Music Writing by Carson Arnold


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(continued from Imaginary Liners For Steve Young)




Steve Young: Yeah, growing up in the deep south. I was born in Georgia, grew up some in Georgia, some in Alabama. But the ride back and forth across the state lines, sort of the northern parts of those states. But it's very deep south stuff. My relatives were all very poor from the back roads of Georgia. I was just kind of a misfit really.


Carson Arnold: You would work?


SY: I would try to, but I could never hold a job very long. They just thought I was crazy, or they didn't like my ideas. My political social ideas would get me in trouble-- just the way I saw things. Even though I'm a southerner-- absolutely, totally-- I'm just very different from most southerners. I don't believe in their religion, their patriotism, I don't believe in any of that. And that really offends them.


CA: How 'bout your parents?


SY: I think some of this comes from my father, who in fact did have some connection to Indian blood. He was just a little different. In fact, he was quite different in a way. He was very poor as a kid. And he was caught up in just trying to survive. But he was not your typical guy at all. And he really wasn't that good of a father. He left us when we were little kids-- me and my brother. Disappeared. At any rate, I think he was highly intelligent. In fact, he came to the conclusion that he was an atheist. So, you know, to be an atheist where he came from, that was like, a no-no, you know what I mean?


CA: And you were in the woods, rural?


SY: I was born in Nulin, my father and most his relatives, including my mother, were from the Nulin areas, which, if you look, isn't that far away from Atlanta. But when I was might have well been a thousand miles away.


CA: How was the music down there?


SY: Well, that was the one thing that was good about the south, was the music. 'Cuz it was vital music. Both black and white. When I was kid, it was more local, those elements. It wasn't yet as homogenized and corporate. I mean, there were street singers, for one thing. Some of them were quite good, they had a big influence on me. And then there was the church music, the local singers, and then there was all the other old country and bluegrass. Blues. Sometimes. When you got to hear the blues. And then of course when I was 14, along came James Dean and Elvis Presley and that whole Sun Records thing. Which fascinates me more and more as I get older. The very early Elvis stuff I just think is fantastic. Elvis is a fascinating character, but those Sun sessions with Scotty Moore, I just think that's absolutely great stuff. {Sam Phillips} was an amazing a different character himself, not a typical southerner, yet, like me in ways, he was a southerner.


CA: You never worked with him?


SY: No, I didn't. The first record I ever did was with Cowboy Jack Clements in Beaumont, Texas. He had a little studio, I was just a kid in high school. I had this little folk group and we did a record with Jack. And so I use to go down there and argue with him on how the record should be-- I was just this kid. He was the producer, on his label. The amazing thing about Jack was that he would talk to me like I knew something. We used a lot of my ideas, wound up doing it. But Jack of course had worked some at Sun Records. Jack is a true character, too. From the old school.


CA: When do you start writing music more profusely?


SY: Well, I started writing lyrics and poems and things as a little kid. I always wanted a guitar, but couldn't every get one. And I would always have a plastic toy guitar and talk about how I was going to play some day. They didn't take me very seriously of course, wasn't much money. When I was 14, I finally got my hands on a real guitar. Then I began to learn to play.


CA: Your contemporaries like Townes Van Zandt have compared your lyrics to poetry, you know?


SY: Uh-huh. Well, I think some of them you can say that, yeah. {I ask about "Little Birdie"} Yeah, well "Little Birdie", some of that is just traditional. I don't know which part is mine and which part is the folk song. I changed the melody structure, too. I like to interpret songs, I love to adapt songs. I love to have the freedom to change them. Now that offends some people. They think you should just do it the way it was. I like to take a writer's song and adapt it. And I think writers should give an interpreter the freedom to do that. And I believe my greatest talent is interpretation.


CA: did you bust out on to the first scene?


SY: Actually I was in Alabama and getting in trouble. The junior Klansmen were angry at me. I would go around spouting off protest songs and get drunk. I was too foolishly bold, and that was in Montgomery, Alabama, which was a very dangerous place in a way-- 1962. So, there was a lot of tension and it was getting worse. A couple of friends of mine-- Richard and Jim-- they wanted to be real "professionals". They had a contract for Capitol Records. They did a kind of folkie/bluegrass Appalachian thing. And they needed me, and I was just a crazy drunken kid. Sometimes I'd show up, sometimes I wouldn't. But I had something they need a little bit. So they got, threw me in the car, said, "C'mon, we're going to California, gonna do a record." And I wanted to get outta Alabama, so I went. It was 1963. We went down Big Sur, down into San Fransisco, and they let me out, and I went on my way for a while. Then wound up going to L.A and doing that record with Capitol. So, you know, I played some guitar-- they played three of my songs. That was my introduction to the real music business. I was still wild and crazy. There was a producer who wanted to produce me, but he finally gave up.


CA: Have you ever lost that wild side?


SY: Well, 'cuz I almost died like another addict. You come to a point whether you decide you'll try to change or whether you will die, and of course dying is a change, too. So I reached that point at age 37, earlier than most junkies and addicts-- 'cuz I drank more than anybody, I guess-- and I mean every single day. So at 37, I was approaching the point where I was gonna die pretty soon. I didn't think there was a way to live any other way, and I sort of hoped I would die in my sleep, but it didn't happen. Finally I found a way where I sobered up and found that I actually liked it, much to my surprise. I enjoy being sober, knowing where I've been, what I went through, and how tormented it all was. The addictions of it and all that. And I still enjoy being sober. That's been twenty-two years or whatever it is.


CA: That was around what? Renegade Picker?


SY: Well now Renegade Picker I was still drinking and using, and by no place to fall, I was in pretty bad shape. They had to kind of work around through some of that to get that stuff done. And after that, it all kind of went down hill. My last drink was September of '79, and my last drug came a little after that. 1980.


CA: How about your music during this time?


SY: At first, I didn't know if I could play sober. That was the big fear, the big concern, as it is among any addict musician. Because of a certain Buddhist view I have, I was willing to-- The most important thing is really not playing or how other people see me, the most important thing is, for the lack of a better word, a kind of "spiritual path". And I might have been more spiritual then than I am now, I dunno. But anyway, I was really interested in these big questions, and was willing to do whatever it took to remain clean. But a lot of musicians can't-- that's why they have so many problems. Because they can't get to that point for real, or stay there. They feel they have to "use" to do the music, or going on the road or whatever it may be. Townes had that. But I was willing to let it go. Can you hold for one sec? {Two minutes later} ...These guys are trying to find me place, but they're lost, kinda crazy. We can go on a ways here. Anyway, I was saying sort of detached from the whole "musician-image-of-myself". And therefore that enabled me to remain sober.


CA: It's always weird to me with musicians that their music can be so beautiful and astounding, like Tim Buckley, but their personal life it's-


SY: Yeah, it's a kind of hell. Not that my personal life was easy. There's no real magic solutions. I think artists in a lot of ways are really truly, if you wanna make a bold statement about it, I think that we're kind of failures as human beings actually. I think people enjoy seeing that tragic "dying poet", too. He might die right in front of them!


CA: Right. But to you, why would you say artists are mostly failures?


SY: I just think they have a hard time dealing with other human beings, and doing the things that you might say the common-man does without a problem. So many problems. But, maybe that's my illusion, I dunno. But unlike a lot of musicians I've tried to improve that; make up for the some of the things I've done a little bit. As I get older I see how arrogant and ultimately foolish I was. But it has to do with youth. Youth is on a different road, a different dimension, than some of the older folks. It's a kind of a tragic thing. {I ask how to connect them} I don't think you can, unless your elders live long enough for you to get old enough, and if you have the nerve to talk to them. But usually they're all gone on but the time you realize some of the stuff you did.


CA: Did you have children?


SY: I have one son, and of course, I've been one of the world's worst father-- although it could have been worse-- I've tried to make up some of that. And still do, even though he's 32 now. Being an addict and trying to be a parent just doesn't work. He works at a radio station, he is a musician and has a lot of talent. It's hard for him to connect to make any money doing it, but hopefully some day he will. Either as a writer or player. We hope to do more things together. He played a little on Primal Young.


CA: Now how about the L.A scene during the sixties?


SY: Of course that was a wild time for drugs, everybody did drugs, and I don't know what we were thinking. We thought we were superman, or immune, I dunno what the hell we were thinking. Some of those drugs were psychedelic, which was different.


CA: Altering your music...


SY: Well, it just sort of pointed out some things that I already knew or sort of suspected. I remember taking Sandoz acid, sealed, the real stuff, once. I came to believe there is only one real LSD trip, and that's the first one. After that, it just goes down. I don't think you gain any ultimate truth by doing it, but it did confirm some things, or point in certain directions that I felt was kind of good. I would put that in a different category than most drugs. I wouldn't encourage anybody to do that over and over. You know, it was all the booze and the drugs that would do the damage. So in California everybody was loaded. Though, they thought booze was unhip, but I liked booze, you know.


CA: What's going on with your music at this time?


SY: Well, I was just trying to get something going. It was very hard. I hooked up with Van Dyke Parks. We would always get a record deal going and then Van Dyke would blow the deal. We would try these different things, but I was really tormented. But hanging out in that scene and looking back-- talk about tormented-- there were people like Tim Hardin around, Mama Cass, 'course briefly I knew Stephen Stills before he became big. I knew Chris Hillman, and I think I saw The Byrds when they first played at The Troubadour, and I remember seeing them-- I was there. I thought it sounded pretty good. But everybody was talking, "Oh they're electric and this and that."


CA: How about performing with Gene Clark?


SY: Well, not that I spent a lot of time with Gene Clark, but I liked him. Of those guys-- The Byrds-- I sort of liked him the best, personally. He was just approachable, down to earth, not a big ego thing. He did a little sitting-in with some recording sessions in '68, '69. I didn't really perform with him, but I'd see him once in a blue moon over the years. Then we finally did a little show together in McCabes over in Santa Monica. He wasn't in the greatest of shape by that time, he was trying to hang in there.


CA: What did you feel about your debut record, '69 was it?


SY: Yeah, that was just Steve Young. We started to record some in '68 and then some in '69. It was released in '69 Rock Salt and Nails. Now I just like Gene Clark. I just felt more comfortable with him for some reason. He was a real, real-- like me-- a complete addict dude, you know? I know I once saw him in Nashville when I was sober, and he was in real bad shape, and really out of it. It wasn't so long after that that he passed away. You know, why do you like someone? I just felt more comfortable with him, that he was more "for real".


CA: Sometimes I feel like there's a lot of "production" in your albums. Do you control this? In other words, in some of your albums would rather have sometimes just you and a guitar playing?


SY: Oh, well, it depends. I guess I like to have the option. I think I won't be happy myself until I try to be my own producer, just a total control-freak, which probably all artists are anyway. I'm gonna found out about that because I'm trying to set up a home studio where I can do just exactly that. And it would be up to me if I wanted to do it with a guitar or solo.


CA: What have you thought about your albums, musically?


SY: A lot of them have problems. Usually when I hear my stuff I don't like it. However, if I'm in the right mood sometimes, occasionally, I might listen to it and like it. But there's always something that I wish was a little different. That's just the nature of it, I don't think I'll ever be completely happy.


CA: Seven Bridges Road is a pretty interesting album.


SY: I think it had a lot of weak points, but it had a lot of strong points. Frankly, a lot of the strong points came from my production, not because anybody else. I always co-produce my albums and sort of was a producer's nightmare, unless they were the kind of producer that let the artist meet him half way. Because that's the way I want to work. If the producer thinks I'm gonna do what I'm told, they're crazy. 'Cuz I'm gonna have strong opinions and I want to be involved with every phase of it. Some producers I've gotten along with, but some I don't. But sometimes some good things would come out of that tension. In those sort of compromises that were made and all that. But like I said, I'm not gonna be happy until I try to produce myself and see what happens. I suspect I can do it quite well.


CA: What do you think of the "Nashville sound"?


SY: I think Nashville basically sucks, and it always has, and it always will. They're some good things...I just think it's kinda low on the totem pole...You're supposed to take the pledge; the Nashville pledge of allegiance; you're not supposed to knock it. I'm like, Man, you gotta be kidding me?! This is not even a real city! It's just a hick town, c'mon! It still is, even though they have a football team, but so what? It's just the mentality of the place. But, it has gotten better, I'll say that. It has some immigrants now, I'd like to see a lot more. A real city to me is Los Angeles, San Fransisco, or New York. Those are some cities. Nashville? C'mon, man.


CA: What are your feelings about Renegade Picker?


SY: Roy Day, who thought more of me than anybody in the world, produced that record-- god bless him, he died some years ago-- but there was some side to me that Roy couldn't deal with, or was afraid to present. He got into some of that a little bit, but he tried to keep it more meat 'n potatoes kind of thing. Roy totally believed in my abilities and my singing, he thought Renegade Picker was the best album he ever know. And that album did get more attention that anything else I ever did, because I think for me it was kind of commercial. But it wasn't commercial enough because it didn't make a big breakthrough, but they tried, even if they were mislead, with the promotion of it.


CA: Now with Primal Young, you've drifted off into more Scottish traditions.


SY: Yeah, it's more what I call Appalachian. Kind of going back to my roots, or my beginning conscience to music to some extent. It addressed all the elements, but a big element-- the Celtic, Appalachian mainstream thing-- it does address that to some degree.


CA: It's such a breakthrough record, that last track, "Little Birdie".


SY: Oh yeah, I love "Little Birdie", I like that track a lot. It surprised me how the steel worked on that, I wouldn't have thought that. We of course did that on the West Coast under very limited conditions. Jason Crowley, now there's a producer and a friend of mine who really tried to get down to the essence of what I was presenting.


CA: You feel it's your most understood record?


SY:...You think so?


CA: I think so. It's your most confident.


SY: Yeah. Well, someday I'd like to do some more work with J.C. The problem with me and J.C. is that he was even slower than me. It seemed like to me in took almost a year before we really got it all done. I wanna take my time but I don't wanna take forever and ever.


CA: What were you doing the in 90's?


SY: Well, my usual floundering around. You have to realize that I live in such a way that as long as I can survive I don't really care much about promoting myself. I just do what I feel like doing. I do these quiet sort of obscure gigs. I perform alone mostly, however, I'm open to working with a little band. I'd like to have some brush, subtle drums and an acoustic bass player-- you can do a range of music with that. I would enjoy that. Talking about Nashville, though, there are a lot of talented people here. I'm also aware that I see Nashville through bitter, colored glasses to some extent, although I basically think what I say is true. Nashville is an assembly line. They're gonna assemble a product that they think they can sell, and it might as well be TV, it just happens to be music.


CA: Steve Earle rebels against it.


SY: I've always had that attitude, doing my thing. Steve Earle's continuing that kind of process. I think he thinks highly of me, and remembers me as somewhat of a distant influence.


CA: What was you relationship to Townes Van Zandt?


SY: Well, Townes and I use to hang out some, drink some together occasionally. Townes was always kind of trouble, you know? I wasn't as close to him as somebody like Guy Clark was. When we first met, Townes and I would debate and argue-- it was just part of what Townes and I did. We were friends, there was a lot of respect there between us. I was involved once in trying to help Townes to clean up, to give up booze and drugs. That was sometime around 1980. He saw me once and was so amazed on how much different I looked after I quit drinking for about six months. It really made an impression on him, and then he said he was going to quit. And then he went and did this sort of comical routine about it, as Townes always did. And then he did quit for a couple of years, but it was kind of a forced dry thing, he was just kind of miserable. He could never enjoy being sober. I got out of it and liked being out of it. Townes didn't have that kind of view of it.


CA: You feel that kind of troubadour songwriter is missed today?


SY: I'm sure there must be some young guys-- Americana troubadour whatever. I know there's this whole new movement of folk singers, which to be honest, all kind of sounds the same. Maybe it's my age. I'll tell you a singer who absolutely impressed me was Dick Gaughan from Scotland. That impressed me. I think Gaughan is the greatest troubadours in the whole world. Period.


CA: You have a real working class attitude in your music. The proletariat.


SY: Yeah, I'm real interested in politics, which is one of the things I respect Steve Earle for. My politics are so different than Nashville which adds to my agitation with Nashville. But like I said, I see Nashville through these glasses of the past, as I guess we all do. It has changed, things change, things move on.

(August-September 2003)

copyright 2003 Carson Arnold


H(ear) is an online music column consisting of interviews, articles, and investigations written by Carson Arnold. As a freelance writer for various magazines and liner notes, living in the woods of Vermont with his family, Carson widely encourages one to submit their art, writing or any interesting piece of material that you would like to share. H(ear) is accepting both promos and demos for review or any other valuable music-related subjects. If you wish to make a comment or would like to receive H(ear) weekly by email please contact Carson at

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