"He's the only one on the scene with the possibility of becoming truly universal. If the dude gets any better, I'll kill him." ---Waylon Jennings
Steve Young is right when he says he's not country, but damn, how do you explain it when he's laying down incredible tracks like One Woman Man and My Sweet Love Ain't Around, both country classics? I suppose by pointing out that That's How Strong My Love Is is soul and Coyote folk yet both have that same Steve Young trademark sound, because Young has a knack of making a song his own regardless of genre. He does it now. He did it from the beginning.
For Young, it began in Georgia and Alabama, where he was raised. Dirt poor but not totally aware of it, he latched onto music out of an almost spiritual necessity and by the time he was in his mid-teens, made his guitar an extension of himself. By the time the folk craze hit, he was proficient enough to attract attention and haunted the coffehouses and beatnik dives, playing for food or drinks, happy just to have someone listen. Unfortunately for him, a few rednecks listened and made him the brunt of their dislike to the tune of a physical invitation to leave. California, here Young came.
He was lucky enough to have a ticket to Los Angeles, courtesy of Richard & Jim, who had signed with Capitol Records as a folk act. A few sessions later, he was on the streets like so many musical hopefuls, living in houses with numerous others to keep costs down. He joined with Van Dyke Parks and Stephen Stills in a group they called The Gas Company (Parks remembers opening one gig for The Lovin' Spoonful), but rejected all offers from labels (Parks claims there were a few). He joined with friend and fellow folkie Richard Lockmiller (of Richard & Jim) in a band known as Stone Country, signed by RCA to a single album. The album tanked, but Young piqued the interest of more than one label. Talks ended when he signed with small up-and-comer A&M. He readied himself for recording his first solo album and, with the help of fellow Stone Country player Don Beck and a handful of A&M artists and studio men (not to mention producer Tommy Li Puma), laid down one of Americana's first truly classic albums. It is true that Americana as a genre was thirty years distant, but that is what he plays.
Li Puma held a strong hand on Young. For some reason, he did not like Young recording originals, but allowed him three (along with one Steve Young arrangement of the traditional Hoboin'), one of the three being the standout 7 Bridges Road. That song, for good or bad, defines Young to many of his fans.
Young has recorded and performed 7 Bridges Road many times since (he, in fact, titled his second solo LP on Reprise after the song), but never better nor as hauntingly than here. A floating ballad born to Young's voice, it soars over strings (probably added contrary to Young's wishes)
, but which add a period feel missing in later recorded versions. Homage to the South from which he fled, it shares a soulful kind of homesickness we all feel now and again. In later years, it filled the pockets of The Eagles who released it as a single off of their live album (without credit to Ian Matthews' superb arrangement, I might add).
That's How Strong My Love Is actually kicks the album off, though, and takes no deference to Bridges. Written by one Roosevelt Jamison, it first appeared on an O.V. Wright 45 and later found its way to Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, Bryan Ferry and even Humble Pie. Young takes that slow R&B feel and shows just how soulful a white guy can be, his vocals powerful and gospel-like. Add acoustic instrumentation and a fine organ outro (courtesy of a young Gram Parsons, who played the same L.A. streets as Young) and you have gospel for listeners who maybe think they don't like gospel. A redneck's introduction to gospel, maybe. And a great opening track.
If Young is noted for any song other than Bridges, it would have to be Utah Phillips' Rock Salt & Nails (Hey, it ain't the title of the album for nothing). Phillips wrote it in a drunken fog and at first refused to accept authorship until forced, by legend or default, take your pick. What he created, Young took to the next level. Here, it is a thing of beauty, made better by understated background fiddle by Myer Sniffin (Richard Greene) and likewise dobro by James Burton, a picker who does not get his just due in today's world. Masterpiece is a description overused these days, but this comes close if it isn't.
Johnny Horton had a semi-hit with One Woman Man and one could wonder about its inclusion, but Young pulls it off nicely and the song is so damned good, who really cares? Perhaps Tommy Li Puma knew something we don't or perhaps it was Young's tribute to one of country's greats. Regardless, it helps make the side seamless in feel.
Peter LaFarge is yet another underappreciated composer of note, yet Young grabs his Coyote by the vocal chords and makes the coyote howl more of a coyote moan of sadness. A lament of the white man's harsh treatment of the coyote as a varmint, it really tells the tale of our institutional insensitivity to all things for which we cannot immediately profit. A beautifully performed song for ecology, though few accepted it at the time.
Young treats Marvin Rainwater's hit Gonna Find Me a Bluebird as one would expect. He tastefully uses a carbon copy of Rainwater's arrangement and lays his voice over the rhythm track, Burton's dobro dancing through the vocals from start to finish. Again, it's inclusion sniffs of Li Puma, but, again, who could argue?
Young shows his love for gospel in Love In My Time, an original which allows his voice to once again soar. The light acoustic and waltzing rhythm is offset nicely by some fine uncredited female gospel vocals in the background and on that thumbs-up note, the side gets flipped.
Kenny Austin's Kenny's Song sounds like it was written specifically for Steve Young, it fits him so well. Slow and bluesy, it takes the listener down and up at the same time, not unlike the codeine about which the song speaks. A druggie's acoustic dirge, the strings again give it that period feel which would probably be missing if recorded today.
Holler In the Swamp is as close to a hit sound as Young gets on the album and it is largely due to the picked rhythm guitar, very indicative of the late '60s, and the strings. Until this album, Young had spent his time in coffeehouses and playing in folk rock bands and this track really shows it. It catches the ear easily today and the combination is musically inspiring, if you like the lighter side of that folk rock period.
Young used to hang out around old street musicians as a child on Georgia and Alabama, just to feel the vibration of the strings, he said once. Hoboin' looks back to those days of the acoustic blues and music on the street corners. Whether you like blues or not, Young does and performs it admirably here.
Hank Williams was all over the South (and the United States, actually) during Young's childhood, so it is no surprise that he includes Williams' My Sweet Love Ain't Around to cap off the LP. Try as he might to throw off the shackles of being a country musician, he has created the monster himself with the effortless style he brings to the genre. A great version of a great song. And for the history buffs, far in the background you can hear Gene Clark blowing his mouth harp.
You know, the wonder isn't that Steve Young creates in obscurity these days. He more than likely prefers it to the alternative which success lays on the doorstep. No, the wonder is that with all of the people out there supposedly searching frantically for the best music, few have uncovered this album. Call it country or folk or whatever you want, it is solid Americana (or would be had it been released yesterday) and head and shoulders above most of that genre. Indeed, it is head and shoulders above most of any genre. But don't take my word for it. There are Steve Young tunes available for download on the Internet and if you are really adventurous, you can find LPs or CDs if you really try. And when you do, drop a line and tell me what you think. It will be a pleasure to know another fan of Steve Young. A real pleasure.
If you want to know what Steve has been up to recently, check out my review of his Songlines Revisited Volume 1 CD for New Manifest Destiny magazine. Purchase CDs by Steve Young at one of the best record stores in existence, Music Millennium, "where the music and people still matter." And that ain't just a slogan.