A true musical legend has passed. An influential musician and songwriter of the highest caliber. Steve Young, died March 17th. He passed in Nashville, Tennessee. In October he had sustained a head injury from a fall while at home. The extent of his injuries were serious, but he had returned home. It became apparent that his condition was steadily declining, irreversibly affecting both his physical and mental capacities. He had been in hospice care at the time of his passing. He was 73 years old and will be greatly missed. Fortunately, he left behind a rich and lasting legacy with his music. He will be missed but remembered as a man who truly did it his way.
His son, Jubal announced his passing, delivering a message praising his memory.
“Turn supernatural, take me to the stars, and let me play. He would be the last person to want to be trapped in a broken mind and body. I celebrate his freedom as well, and I am grateful for the time we had”. The opening line, coming from a verse in Steve’s song, “Alabama Highway”.
Although he was not that well know to the general mainstream musical audience, his influence and impact on several generations of artists, can not be dismissed. He inspired many artists throughout his 50-year career. He was a much beloved and respected figure among his peers, fans, and friends.
As well as touring all over the world, Steve crisscrossed the US frequently. Over the years, he would often form close and lasting relationships with his fans, performing at a series of small venues and private party shows, such as the Hamm Jam, hosted several times by Harry Hamm, at his home in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. The picture was taken from that show(middle) in June 2004, by his long time booking agent June Lehman.
A pivotal artist of his time. His songs were poetical and lyrical, moving and rich in imagery. His songs transported you to the places he sang about, and the cast of characters, often misfits, evoked sympathy and recognition of people we all have known at some time. No stranger himself to the pitfalls of temptation. He could also be gentle and romantic, with such songs as, “Vision Of A Child”, a lullaby, written at the time, for his young son Jubal.
He never really achieved stardom, but had a worldwide fan base, with a cult following, here in the US and Europe. He was beloved by his hardcore base of fans. His loss came as a shock to those of us, who appreciated his unique gifts, undeniable talent and true generosity as a performer and person.
He was a pioneer, and influential in the outlaw country movement of the mid-1970’s, although he had already been performing folk, folk-rock, and country for years. His music embraced many genres, and he was influenced by many diverse artists, from Hank Williams (who is prominently figured in his songs”Montgomery In The Rain” and “The White Trash Song”) and Elvis Presley to the local street corner musicians of his youth. Those were his formative years, in the rural Southern setting where he grew up. Much of which later shaped his songwriting, he drew on those influences. They exuded from him with an authenticity and genuineness.
As he grew older, he wanted to escape the South, but his writing evokes much of the times, people and places that were to play a part in helping form his musical influences, styles, and writing. The South he portrayed, not always depicted in a positive light, yet, a place he could not so easily forsake or disown. He deserves a place in the pantheon of great Southern writers, ones who also felt stifled and like outsiders, that same South that had also bred intolerance, and a history of inequality. That rich and diverse history and culture of the South, both good and bad, shaped and played a part in who he was, and what he accomplished with his music. In his life, and now his death, he has come back full circle.
He was a prolific songwriter, his tunes being covered by many other artists. His most famous composition, “Seven Bridges Road”, was covered by the Eagles. It is probably his most well-known song, covered by scores of artists. He was also overlooked as a very skilled and accomplished guitarist.
Other standout songs include, “Lonesome, On’ry And Mean”, covered by Waylon Jennings. “Montgomery In The Rain” and “The White Trash Song”, covered by Hank Williams Jr.
A son of the South, steeped in its mystery and its history; in the tradition of Faulkner, Wolfe, and Williams. He was born in Newnan, Georgia on July 12, 1942, and grew up in the Gadsden, Alabama area, later moving to Beaumont, Texas.
At the age of 18, he was shot in the chest. He had been waiting for some friends, while seated in a parked car. It was a serious injury, that nearly killed him. It took well over a year to recuperate. During this downtime, he polished his skills on the guitar. He had begun playing at a young age and was determined and ultimately destined to become a musician.
It was during this time that he met, fellow Gadsden musicians, the folk-bluegrass duo known as Richard and Jim, they were, Richard Lockmiller and Jim Connor. They had been looking for a guitar player and songwriter. He contributed several compositions to their album, “Folk Sounds and Country Sounds”, also touring with them. On that tour, Steve showed a humorous and devil-may-care attitude. Richard and Jim had been asked to attend the wedding of their friend, Richard Farina to Joan Baez’s younger sister, Mimi. Steve was invited to accompany them. There he rubbed shoulders with the folk elite of the day. His sharp wit and sense of humor may not have been entirely appreciated by some of the attendees, but it was Steve, being Steve.
He started his solo performing career in the small clubs of Alabama and Texas, then moving to the New York folk scene. He returned back to Alabama, but his restless and rebellious character finally drove him west, where so many other aspiring musicians were flocking.
Always feeling the outsider, in the early ’60s, he headed to California and the burgeoning music scene there. A true Bohemian had arrived, at a turbulent and formative time in music history. His blend of country, folk, blues, and rock, came at a time when artists and groups such as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Linda Ronstadt, and Bob Dylan had adapted and added a traditional country sound to the rock sounds that had also inspired them. They were met with scorn, by the traditional country artists, and with equal scorn by the hardcore rock fans. Yet they did reach an audience that appreciated the sound, and they pioneered and laid down the foundation for many of the artists that followed them.
He worked for a time for the US Postal service, in between playing various gigs with many other artists that would later find fame. For a time he was in a band with Van Dyke Parks and Stephen Stills, the Gas Company; the Skip Battin Band (later of the Byrds), and the afore-mentioned Richard and Jim.
His first recording was playing guitar on the 1964 release, “The Things That Troubled My Mind” by folk artist Dick Weissman.
“Stone Country” was his first major recording as a member of a group, it was released on the RCA label, in 1968. The record was not a success. It blended folk, country and the psychedelic sounds of the time. Interesting tracks included, The Band’s, “This Wheels On Fire”, and the straight country of George Jones’ popular “Why Baby Why”.
In 1969, A & M offered him a contract, and he recorded his first solo LP, “Rock, Salt, And Nails”, although critically acclaimed, it did not achieve sales success. It was produced by the well-known Tommy Li Puma. The first recording of his most famous composition, “Seven Bridges Road”, was to appear on this debut LP. Some of the top studio musicians of the time were on hand for this project, as well as influential artists of the time such as Gram Parsons and Gene Clark. All three artists, seminal figures of this emerging genre of a mixture of folk, country, and rock. The three artists sharing a commonality in musical direction and hailing from the South.
Shortly after the release of “Rock, Salt, And Nails”, he left LA; by now married to the singer Terrye Newkirk. They moved to the Bay and Marin County area, eventually settling in Nicaso, in western Marin County. In late 1969, in the town of San Anselmo, Amazing Grace was opened and became a popular guitar shop. He sold guitars and other stringed instruments and gave guitar lessons. It would become a well-known gathering place for local musicians, as well as some well-known ones. The store is still in operation under the owners whom he had originally sold it to.
His second LP, “Seven Bridges Road”, did not appear until 1972, on the Reprise label, recorded in LA and Nashville. Produced by Paul Tannen, with the cream of the crop Nashville session men. Steve did not feel comfortable with the Nashville establishment at the time. The LP met with critical acclaim, but again little airplay. It was later re-issued on the small New Mexico independent label, Blue Canyon, and again years later on the Rounder label, by that time Steve has achieved a degree of success with a loyal and devout following.
Disillusioned with Nashville, he did not record again until 1975, on a small independent label, Mountain Railroad. Produced by Stephen Powers, the LP, “Honky Tonk Man”, recorded in Minnesota with local musicians, was yet another exceptional work. It included and highlighted Steve’s adept playing. A largely acoustic ensemble with crisp and clear vocals. Production and arrangement values were amazing. Songs included the Johnny Horton penned title track, in addition, a version of the Band’s, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” which Steve performed with a passion as if it were his own composition. Another overlooked classic. The LP is soulful and joyous and includes five originals, including fresh recordings of two tracks from earlier LP’s. The recording was re-issued in 1994, amounting to somewhat of a comeback.
Around this time, is when he made an appearance in the critically acclaimed music documentary. “Heartworn Highways” alongside such artists as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell, all legendary performers in their own right. Steve performing a riveting acoustic version of his composition, “Alabama Highway”.
The film highlighted at the time, a new breed of artists, a group of non-conformists to the traditional Nashville image at the time. They influenced countless artists in the years that followed, and sparked a movement, that later became popularly known as, Americana.
In 1976, he returned to Nashville and RCA to record, “Renegade Picker” and “No Place To Fall”, which were released in 1976, and 1977. Both produced by established Nashville producer Roy Dea. These releases were again met with virtually no airplay, despite soaring backup vocals by Tracy Nelson, and an exceptional set of songs by some of the best contemporary writers of the time, such as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, J.J, Cale, Bob Dylan, and Steve Goodman, in addition to several of Young’s own contributions, including, yet another version of “Seven Bridges Road”. The production and arrangements were stellar. Both of these are lost gems, that deserve their rightful recognition.
He did not record again until 1981, again for another small independent label. The LP was titled, “To Satisfy You” and included songs by Jesse Winchester, The Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly, and his own composition, “The River And The Swan”. The LP was released by Rounder, which had been responsible for re-releasing the aforementioned, “Seven Bridges Road” and “Honky Tonk Man”.
Without a label, he toured, which he had been doing for many years, in between LP releases. In Europe, he found an appreciative audience, and three LP’s were issued during this time, “Old Memories”, a UK compilation of songs from his 77-78 RCA sessions.”Look Homeward Angel” and “Long Time Rider” were recorded in Norway in 1988 and 1990. They were somewhat of a departure from his previous acoustic based earlier works, employing synthesizers, and more experimentation with more rhythm driven sound, co-produced with Norway’s, Jonas Fjeld. The band employed were from Norway. The songs on both albums are deeply intimate and personal, showing a maturity, an acceptance and an admission of a life of heartbreak and regrets. There remain traces of Southern and roots rock, rockabilly and honky-tonk, but these works show an artist willing to explore new sounds and explore within himself. A man looking back, seeking forgiveness and redemption.
In 1991, Steve found himself on yet another independent label, this time Watermelon. Two LP’s were released, “Solo Live” recorded live at the Anderson Fair, in Houston Texas and “Switchblades Of Love”. “Solo/Live” contained an assortment of songs previously recorded, only two new songs; both traditional,”You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Go To Sea No More”. Like the title implies, it is recorded live with just Steve and his guitar, which he is a master of and he demonstrates so well on here. Recorded in 1990, at the Anderson Fair, in Houston, Texas. On here is a longer version of, “Ballad Of William Sycamore” is included, with Steve giving introductions between songs, and relating some background information. On this recording you can hear the rapport that Steve has with his audience, he is truly a storyteller in song.
The second release, “Switchblades Of Love” includes an all-star cast of top-rate musicians, including his son, Jubal, and rockers Benmont Tench and Steve Soles, who also handled production. Continuing in the vein of his previous releases this is even more introspective, more confessional. These songs are daring and rocking, darker and deeper. All but one song was written by Steve, and one co-written with Tom Russell, the lovely, “Angel Of Lyon”. A second version of David Olney’s, “If My Eyes Were Blind”, and two cuts re-done from the “Long Time Rider” LP.
Steve has often re-recorded his work on other LP’s, and each time it sounds as new and refreshing as any of his other versions. He breathes new life into them. Each version is a standout, stand-alone track. It demonstrates the unique talent and ability that Steve possessed. It isn’t often that an artist can take the same song and bring something new and different to it, to make it sound as rich and fresh as if newly written.
It is unfortunate, that most people are familiar with the Eagles version, never having even heard Steve’s original version of it, or of him at all.
In 1997 the first retrospect of his long career was released. “Lonesome, On’ry And Mean”,
Released on the Raven label, it contained songs back from his earliest days in Stone Country and cuts from his solo releases that followed in the intervening years. It’s an interesting and worthwhile sampling, for an introduction to Steve’s work.
It would be a three-year interval until he was picked up by yet another small label, Appleseed Records. He released, “Primal Young”, returning to his roots for the most part, with some gorgeous, but weary and sad sounding songs. Merle Haggard’s, “Sometimes I Dream” in particular sounds as if a man has lived his life and is completely broken, and t the traditional, “Little Birdie” which is especially poignant, yet hopeful; a man at peace. Covers of Tom T. Halls, “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” and Lloyd Price’s, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” are given a new life, He really makes them his own, as with Frankie Miller’s, “Blackland Farmer”. Two songs paying homage to his Appalachian and Scots roots. “Jig’ and “Scotland Is A Land” are more than worthy representations and delivered with passion and intensity, but a weariness. J.C Crowley’s strong production resulted in yet another superb collection, a collection of originals and covers. All the songs had a special meaning to Steve, as he explained in the extensive liner notes. He takes the listener on a journey, not only from Appalachia and Scotland but back in time itself.
Two more LP’s would complete the catalog, “Songlines Revisited, Volume One” from 2006, an EP, “Australian Tour 2007”, and “Stories Around Horseshoe Bend” also from the same year.
He has guested, either guitar or vocals, on albums by Jim Post, ” I Love My Life”, Waylon Jennings, “Honky Tonk Heroes”, Jim Connor “Personal Friend Of Arthur Kuykendall And Monk Daniel And Clancy Rakestraw”, Gene Clark & Carla Olson, “Silhouetted By Light”, the compilation, “Tulare Dust: A Songwriters Tribute To Merle Haggard”, Jubal Lee Young’s “Not Another Beautiful Day”, The Homestead Act ,”Gospel Snake” and his very last recording, guesting on Shooter Jennings release, “Countach”.
Throughout his career he toured extensively all over the world, he was especially popular in Europe. In 2004, he toured extensively through India. It was as much a spiritual tour as a musical one. He was able to visit a place where he could explore and delve into his interest in Zen Buddhism, which he had gravitated to very early on.
Pictured above are some tour posters and handbills, the show pictured on the far right was canceled due to scheduling conflicts.
Part of his restless nature, he continued with a life on the road. A veteran with many miles behind him. He was not one to stay still for long, the road always called. Later in his career, he frequently toured with his son Jubal Lee Young. Father and equally talented son, shined together and made a wonderful team. In 2015, Steve was on the sidelines to support Jubal, when he and his partner at the time appeared on NBC’s, The Voice.
Steve and his son Jubal, had performed together as a duo on and off, for some time. Jubal recently married, was with his father when he passed. An equally impressive singer-songwriter in his own right. The legacy will continue.
One of his last performances was in 2015, he was a featured performer at the Country Music Hall Of Fame’s exhibit, “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City”. He was also featured in a new version of “Heartworn Highways”, much like the original, it featured a new breed of contemporary artists in the similar vein as those in the original 1975 feature. In it, he reprised his original contribution with a new version of “Alabama Highway”.
I had the good fortune to have seen Steve perform at a private house party in December 1989, in Birmingham, Michigan. It could not have been a more intimate show. There were only about 20 of us there, and he was sitting on a stool, not more than a couple of feet from everyone. I remember him walking around the house and going in the refrigerator for a drink. I had my picture taken with him and was so nervous. I had my boyfriend with me at the time, who also happened to be from Gadsden, he asked him to sign my copy of Rock, Salt, And Nails. I still have that. It was a phenomenal show. He talked with my boyfriend about Gadsden. He was a really great guy. I can not imagine he made any profit doing this show, but he was gracious and humble. It is a testament to his character and his integrity as a dedicated artist. He possessed those qualities, rare to find in most people, let alone one so gifted.
He struggled with demons, that are all too familiar to so many performers, but was able to overcome them, and become a better, and stronger human being. He found spirituality in Buddhism, which was a perfect fit for him.
Van Dyke Parks, also a Southern transplant, wrote a song about him, “All The Golden” on his 1967 LP, “Song Cycle”. He also supplied a track for the 2000 TV movie, “Harlan County War”, the only instance I know of where Steve’s music has been used in a film.
Unlike other artists who have recently passed, Steve will largely go unnoticed, his contributions a footnote, but there are those of us who will remember his gifts. He will be missed. He lived his life and played his music on his own terms, ever the free spirit. Somewhere he is soaring high, roaming the wild skies and joyously alive.
I feel fortunate to have been able to have seen him, and have heard him perform. It was an unbelievable evening. A true artist and legend now gone. Condolences to Steve’s family and friends. He is survived by his mother; Dixie, son; Jubal; three granddaughters; brother Kim; and niece Amy; and her three children.
Special thanks to Kim Young, for his time, kindness, and most of all, his invitation to attend the memorial for Steve in Nashville. It meant a lot to be there.
Apologies for uncredited photos.