Birmingham had some elements that most people wouldn’t know about and there are certain things of beauty about that city in certain neighborhoods.”
Beatniks in Birmingham? While it sounds like a recipe for disaster, you have to understand Young’s mindset. Back then, he loved three things: writing, music and boxing. But that wasn’t all he had. He had personal problems as well.
“I had this alcohol problem,” he explained, “and once I went to Montgomery I got introduced to drugs and things. I found I was a natural-born addict..”
Alcohol and drugs were enough, but Young was a beatnik in the South playing what Southerners at the time considered a seditious kind of folk music. Some might even say he was looking for trouble and while that wasn’t exactly the case, trouble was bound to find him. Eventually.
“I’m in Birmingham doing these gigs and I’m drinking and getting into trouble and I just don’t care about tomorrow, I live for today. And I start getting into more trouble and sometimes when I’m drinking I say things I maybe shouldn’t say, politically, and do some things I shouldn’t do. You know. I end up singing these Dylan songs or songs that I wrote and it winds up being a real problem. I mean, this wasn’t Greenwich Village. This was Montgomery and Birmingham and I was right there doing it. That’s how crazy I was. I mean, I was lucky to get out alive.
“Of course, some of it has to do with my own anger, too. Here was a righteous cause and I could vent some of it. I was sincere. So, things were getting more tense for me and, as always, my drinking was a problem. And I was a big part of the problem.”
The problem grew until, even in his stupor, Young knew he had to get out. People were out to get people like him, if not him personally. The writing was on the wall. Luckily, he was handed an out just in time.
“I knew these folkies, Richard and Jim,” he said. “Richard Lockmiller and Jim Connor were from Gadsden and they were taking a serious run at being successful. Hootenannies were big and folk music had come on strong. They were much more professional than I was— I was eternally a drunken troubadour— but they would put up with that and say, oh well, okay, nobody can play like him. So they grabbed me. They had a record deal with Capitol Records and grabbed me out of Alabama at just the right moment. I needed to get out of town and they said, come on, let’s go to California.
“It was 1963 and I went and, really, just the trip across the country— the desert, the Indian vibes and all of that, was a great experience for me. I was going to L.A. to do this record. It was a whole new world.”
Chapter Two: Welcome To L.A.
Going from the Deep South to the West Coast was like stepping onto a different planet for Young. For one thing, he no longer had to worry about two-by-four wielding rednecks when he passed dark alleys. Add to that the fact that music was everywhere and he knew that he had found a home of sorts.
It was business first, of course. Richard & Jim had gone to California for a reason and there was recording to be done. When the people at Capitol Records found out that Young was not union, they sent him down for ratification. Then, it was into the studio— first with Richard & Jim, then a few other one-off projects. He remembers Richard & Jim’s producer wanting to do a project with him, but “I was just too uncontrollable,” he admitted. “I would come in in one state or another. Looking back, it could have been great and he did have me play on some sessions and things and I was making what for me was good money, but he finally got tired of trying to deal with me.”
His work on Richard & Jim’s Folk Songs & Country Sounds did get him noticed and he did pick up an occasional studio gig, but he preferred plying his trade on the streets.
“Everybody was out in those days,” he remembered. “On the Strip, throngs of people were out walking and moving around and going in and out of clubs. It was going on, you know?”
Van Dyke Parks knew. He saw something in Young that he liked and they soon became friends.
“Steve came to this coffeehouse melange with two other favorite Sons of Alabama, Richard & Jim,” he wrote. “He was the heat behind their beat. Audiences were nailed to the floor with Steve’s incredible voice, incendiary guitar virtuosity, birthright to the blues and vise-like grip of Scotch/Irish traditions. He’d come to Los Angeles informed by a life rich in adversity, balancing conflicted faiths. In him is the blood of the Native American and the Welsh— the triumph of a European conqueror and the perspective of the vanquished native. Spiritual discovery is written all over him. It is in his lyrics and in the epic American poetry he has elevated with his music.
“I identified with Steve Young,” he continued. “He lived on Mariposa in Hollywood with several other exiles from Alabama. They called it Tobacco Road. There was a picture of the infamous Alabama Governor George Wallace hanging in the living room. Somebody had penciled in a moustache and he looked like a dead-ringer for Adolf Hitler.”
Upon finding one another, Young and Parks immediately set about trying music.
“I started hanging out with Parks a lot,” Young said. “He lived this madcap life. People would come in and out of this place where he lived, different bands and the like. And there I was, living this very destructive kind of life— doing drugs and drinking. It was like I didn’t want success. I just wanted to be around the fringes and play.
“In the L.A. of the sixties, on the streets, everybody was doing a little drinking but mostly drugs. Drinking became not a cool thing to do. Sometimes people would act like I was a redneck and all I liked was to drink, so I would try to suppress my urge to drink. Finally, I said to hell with it and began mixing the booze and drugs.”
He signed on for a short time as lead guitarist for the Skip Battin Band. Though they were not a big ticket item, Battin— long an L.A. rock/Byrds/Burritos luminary— got his share of gigs.
“I used to have a great time watching people dance while I played,” Young said. “Skip would get these gigs and sometimes famous people would show up. I remember once Sal Mineo was in the audience. I’ll never forget that.”
He hooked up again with Van Dyke Parks for a short time and formed a group called The Gas Company, a very young Stephen Stills playing rhythm guitar to Steve’s lead.
“We were approached repeatedly by the record companies,” Parks said, “either singly or as a group, to sign on the dotted line; but in each case there was the specter of ‘selling out’ and Steve was wary.”
“The thing is, Van Dyke would always blow the record deals,” Young countered. “The labels wanted him but he didn’t really want to sign for what they offered. We were starving and I wanted some money. Once, a record label gave us a check, but if we cashed it we were signing the contract. I wanted to cash it and worry about the contract later, but somehow Van Dyke talked me out of it.”
Young tried to get some other things going, but nothing seemed to work. He met and eventually married Terrye Newkirk, a singer/songwriter (who appeared with Roger Tillison as Gypsy Trips) and took a job as a mailman in Silver Lake to keep things going. Finally, he was approached by the manager of a group which would be called Stone Country which would also include his friend from Richard & Jim, Richard Lockmiller.
“Stone Country had been sort of manufactured,” Young explained. “They were a group of very diverse people with very diverse attitudes and tastes in music. It was always this big ego battle royal going on. But we wound up getting a record deal and recorded one album for RCA. It is a strange, strange record. Some of us were clicking together and some of us were in different worlds. But we recorded the album and played some gigs around L.A.
“Eventually, I sort of won the big ego battle. Some producers started to say, we like this guy Young. We think he can sing. But we don’t like this group. Consequently, I got a couple of recording offers and left. The guys saw me as this ruthless guy who was looking out only for himself, you know, but to me it was all about leaving the hassles. And it did allow me to do my own thing.
“Andy Wickham wanted me to sign with Reprise, but I went with A&M. I liked the energy of A&M, even if they didn’t understand me. Herb Alpert was a nice guy and there was that West Coast sixties fresh energy or mindset, if you will.”
Tommy LiPuma, assigned by A&M to head the project, set about organizing things.
“At the time,” according to Young, “LiPuma and I were butting heads a lot, but LiPuma heard it. He appreciated what I did and really got in there and worked with me and let me express my ideas. Except, ironically, he didn’t want me to write. He wanted to hear me sing and wanted to hear the way I saw things and heard things, but he didn’t want to use my songs.
“Of course, at the time, I didn’t really trust him. I didn’t trust any producer. I didn’t want anybody screwing up the music and I was afraid they were going to do just that. Still, LiPuma worked with me and helped to dig things out. For instance, one day in the studio, James Burton and a bass player were there and we ran out of songs. I said, okay, let’s try this and I started playing “Seven Bridges Road.” Burton said, hey, this sounds good and LiPuma had to admit it. That’s how that song made it to tape. There wound up being maybe three originals on the record.
“I wanted “Rock Salt & Nails” on the record. Rosalie Sorrels had showed me the song and I heard Flatt & Scruggs do it. Rosalie and I talked about it. When I recorded it, I didn’t go back to check out the Flatt & Scruggs version or the accuracy of my lyrics on it. I subconsciously changed it around a bit. My imagination came into play and in the end I think I did the best version of it. I think it is a great song, even though Utah Phillips, who wrote it, said it wasn’t. I have no idea who decided to title the album after that song, but I was okay with it.”
A handful of people stopped by for guest appearances. Gene Clark played harmonica on “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”; Gram Parsons, who was then working on Flying Burrito Brothers material, played organ at the end of “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” Richard Greene, between sessions and appearances with Sea Train, added fiddle (credited to Myer Sniffin) on “Rock Salt & Nails” and Johnny Horton’s “I’m a One Woman Man.”
The resulting album, Rock Salt & Nails, was released in 1969 to resounding public indifference and promptly tanked.
“There was no promotion. A&M just did not know what to do with it,” lamented Young, “and LiPuma was upset. He wanted them to put up a billboard on Sunset and really promote it and work it. He thought they would be jazzed by it. He was blown away that they didn’t know what to make of it. It was one of many reasons he left A&M and went on to do different things (among them, produce Miles Davis and Anita Baker).
“A few people heard the album and liked it. Like Jim Rooney at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969— he wanted me to come and play. But on the whole, there wasn’t much reaction. The world was not impressed.”
One could tell by the tone of voice that the failure of Rock Salt & Nails rankled, even after four decades. Critical if not financial success followed many of Young’s contemporaries in that L.A. scene.
“It was the beginning of that whole thing,” Young pointed out. “That was the period when Gram Parsons had just finished his record with The Flying Burrito Brothers (Gilded Palace of Sin) and Dillard & Clark were going on. And me. That was the beginning, I think, of the real outlaw country, country progressive, country rock or whatever you want to call it.”
Whatever you do want to call it, one cannot deny that it was a huge opportunity missed. In retrospect Young will occasionally even admit it, but it has never been in his character to dwell on such things. Not realizing it, he had much more music to write and record and more history to write. His next step: Reprise Records. And more excellent music which struggled to find an ear.
Chapter Three: A Short, Short Chance For Fame
“I left L.A., which was not a good political move. LiPuma wanted me to stay in L.A. and work with him but I said no, I’m going to San Francisco. I disregarded everything— business, music— everything.
“So I went to the Bay Area and opened up a little guitar store in San Anselmo. I said, I’m through performing. I’ve had enough of this music business crap. I’m going to be just an old shopkeeper here.”
“Steve and I started Amazing Grace Music in late 1969,” recounted ex-wife Terrye Newkirk. “We had moved to San Francisco and stayed with a San Francisco attorney, Ed Stadum, and his wife before moving to an apartment, then moved to to Marin County, then out to Nicasio in extreme western Marin. We lived in an apartment in the Druids’ Hall, the only building in town besides the post office/store and the Catholic church. The cover photo (of Young’s Reprise album Seven Bridges Road) was shot on the bridge that crossed the creek behind our place. That is not me in the photo. It’s a model.”
Young and Newkirk weren’t the only people watching Rock Salt & Nails tank. Reprise Records’ Andy Wickham watched with hawk’s eye and when it became obvious A&M had all but given up on the album, talked Reprise into giving Young a go.
“After A&M figured out that they didn’t know what to do with me,” recounted Young, “Reprise inquired and A&M said we want to be nice, we’ll let him out of his contract. And Wickham said, yeah.”
Friend and attorney Stadum helped negotiate the deal. When the deal was signed, Young went back to work.
“We got started on the Seven Bridges Road project in L.A. doing a small session with a group of musicians which included Ry Cooder, but we moved quickly to Nashville for the album.”
Reprise hired Paul Tannen to produce.
“Andy basically sent me to Nashville and put me in touch with Tannen for some reason I never quite understood,” Young stated. “He was the so-called producer, but he was really a publisher— a Northern Jewish guy to whom some people did not take very well at the time. Really, I was co-producer though I don’t get credit for it. A lot of the production had to do with me and the excellent musicians who were involved. Tannen was okay in the way of organizing and stuff like that, but he wasn’t much of a creative producer or anything.”
Tannen brought in a raft of pickers and players, names not yet that well known but who would soon be on Nashville’s A-List: Charlie McCoy, Fred Carter Jr., Jerry Carrigan, David Briggs, Weldon Myrick and others. One would think that the talent alone would have carried the sessions, but something didn’t quite seem right. At least, to Young.
“I remember there being weird abstract conflicts with some of the musicians,” Young said. “Some of them didn’t seem to know what to make of the songs, couldn’t figure them out. There was a weird tension through it all.
“For what it is worth, it was only a few. There was a redneck-ism present that I had always been sensitive to. I think some of the lyrics bothered a couple of the good old boys there. “Long Way To Hollywood,” for example.
“In a way, going to Nashville was a mistake. I suffered culture shock. I wasn’t living there at the time and was just going there to record, but I basically ran into what I had left. It was all kinds of bad and bleak. It was interesting to be back in the South, but I wasn’t really okay with it. Even though I was a Southerner, I had become used to the California thing, so it was a shock at times. I still had a lot of anger about the South— about the social, religious and political views there.”
In the end, Young was a bit disappointed in the album, but he admitted that he has never been completely satisfied with any of his albums. There always seemed to be some songs which could have been recorded better or at least differently. He left the studio feeling slightly uneasy but glad that it was done. And then he waited.
“It seemed to be the same old thing with Reprise that it had been with A&M. What are we going to do with this?” Young said.
While he waited, he built the business.
“The store was a real guitar store for people who really liked guitars and the hippies and musicians responded well to it,” Young said. “Jerry Garcia and Van Morrison used to stop by occasionally and life was good, though there wasn’t a lot of money in it.”
“I recall that getting advances from the record deal each year enabled us to take very little out of the business,” remembered Newkirk. “The business grew, however slowly.”
Young thinks that maybe a chance encounter with another musician was a catalyst to getting the album released at all.
“Jesse Colin Young came in one day,” he explained, “and I gave him a tape of the album and he loved it and went and talked with the executives at Reprise. Not long after, the album was released. That may have been why they finally released it.”
Seven Bridges Road hit the floor faster than Rock Salt & Nails. In spite of several positive reviews, radio stations would not touch it. Rock stations claimed it wasn’t rock enough. Country stations claimed it wasn’t country enough. Some critics went so far to say that Reprise, with no track record in the country music business, were shut out of country radio by default. Of course, it mattered neither to Young nor Reprise that A&M was having similar problems with The Flying Burrito Brothers and Dillard & Clark. No airplay in those days equaled dead and there simply was no airplay. Reprise, after making the minimal and obligatory attempts to market the album*, promptly forgot about Steve Young and Seven Bridges Road. (*There were two attempts to make Young more palatable to radio— white label promo 45s. One, “Sea Rock City,” was actually “The White Trash Song” under a different title. The second, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Crash On the Levee (Down In the Flood),” was released as “There’s a High Tide A’Risin’).”
“They changed the title from “The White Trash Song” to “Sea Rock City” because White Trash was too controversial,” said Young. “They never said, hey, can they change it. I was unaware of it until I had a copy in my hands.”
The failure of the album and Young and Newkirk’s desire to move on eventually led to another relocation, this time to Nashville.
“Steve and I went to Nashville twice to record while we lived in Marin,” Newkirk noted. “Once, I was about four months pregnant with Jubal and once when Jubal was approximately six weeks old. We continued to live in Marin until Jubal was fifteen months old, then moved to Nashville. We intended to buy a farm with the proceeds of the sale of the guitar shop.”
“I dropped out,” Young said. “I didn’t give a damn. I was running the guitar store and trying to lead a normal life. I was still playing, but mostly in the store when there was no one around. I did get gigs now and again around the Bay Area. But after two years or so, I became bored. I found out that I was a very restless individual. I was married with a son and said, okay, we can’t afford to buy any land around here so let’s go to Nashville. It was a big mistake, but we went there and got a little bit of land outside of Nashville and had this little farm which kind of drove us crazy.”
“We bought a small farm outside Leiper’s Fork”, Newkirk said, “with a 100-year-old log cabin on it. I planted a big garden, we heated with wood and our water was gravity-fed from a spring. Eventually, we sold the farm to Waylon (Jennings) and his drummer, Richie Albright, lives there to this day, although the original cabin has since burned down.”
During that stretch, things were not all that good. There were problems with money and with the recording and music publishing deals.
“Steve’s publishing was held up by Warner Brothers for years,” Newkirk said, “and Steve couldn’t record any of his songs until the publishing contract expired. (In the meantime) Warner Brothers refused to record more records with Steve. It was a nightmare.”
The nightmare extended to their personal lives also. Young had started drinking again and it was the last in a line of straws. Steve Young and Terrye Newkirk separated in 1974. Newkirk, needing to support herself and her son Jubal, headed to the city of Nashville out of necessity. Young hit the road, becoming the troubadour around which much of his legend revolves. To listen to him tell it, he lived from barstool to barstool, his guitar equivalent to an old cowboys’ six-shooter. Without it, he may well have drunk himself to death. But he didn’t. There was a lot of music yet to come from that old guitar.
7 + 7 Is…..
Before the divorce and even before the move to Nashville, Jim Terr entered the picture.
“A friend turned me on to the Seven Bridges Road album when I was living in Southern California, the summer of ’72 or thereabouts,” Terr said. “I became really obsessed with it. I loved it— the writing, the sound, the feel of it. (To that point), I had never listened to anything quite so obsessively, I would say.
“I think I must have gotten in touch with Steve who was either in Southern California at the time or was at his guitar shop in the Bay Area. Or maybe he had just left there and gone to Nashville.”
“We became friends,” Young said. “He thought Seven Bridges Road was the greatest record ever released and he had this little dinky record company in New Mexico. (When I explained that the record was out of circulation and just sitting around), he came up with this crazy idea to ask Warners if they would sell it. So he went to Warner Brothers and bought the masters for almost nothing.”
“I don’t know how I got the idea, but I did,” Terr said. “I bought (the album) for some ridiculous amount— like $1200 or $2000 or something like that. Some time later, I was told that that was the last time Warners sold tapes that were lying around. For any amount of money. It was apparently an embarrassment to them that someone bought the album for next to nothing and got some mileage out of it. Not that I made a fortune on it, but somebody could have.”
After the purchase, it didn’t take long for Terr and Young to get to work.
“I began gigging with this band from New Mexico called The Last Mile Ramblers,” Young remembered. “Terr had been trying to work with them and I just went along with the flow. We had played some around Albuquerque and there was kind of a good vibe between myself and the band, so I wasn’t opposed to going into the studio and seeing what would happen in a session.
“I ended up re-recording one song (“The White Trash Song”) with them for the Blue Canyon release while I was hanging out in New Mexico, playing. New Mexico was a fascinating experience for me. More contact with the Mexican-Indian world. I’ll never forget it.”
It should be noted also that there was a change beyond the new version of “The White Trash Song.” “One Car Funeral Procession” gave way to a cover of Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line.” Terr thought that maybe the reason had to do with Young’s admiration for Haggard, that Young had a thing for Haggard’s music.
“I do,” admitted Young. “I think Haggard is absolutely brilliant on a lot of his songs and is probably the last ‘real’ country guy around anywhere. When he’s at his best. “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line” is from that original L.A. session. We cut a bunch of different songs then and I can’t remember why or who decided, but we ended up using that track on the Blue Canyon album.”
“The Last Mile Ramblers were from my home area,” Terr added, “and I had done some recording with them. As you may know, the now semi-famous Junior Brown was their guitar player at the time, calling himself J. B. Brown. That blazing guitar was probably half the reason I wanted to record them.
“Steve did a big concert out here with Waylon Jennings and The Last Mile Ramblers. The Ramblers backed Steve up and maybe that’s how he got turned on to them. But Junior Brown being such a hot guitarist, maybe that is the key to their recording of “The White Trash Song.” Shortly after that concert, they all went into the studio and recorded it with that fast guitar of J. B. Brown.
“I had had a couple of albums out prior to Seven Bridges Road. I would describe Blue Canyon Records as a dilettante operation, if you know what I mean. I was just lucky to have had contact with Steve and Junior and The Ramblers— some good writers, pickers and singers.
“The Last Mile Ramblers album may have, in fact, been released after the Blue Canyon version of Seven Bridges Road. It is amazing that I can’t remember which came first. There was at least one earlier album. I was in San Francisco the summer I met Steve and recorded an album by a band called Sweetgrass.
“I don’t think I pressed more than a couple thousand of the Seven Bridges Road album. And there was a sort of press version, too. It was in a plain white sleeve with a square label on it. I couldn’t tell you how it compared to the actual release, but there were probably some differences. I may have pressed a couple of hundred of that one. I only did it to dig up interest from the press.
“I had a lot of ambition and a lot of energy, but I wouldn’t say I was organized. I repackaged the album in a black-and-white album jacket, nothing fancy, and got it out. It got some circulation because there were a number of Steve Young fans out there, and even with my poor efforts it got some reviews. Rolling Stone reviewed it, which didn’t necessarily guarantee a best-seller, that having to do more with distribution and all.”
Distribution was shoddy, in fact, through no fault of Blue Canyon. The label was forced to work within the frameworks of small independent distributors which alone placed obstacles in the way at every turn. Just the fact that the album was listed among thousands of others, in some instances, made it hard to find. Add to that the lack of publicity and the album was virtually dead-on-arrival. Not that it didn’t sell. It just didn’t sell well enough to warrant keeping it in print.
Later, Terr signed Slim Pickens to a one-off deal. That album took the focus off of Young’s album and it faded beneath the novelty of Pickens and his homespun style of music.
“There is a take of Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train” on Slim’s album,” Terr told me, “which Steve told me that Clark had told him was his favorite version of the song ever produced. To my knowledge, that was the only Slim Pickens album ever released. He did a couple of other things, but I don’t think they were ever released as albums.”
Chapter Five: The Light at the End of the Bottle
“When I left Nashville, I went back to L.A., briefly, then to New Mexico. And I lived in Wisconsin for awhile, in Madison,” Young said. “There was a hip little scene going on in Madison and I was back into my old drinking and wandering troubadour ways. I had wrangled a deal with RCA Records and knew it was coming up, but I wanted to do an acoustic, more non-commercial record before I did that because, in my mind, we were going to do something much more commercial with RCA. I ended up doing an album for Mountain Railroad Records, for Stephen Powers.”
That album, Honky Tonk Man, was the first in a succession of independently produced albums over the next few decades.
“The Mountain Railroad deal was one of those really natural kind of events. We recorded it at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis, the studio parts. It was one of those good old studios, you know? Analog and all that. We recorded two live tracks, ‘Sally Goodin’ and ‘Traveling Kind,’ because Powers wanted to see if he could capture them in a live setting.”
Critically, the album garnered more praise than one might think, it being on a small folk-oriented label. The critical favorite seemed to be a beautifully layered version of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” but it gained mention on the merits of the overall choice of songs.
“I thought it was good,” Young said, breaking his overly critical stance when it comes to his own recordings. “And it apparently has held up well. It’s out of print again (note: it was later reissued by Rounder and even later by Drive, a label owned by Powers), but it is kind of a classic in its own way.”
Considering that the musicians were regional if not local and the label itself was so small, Young’s praise rings true. The musicianship is first-rate by anyone’s standards and the recording quality is surprisingly topnotch. Add to that the fact that Young had not played with any of the session people previously and it is almost magic.
“No, I had never met them before,” Young replied when asked. “We met just for those sessions. Though I did know Betsy Kaske who sang some harmony, and of course I knew Powers, the producer. It was, after all, his label. But I had never met the others.
“That was a good studio. There was an engineer there who was really good too. I was told that Dylan recorded there and I don’t doubt it. The engineer and that studio were from the good old days in the sense that it was as good as recording was ever going to get. The musicians were quick, too. When I played the songs with them, they got it right off. I remember having the steel player (Cal Hand) do a sustain part on ‘Rock Salt & Nails.’ No problem. We thought that it would be a good idea to re-do ‘Rock Salt & Nails’ because that album was already out of print. I did not yet know how albums could go in and out of print so quickly.”
Of course, there was little to no chance of the album making any real waves. Again, distribution was so limited as to prevent it. Still, Young had done what he had set out to do. The album was completed and logged in. Young asked no more.
The Return to Nashville…..
Young next rode the proverbial rails to Nashville for a follow-up to negotiations with RCA which had been ongoing for a good year to a year and a half. He held out little hope, having soured on the major labels in general and Nashville in particular, but was willing to give it another go.
“I had earlier stopped by to see Roy Dea,” he recounted, “after three or four friends had prevailed upon me to do so. I was convinced I was wasting my breath to talk with anybody in Nashville. From my point of view, they were a bunch of hillbilly idiots. But after talking with Dea, I decided to go ahead. Of course, there were legal hurdles to be overcome and I used some of that time for the Honky Tonk Man album.
“Roy Dea was the man behind the whole RCA thing. A lot of people at the label were against doing it, but Dea wanted to go forward from the git-go, much to my surprise. RCA went along with it because that’s what Roy wanted to do.
“The timing was good. I moved back to Nashville in part to be near my son, Jubal. I couldn’t deal with just running away and leaving him.”
The first album for RCA was aptly titled Renegade Picker.
“Renegade Picker I thought was a very commercial record. I was trying to play the game and Dea was a very talented producer. Some people think it was the best album I’ve done, to date, but I think it only showed certain sides of me. There were sides of me that Dea didn’t really understand, that he didn’t want to deal with.
“Even that record turned out to be too far out, I guess. But RCA was committed, in their way. They spent some money for a band and was trying to put Steve Young out there on the road. They seemed to think they had this new Waylon Jennings or something. They got some FM airplay and dismissed that, saying they wanted AM airplay. The occasional Black station would play it, which was ignored, and there were squabbles between the pop people and the country people. It just didn’t work. And my drinking was getting worse and worse. I was out of it more and more. Still, they renewed my contract.
“A couple of years later, they released No Place To Fall but did very little promotion on it. Both those RCA records were hailed by critics and got four star reviews in magazines like Rolling Stone, etc. Many people still believe they were the best albums I ever made, but I don’t quite see it that way. They are, to me, too country. But that’s just my view of it.”
It was during this period that the bottom fell out.
“(After the RCA albums), I dropped way out,” Young said. “I hit bottom with my drinking, although I still went on the road with a band. We were all a bunch of drunks and I don’t know how we survived, but we did.
“You know, I’ve lived this charmed life. I don’t quite know how I made it through. I went through this big soul-searching time of whether to live or die, whether to be or not to be— the Hamlet story. Finally, I figured there was really no escape. I didn’t want to leave my son in that manner so I went to the Black hospital in Nashville— Meharry— the detox unit. It was the perfect place for me because of my deep identification with the Black culture. It was more nurturing and real to me than it would have been at some Betty Ford Center.
“I really wanted to know: Am I alcoholic? Of course, I’d been drinking for four solid years. It was a comical question. And it was amazing that I was still alive. I began to get sober and go through all of these things. I did a lot of meditation and a lot of soul-searching. I dropped way out and became a troubadour, surviving in Europe for a number of years. And only now (note: 1993, the year of this particular interview) have I entered even this far back into the game. Because I was locked out. A lot of people just didn’t want to deal with me. They remembered the old days, you know? When you make an impression on people, believe me, sometimes that impression lasts a long, long time.”
Chapter Six: No Expectations
Steve Young’s troubadour experience in Europe, unbeknownst to Steve, was just about to become more than a lifestyle. He returned to the States, tied up with Monterey Artists and negotiations began for the sale of the Reprise/Blue Canyon masters of Seven Bridges Road to Rounder Records.
“When Rounder showed interest,” Jim Terr recalled, “Steve had a manager (or agent of some kind), Steve Dahl. Dahl was with Monterey Artists and was in Denver at that time working with Steve Case, who eventually moved on to Nashville to handle a number of bluegrass artists. Anyway, I was dealing with Dahl regarding selling the masters to Rounder and when that was done, I moved on to other things.”
“Terr ended up leasing or selling the masters to Rounder,” Young said. “I had a manager then, David Cannon, who negotiated the deal with them and I just let him do his thing. I thought part of the deal was that after a certain number of years, the rights to the masters reverted back to me. Rounder, of course, denied that. Because I did not have a written contract….. Incredibly, Rounder said they did not have a written contract either. Nobody could produce one. Rounder did have letters, which was the closest thing either one of us had as legal proof. So I finally just gave up on it.”
Also included in those negotiations was a recording contract which provided for an album beyond Seven Bridges Road, but first Rounder set to work on the newly purchased masters. The obvious move to them was to release the theretofore unreleased songs from the L.A and Nashville sessions. Some songs did have Ry Cooder on them and Rounder thought the name alone would make a difference. In the end, they also cut the total number of songs on the album to ten (the other Seven Bridges Road releases had twelve). It was standard practice in Nashville in those days to limit an album to ten tracks so a number of tracks were dropped including songs many critics considered Young’s best (“Many Rivers,” “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line,” “I Begin To See Design,” “Come Sit By My Side,” and “True Note”). They added “The Ballad of William Sycamore,” “Down In the Flood,” “Wild Goose,” and “Days of ’49,” tracks not included on the earlier releases.. They also allowed Young to re-record “Seven Bridges Road.” All previously recorded tracks were remastered by Jerry Shook.
The album, when released, created a minor stir. Rounder put what little muscle they had into promotion (one must remember that in those days Rounder was a true independent and did not have the resources they had later when, say, Alison Krauss & Union Station broke out), but it did little in terms of sales.
When asked if Rounder had paid him anything for the Reprise/Blue Canyon re-release, Young replied “Hell, no. Rounder doesn’t pay anybody like me. Or any of the labels, for that matter.”
TO SATISFY YOU…..
When it came time to honor the one-off deal for a new album, Young remembers being decidedly unready. Most of the songs he had were older and rather than retread old ground, it was decided that he would record hand-picked songs from other songwriters’ songbooks. In spite of an exemplary track record as songwriter, Young put his head together with Cannon, his manager (and executive producer), Jerry Shook and Mac Gayden and came up with a list of possible tracks. It was a strange and eclectic mix, to say the least.
The album begins with a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Think It Over,” gives way to an excellent version of Waylon Jenning’s “To Satisfy You” and then works its way through songs written by the likes of Jagger & Richards, Cat Stevens and Jesse Winchester, to name a few. Young fought hard for the inclusion of friend David Olney’s “The Contender,” a standout track amongst the others, and there was Young’s sole contribution, “The River and the Swan,” a beautiful and floating song supported by what sounds like synthesizer, an instrument which sounds out of place in Young’s otherwise true-to-the-roots world.
Young was not happy with it but, as stated earlier, he was never happy about his albums. Evidently, the rest of the world was not happy with it either. Sales were minimal. Young found himself once again on his own, label-wise. It was beginning to be a pattern.
Rounder was not through, though. They contacted Stephen Powers and re-released Mountain Railroad’s Honky Tonk Man in its entirety. If it did nothing else, it put a bit of air under the wings of a lost classic. But in terms of industry standards, it did nothing, period.
While Young did not fall into a slump, scheduled gigs became erratic. He made enough to live and bided his time. Whatever else was going on in his life, he always had his music and a semblance of patience. One day around 1985, he received a phone call from Europe.
As he tells it, “One day I was sitting downstairs in my house wondering what I was going to do when the phone rang and this guy says do you want to come and play in Norway. I said, sure, let’s go. He said, you gotta play with a band here, you can’t go solo and I thought, man, this is going to be terrible. Those guys can’t play, you know? Not my kind of music. But I went over there anyway and this band they had lined up for my shows blew me away. I was totally amazed. It was the Jonas Fjeld Band and they were huge in Norway. In fact, Jonas himself, after that band broke up, did some things with Rick Danko and Eric Andersen, that’s how good he was.
“Anyway, those Norwegian guys had this problem. Because they were from Norway, nobody would take them seriously even though they were great musicians. All of their gigs were in Norway and they were getting tired of that.
“When I first met them, they had been working on these songs. I could not believe how together they were, how good they were. So we went out and played some gigs in Norway and people came to listen and, I was surprised to find, knew my music. Some of the gigs were like dances in small fishing villages. It was an amazing experience.
“While I was out on the road with them, I got to thinking, boy, it would be nice to record with this band, just for the hell of it. A one-off kind of deal. And sure enough, this guy from Sweden who had this little label calls me and asks if I want to do a record. So I said yeah, let’s do it.
“I was in the middle of the whole thing, you know? The Swedes and the Norwegians don’t really like one another and toward the end of the recording session, there was a conflict between the Swedish businessman and the Norwegian musicians, but in the end it all worked out.”
That album, Look Homeward Angel, was released on Sweden’s tiny Mill Records label in 1986 and saw extremely limited distribution. Young never knew if Mill had ever approached any label or distributor in the States for distribution, but he didn’t really care. He was just happy to have recorded with that band.
LONG TIME RIDER…..
Not long after, Young threw himself in to experimental mode.
“I did this homemade album,” he said. “It was a total departure from what I had done previously. It was mostly electronic— a lot of synthesizers. I was playing keyboards and singing weirder and deeper songs than usual and people were saying, what are you doing playing keyboards? You’re not supposed to do that. They either loved it or hated it, there was no in-between. Most of the songs were recorded at home on a Tascam 4-Track cassette recorder, but two were recorded on an 8-track at Sky Range: ‘Long Time Rider’ and ‘War of Ancient Days.’ I also got a lot of help on that from Rick West, who lives outside of Nashville in Hendersonville. He recorded a couple of songs— ‘Only You’ and a version of ‘Have a Laugh’— and he helped improve the sound on my 4-track recordings. It wasn’t commercial. It was just for Steve Young. Someone in France put it out on CD in a very limited edition. The title is Long Time Rider.
“I own that master and am toying with resurrecting it. Of course, I would have to put a warning label on it— something like this is not your typical Steve Young, so be forewarned.”
Young, never one to limit himself or to identify himself by genre, considered it a step beyond what he had done, but just another album. While he had never really considered himself country, most of his fans did and electronic may have been too much for most. Young has hinted that he may at some time release it just out of curiosity. Until that day, most of us will just have to wonder.
CHAPTER SEVEN: A Stop-Off in Austin
Steve Young is no stranger to Austin, Texas. He played many gigs there, had spent time with musicians who had settled around the area not the least of whom was Waylon Jennings. He felt at home there— as at home as he could away from home. And he got to know people. Finding a label, though, was not easy.
“It was a struggle for me trying to get something to present,” explained Young. “I tried some independent labels and I felt sort of locked out. Part of that is my nature. Even the small labels, which I thought were so easy, became more difficult— more competitive and more formal in their dealings.
“I developed a friendship over a long period of time with Heinz Geissler, this German who had relocated to Austin. We had talked about me doing an album and while we were talking, time was passing by. A year or more, maybe two. This was maybe the late eighties or around ’90. He owned Watermelon Records, which was a fledgling label at the time. It had started gaining respect as an independent label and we thought, why not?
“Heinz came up with the idea of recording a live album at a gig at Anderson Faire in Houston. He had a connection to a studio there, so they hooked up the Digital Audio Tape machine and we went for it. Until then, I had never done a solo live recording.”
The resulting album, Solo/Live, put Young back on the recording map and was also a coup for Watermelon. Young, though struggling to survive, gave the label a certain amount of prestige.
“Part of the reason for me recording with Watermelon,” explained Young, “was that Heinz and I were friends. I was tired of trying to deal with the bureaucracy and politics, even of the small labels. I was disgusted with the whole process.
“I’m just not good at dealing with the world of business. It’s almost like I’m a Native American in that my consciousness seems to be at odds with it. I find it much easier dealing with people as people and not as businessmen.
“In the end, it was almost humorous because here were all these lawyers talking and there wasn’t even a signed contract, but the record was already done and paid for. You know, we still don’t have a signed contract. But finally, the lawyers somehow got it all worked out and the album was released.”
That deal eventually led to another album on Watermelon, Switchblades of Love, which went through a whole different process. For one thing, it was a studio album, so a producer and studio had to be locked in.
“We talked about different producers,” Young remembered. “Some of them didn’t pan out. Bob Neuwirth was interested in my music and he pushed the idea of Steve Soles. Neuwirth introduced me to Soles and then Heinz and Neuwirth and Soles met and Heinz liked the whole idea, so I said, yeah, this feels good. It was a mutual decision but with Neuwirth pulling the train, so to speak. Neuwirth operated more behind the scenes, exerting influence— a lot like A&R might do.”
During our interview, Young oddly enough agreed to go through the album track by track, a process which gives insight to the music and the man. Here’s what he said.
“I really love ‘If My Eyes Were Blind,’” he began. “It is mystical. David Olney wrote it and he is a great writer. I had recorded it before on the Look Homeward Angel album but when we recorded it for Switchblades, I think we really nailed it. Soles did a good job on the production, what with the oud and all. I think we came up with the definitive version.
“’Have a Laugh’ is a song from Long Time Rider which Neuwirth was convinced should be redone and I’m glad we did it. It is an unusual song for me in that it was a positive statement, as I would see it. And I liked the way they handled it. It is a simpler arrangement than on Long Time Rider and the background vocals came out really good. The song is influenced by a character named Emmanuel, supposedly a spirit. There is a book called Emmanuel’s Book which is about channeling spirits or something. I think the song reflects my appreciation of Emmanuel and his ideas.
“’My Love’ is a pure song. The Long Time Rider version has this big keyboard sound, much more dramatic than the simple guitar and voice version on Switchblades. It’s an off-take, and again, this is Neuwirth’s influence. We did it in one day just to put it down on tape as a rough. That was what they ended up using for the album. Don’t misunderstand this. I was opposed to this version of it but in the end, after running it by Heinz and a few other people, they thought it was good and should be there. I’m still not convinced, but I was outvoted. I pushed for redoing it because guitar and voice is so simple to do but they were afraid that it wouldn’t match up or something. Soles liked to catch things during off-guard moments, trying to catch that natural kind of music, like he did on ‘Love Song,’ I think. He did an amazing job on that song and the arrangement. I recorded that originally with voice and guitar and they overdubbed some amazing parts. It is also a very pure song. Someone said that it must be about God or something, that it couldn’t be about a woman, but I said sure it could because it is. I sometimes think that no one can like that song but myself, that it is too simple or too private or something— too much in my head. I love the lines in it, like “Let’s find life’s Nile again.” I like that a lot. Even if I wrote it, I like it.
“’Switchblades of Love’ is a real heavy song. It kind of frightens some people. People have told me that before— that some of my performances or songs frighten them. I think there are all kinds of levels and layers of what we humans call love and, really, it ends up being some kind of warped version sometimes and….. I don’t even know if I can explain it. It seems like some things are mysterious to me. The obvious inference is physical abuse— like when a guy beats up his wife or girlfriend or vice-versa. But there are many more subtle levels and layers. The way the ego uses love and the power it gains in so-called love. There is a kind of abuse going on there too and I think that all humans do it. In my particular life, it is a kind of disgust at the effort of love. You know. Saying that I’m tired of it and that we should face up to the fact that it is within us. I had to really work on it and edit it down. I had many lyrics which I thought were good and it was really long the way it came out . It was really the only form I could come up with that worked. I remember thinking that you’re with or close to someone and all of a sudden, you feel like you’ve literally been cut and it happened so fast that you’re saying, hey, wait a minute! What just happened here?
“’Angel of Lyon’ was a song idea I started and Tom Russell worked on and finished. He wasn’t supposed to have done all that work on the song without me but he did and then said how can we work this out? There was at that point nothing to do but say we’d share the song. The song is about an experience I had in Lyon one time, playing. There was this beautiful woman in the back of the room with these haunting eyes and while I was playing, it was almost like she disappeared or something. I said to myself, well, she must be the Angel of Lyon. I told Tom about it and it really caught his imagination so he ended up doing more of the hard work on it than myself. But I’m the one who came up with the idea.
“’Going Back To California’ is a song I really like. I call it the left-wing Merle Haggard song and it is phrased differently than I would normally do, left to my own devices. Soles and the other musicians thought it should be phrased a certain way, so I went along with it. It turned out to be a good version of the song. The song is my reflection on the fact that in 1963 I left Montgomery, Alabama with , literally, a sort of junior Klansman threatening to kill me. So for me, in 1963, California was another world. It was a much more fascinating, vast and liberal world. I’ve always been in love with California. I see it through rose-colored glasses. I love Los Angeles to this day. People are always saying I’m crazy. How can you like this place, they say, and one reason I do goes way back to that experience in 1963. What do I like about Los Angeles today? I maintain that the spirit of L.A. remains the same in that it is still a fascinating place. It is volatile. You never know what is going to happen. What I like about it are not the slick parts. I like the immigrants. I like all of the cultures. I like the poor and their side of it. It just fascinates me.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Celtic music and Scotland and a lot of my ancestors on my mother’s side were Welsh, Celtic. And there is Scottish lore and Robert Burns. ‘Midnight Rails’ comes from the experiences of the lonely troubadour in Scotland and Ireland and England. It reflects, for myself, that I do not any more have a family in a normal sense, unlike the guy from the village who gets up every morning to work to support his kids and all that. It is partly about my life and surviving as a musician and an artist— living the life of a troubadour. And being the sole midnight rider.
“’Shelter You’ is an old song that had been lying around for a long time. I had neither played nor presented it before and one night in Austin I did it as a demo and the people around me were really moved. I was amazed. It’s a gospel song, almost, and I think Soles and Katy Moffatt and J.C. Crowley did a great job on it. I got lucky on that one. I hit it just about right. I think Soles really shines there. It’s just old-fashioned R&B gospel.
On “Silver Lake:” “Silver Lake is my favorite area of Los Angeles. I love that place. I have some kind of soul connection with it. To me, it is a beautiful place. Most people would pass through and say I don’t see it, but I figured out a long time ago that somehow, when something really artistic happens, everything at that point in time is, to the artist, beautiful, though it may seem commonplace to others. It is not unlike Montgomery, Alabama. I’ve heard people say that they went to see the town I wrote about in ‘Montgomery In the Rain’ and thought it was an ugly town. They don’t realize that that doesn’t matter. Silver Lake is between Hollywood and downtown L.A., with the hills intact. It has the old look of L.A. with the stucco houses amongst the hills. It is predominately Hispanic and I think it has been for some time. For some reasons, artists tend to like the area. It used to be a cheap place to live. There is a spirit there that I really like. I first lived there back in the sixties over a Chinese grocery store. I had an apartment that cost $75 a month. I couldn’t get a job so I took a civil service exam, scored high, and they gave me a job as a mailman. I was the worst mailman they ever had because I drank all night and then tried to go to work. Me and Bukowski. You know the poet, Charles Bukowski? He was a mailman in Silver Lake too, I think. Of course, when I was younger I might have been a little frightened of the place, but not anymore. I have almost come to believe that the comfort I feel there today has to do with body language. I’m part Native American and I’m much more in touch with that side of my consciousness than the other side. I almost suspect that there is an unspoken body language attached to that and that a lot of Hispanics are aware of it. I mean, I like them. I like their style. I find it gracious.”
It seems like it is all tied together with Young: music, culture, philosophy. Perhaps Switchblades of Love was his way of reaching an understanding he had been working toward all of those years. Perhaps the zen of life was taking hold. Yet the critic still struggled with the philosopher in him.
“After I heard the album, I said, man, this is terrible,” he commented. “This is a shame. But that is always part of the process that I go through after every record. I listened to the album some more and thought, well, wait a minute. Maybe it’s pretty good, you know? In the end, I decided that it was a pretty good record.
“Don’t get me wrong. I certainly think that parts of Switchblades could be much better on my end, on my performance end, but there was this matter of time and money that you run in to eventually and, in this case, I simply had to leave. And I had to leave it as it was. I had done all that I could do. It has happened on other records, too.”
Critical response was mostly positive but one must understand that at the time, the music business was morphing. The major labels were becoming more major than ever and the independent labels were, on the whole, losing ground. Just the sheer number of releases buried projects which would later become collector’s classics and many, to this day, are lost to the conscious world. It was then and is now a tough business.
Chapter Eight: A Return to the Roots
Recording for the small independents began to be a way of life for Young. He was next approached by Appleseed.
“Appleseed is run by a lawyer, Jim Musselman, who has a kind of social-political approach. I think he may have at one time worked for Ralph Nader. He liked the fact that I had recorded this Dick Gaughan song, ‘Worker’s Song,’ from Gaughan’s Handful of Earth album. (Note: Though Gaughan recorded it, the song was written by one Ed Pickford) I think that’s why he wanted to work with me.
“What was to become the Primal Young album was sponsored, oddly enough, by an Australian label, Shock. They were just fans who decided it needed to be done. There was this one guy in Australia, Keith Glass, who is a musician and a journalist. He talked a lot about me and was a bit of a wheeler-dealer and I think he was responsible for the deal, to some extent. I guess he liked what I did so much that he kind of naturally promoted the idea.
“A friend of mine who lives in Topanga Canyon in L.A. produced it: J.C. Crowley. I think he did a great job. He is a very talented musician in his own right and I think we did the best we could with what we had to work with.”
Released in 1999, it made its way to a handful of loyal fans, but no further. Appleseed’s distribution was weak and the music business was already feeling the impact of the digital revolution, though many think that it was not digitization which prevented sales but the weakening of all distribution networks. For reasons unknown (though highly speculated), the industry was too busy shooting itself in the foot to see what the future held. His frustration at a peak, Young at that point did not much care. He just wanted to play and record what music was left in his veins.
The next year, 2000, someone in BMG’s UK office decided that Young’s two RCA releases, Renegade Picker and No Place To Fall deserved re-release and ordered them packaged together in a two-disc set. BMG in the States hardly noticed.
“Whatever they did on that,” Young commented, “they did a good job. Now, mind you, those tapes were handled extremely well. They were recorded on old analog gear in RCA’s Studio B in Nashville, a famous studio for good reason. They had great gear in there, I am certain. You see, in those days, I didn’t really pay attention. I don’t know what they used because I didn’t care. There is no telling what they had. I wish I could go back and see, if only to say, boy, look at that! I know they got a good sound to begin with. They recorded on a two-inch analog tape and mixed it down to, what? A quarter-inch? A half-inch? Regardless, however they handled the digital mastering of the reissue, somebody did it right.”
GROWING YOUR OWN…..
The whole digital revolution planted a seed of an idea in Young’s mind. After years of approaching labels to purchase his own tapes (which the labels steadfastly refused to re-release) and having it come to nothing, he began toying with the idea of building his own studio. He had his house in Nashville and the price of recording equipment had been dropping with the technological advances, so the more he thought about it, the more possible it seemed. He began researching the possibility and making small purchases here and there and before long, had the basics of a working studio put together.
The idea was to be able to record and experiment with music, but while he was heading in that direction, his past kept tugging at him. All of his songs, his musical past, tied up by the major labels….. It was an obstacle in his path. Finally he came to a conclusion. If they would not release them or sell them to him so that he could, he would simply re-record them.
“Some of the songs I ended up recording for Songlines were unavailable, so I thought it was time. My albums have always gone in and out of print and I had always wanted to own my own masters, so I created some.”
Songlines Revisited: Vol. 1 was recorded at a local Nashville studio.
“I was not at a stage with my home studio where I could work with other musicians all that easily,” Young explained, “so we went to a small local studio. I did take a few pieces of my gear and used some of it. We had Pat McInerney on drums, Thomm Jutz on guitar, and David Roe on bass. Roe played with Johnny Cash for about ten years. He’s really good at slap bass. We did a version of ‘Lonesome, Orn’ry & Mean’ that had a bit of the Sun Records sound, with that slap bass.
“I personally think it is interesting to do different recordings of the same songs. Sometimes, maybe it gets overdone, but there are lots of ways to do songs. Different feels, different approaches. Jazz guys used to do it and the fans seemed to dig it. Outside of jazz, though, people seem to be critical of it.
“I think the best cut on Songlines is ‘Alabama Highway,’ which needed to be redone. I have always thought it could be better and now, I think it is better. Better in every way— the track, the vocal, just the feel of it. It just captures better the way I wanted that song to be.
“I think some day I would like to go back to a very simple group— say, a good acoustic bass— sort of like the Sun Records approach or an early Elvis kind of thing. Maybe a trio with a good brush drummer or something. I think that would sound great.”
When the album was released, it wasn’t. Young printed up enough copies to take on the road with him for point-of-purchase sales and that was it. It took him a year or so to ready it for public consumption. Such is Steve Young’s introverted view of the marketplace these days. The if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach will not make Young a rich man, but it fits in better with his philosophy.
That philosophy will be the subject of the last chapter on our story. I have always maintained that to understand the music, you have to understand the musician and understanding Steve Young takes some serious thought. I talked with Young numerous times over an eighteen year period and always walked away thinking I finally got him only to find that after a short period of time, I had more questions. Every time.
Young today spends as much time in his studio as anywhere. He gets out to the occasional guitar workshop or folk festival and plays the one-off gigs that certain people talk him into, but he is hardly the wandering troubadour he once was. Music is still central to his life, though, and his many fans are thankful for that.
“What I have going on now,” he said, “is, well, confused. I have acquired a certain amount of recording equipment, which is a bad thing to get into because it costs a lot of money. If you like the good stuff like I do, anyway. I’m trying to learn to use it, which is very difficult for me. My dream would be to move into a home more suitable for a home studio and do recordings I can control more— simple but high quality recordings.
“I’m learning. There are guys out there putting out CDs of blind tests and they’ll say, okay, was this mixed on ProTools on the computer or was it mixed on an old Neve board. Tell us. And some people can tell and some people can’t. There may not even be a real answer and yet some people say that even if they can’t hear the difference, they can feel the difference. It’s not easy.
“There is really no end to the discussion about sound. The fact is that the great old studios had the gear they had for a reason. Because you never know what this singer— which mic and which preamp he might sound better on. There is no set formula, really. A good engineer knows which piece to go to and which piece to put with which. That’s part of the art of it and the old engineers had a lot to choose from. It’s like having different paints to paint with.”
We might have to wait to hear Young’s new paintings, but the fans he has gained over the years won’t mind. He is still settling in. And there is still time…..
Chapter Nine: A Man and His Philosophy
If you’ve read this far, you know that Steve Young is a complicated man. His views of the world and life and love are at times congruent with his philosophies and at other times at odds. I came to the conclusion long ago that his journey was not just one of music but one of a spiritual nature. He is a monk with a guitar, always searching for the answer which seldom presents itself. Over many interviews, he graciously handed me an insight into the story behind the musician and the man.
I guess you could call the following quotes leftovers, but they aren’t. They, as much as the preceding chapters, are part of the story and the musician and the man. If you read carefully, you might (as I have) pick up some words of wisdom. I tried to organize the quotes by subject. It wasn’t easy. Each paragraph is a separate quote, regardless of subject. And please keep in mind that these quotes come from interviews which spanned over a decade.
“I have old war wounds with The South. I see it through very prejudiced glasses. I think there is a lot of truth to what I see, but there may be things that I create or project.”
“Southerners rub me the wrong way. It’s the way they sound and what they believe. It’s the same old same old. In a way it hasn’t changed and in a way it has. It’s like the old saying, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ Politics, religion, social views, the idea that Christianity is the thing, after all, and if you don’t like it, that’s tough. That’s the biggest thing about The South— its religious fervor. If you look at the politics of the West Coast and The South, it’s obvious. Or even with Middle America. The South has won, in a sense, the philosophical battle of this country. For the moment.”
“Even as a teenager in Alabama I had an unusual ability to see through certain aspects of this fundamentalist religion that was being thrown at me. I attribute it to a past association with The East. The only way I can explain it would be through some kind of past life experience. Even as a kid in Gadsden, I saw and bought a book on Yoga. Why, I don’t really know. I was intrigued by The East. I was drawn to it. Later, I read something about Alan Watts. The beatniks were talking about it then and I can see myself as a person of The Beat Generation. I just came along at the tail end of it.”
“My mother’s mother was very religious. She was from the old school of backroads Baptists—- fiery stuff. It was imposed on me and still, even today, I have a great deal of anger about it. Even as a small child, though, I saw through it. I could have been a great con man preacher. I could talk that talk. It did have a certain effect on me, making me seek the truth of what is life and death. I ended up being a bit of a Buddhist, really.”
“In the South, you always run into this love-hate deal. The music of the church was very intense. It was an influence— the emotion of it all, the right or wrong, the good or bad. They had this position and it couldn’t help but make an impression on you.”
NASHVILLE AND COUNTRY MUSIC…..
“For me, country music reflects a certain cultural thing that I grew up battling with. I don’t like Modern Country at all. I’ve become more fond, in a way, of the old country stuff; people like Hank Snow or Marty Robbins. Back in the day, I almost laughed at those guys at times, but now I see them more as giants compared to what is going on now. For one thing, I don’t know what their particular views were, but the music was not very political. It was more of a storytelling thing and they were more acknowledging of suffering or pain or different things of that nature. And they were all individuals. When you heard them, you knew exactly who it was. They had this sound, this style. These days, Modern Country artists pretty much all blend together for me.”
“I grew up with country music. I can sing country music in my sleep, and I don’t particularly like most of it. It reflects that negative culture thing I grew up with. On the other hand, there is some great country music, but for me a lot of it is in the past. I think a song like ‘Dark As a Dungeon’ by Merle Travis is a song of total integrity and if country music could have more of that, it would be great. But I suspect that rock and folk music have more depth and is more liberal. It is more left-wing, I guess, as opposed to right-wing, for lack of a better description.”
“It’s just the way of the world. It has all become more and more empty of anything, it seems, except the image. They have a black hat. They have a certain look. They have a certain sound. In the old days, the guys didn’t go away. Once they had an audience, they were loyal to that audience and that audience was loyal to them. I think in Pop and Rock, it has always been pretty much that way, but Country used to be more lasting. A Hank Snow or a Marty Robbins would achieve a certain level and they stayed there for a long time.”
“I used to not like Nashville all that much, but I have to say that I am liking it more because it is changing, at least on the surface. More and more people are coming here from other places. It has always been kind of a cultural void, but there are some nice elements to it. I have lived here so long that I have developed some significant friendships. But there is this Bible Belt thing here too and when I was growing up I was at odds with that. I still bear a certain amount of scar tissue from that.”
TO SATISFY YOU, THE ALBUM…..
“I really wasn’t ready to make a record, I think, when that was made. I was just going through the motions. I think there are some good moments on that record, but it may be the worst record I ever made, in a way. For one thing, there was only one original song on it. I don’t even know how to explain that record. It just evolved. I certainly loved Mac Gayden and would love to work with him some more. I think there was great magic about his playing and my singing, together.”
“I ran back into my father. He came around and tried to make up for some of his neglect and I got to know him a little bit. I found out that he was an Atheist and a very liberal, free thinking guy for one from the South. He loved nature, was very interested in science and did not buy into the Christian religion at all. For me, he was kind of a romantic and mysterious figure.”
“I didn’t grow up with Indians but I feel very close to their view. Their view of the Earth was the most important thing. It wasn’t money. It wasn’t gold. From their point of view, if there was gold in the Earth, the Earth probably needed that gold. It’s almost like Native Americans were from a different planet than the Europeans.”
“I’m totally into Native American music. I was born in North Georgia. People don’t realize that that was all Cherokee and Choctaw land. A lot of people around there have Native American blood from way back, though they mostly ignore it. As the Cherokee says, their blood has run out. They don’t mean how much blood, they mean their consciousness about it has run out. I was always aware of it.”
“I’m more in touch with my Native American side of consciousness than I am of the other side. And I am fascinated by Native Americans and Mexicans. I like their style. I find it gracious. I feel a certain beauty and truth about these kinds of cultures. And I prefer them to the sanitized, safe white halls of the American myth.”
“I often think that maybe I could go down and manufacture songs. I even talk to people about it sometimes and a little voice just says, are you kidding yourself or what? Why don’t you just follow your real vision because that’s what you are. But there is all that money and power and, man, they sure do have a lot of money.”
“I’ve got a lot of songs laying around. Sometimes it takes years for me to present a song. Not just finish it, but present it. The way I work seems to be very organic. I think a good song writes itself and when it is ready to emerge, it does. At least, that’s how I think it happens. I mean, you could go out and manufacture songs. That’s what they do in Nashville, you know. But those songs are usually not that good. I mean, I make all these promises and statements about how I’m going to become more productive, but I don’t seem to be able to change.”
“I absorb Indian music to some extent, but I’m not trying to play it. On my trips to India, I saw more of the folk side. India and Mexico are the two countries in the world which have the greatest body of living folk music and folk culture. India is a place that is beyond words. The best and the worst are all right there in your face at all times.”
“I think my attitude is more radical now than it has ever been. A lot of people, as they age, tend to be less radical, but I have gotten more so. I was never a total hippie or anything like that, but the basic political directions of the Sixties… I always had that and I still have it. It is just the way it has always been for me and that is why I always found myself in trouble in the Deep South.”
“I can’t seem to lose my energy. I think I might be better off if I could.”
“My favorite part of the US is the extreme West Coast, from Canada all the way down. I love Oregon and California and, of course, I love New Mexico. I mean, as far as general consciousness, those areas strike me as better than other places or something…”
“The United States, to me, is a kind of ongoing tragedy on the whole. We have so much and so much to choose from. Even the crumbs on the table are better than they are in most parts of the world. So in that way, we have a good life. I don’t buy that we’re the greatest, the free-est, and we’re certainly not the noblest. Because there is no noblest.”
“I think Americans have a false view of the world. They don’t understand the suffering of the world, maybe, or maybe we tend to cut it off. Like, we don’t have to deal with debt a lot. We’re spoiled, we’re arrogant, we’re everything that’s bad. There are a bunch of arrogant people who have inherited a great amount of power and wealth. The people themselves benefit materially from the wealth of this country and they don’t understand that the wealth of this country may be based on the poverty of other countries too. They think that if they work hard, they’ll make it, but it is not quite like that.”
“Foreigners are quite gracious to Americans one-on-one but underneath they always suspect that the American is spoiled and shallow and superficial. The American is the one most likely to come in and say, here, just do it like this.”
“The Internet has put me in touch with people. It has made me much more aware that I do have fans, that there are people out there who love my music, who have been affected by it. It did a lot for me in that regard. I don’t tend to know that. I wouldn’t assume that. I’m not aware of my effect on people in that way.”
If you’ve read this far, you’re a fan. If not old, then new. You have gotten to know the man as I have, hopefully through his music as well as his story. If you haven’t heard the music, perhaps now is the time. Primal Young is available for streaming on Spotify. Four tracks are posted on Steve’s MySpace page. You can sample (and buy) Primal Young and Songlines Reisited: Vol. 1 at CDBaby. Be aware that the copies of Songlines are CD-RP, which I believe means that they are reproduced at CDBaby via an agreement with Steve. You can preview (and, I assume, buy) a CD titled Stories Round the Horseshoe Bend, a recent live recording. It is featured on Steve’s website page. That link will also take you to Village Records, a store which has supported Steve for some years and which is probably a good place for information regarding any Steve Young product which might be available.
I put together this article because I could find very little about Steve on the Internet and thought it was a crime. I hope you agree with me that this begins to solve that crime. But it is only a beginning. Steve’s still playing and will hopefully be recording again soon. Stay tuned.