You can’t help but like Steve Young, the low-key, self-effacing, singer-songwriter who’s been seriously been making tasty, thoughtful rootsy music since the early 1960’s. I sat with him in April, 2010, while on the Roots on the Rails expedition from Los Angeles to Portland and back, after having seen him perform four sets. He’s a very accomplished guitarist, a fine singer, a great interpreter of songs, and he writes superb ones, which is why the Eagles cut “Seven Bridges Road,” one of their staples in concert, and Waylon Jennings made famous “Lonesome, Ornery and Mean.” I subsequently bought three of his cd’s, and can enthusiastically recommend his work. Steve is a class act, highly regarded by his fellow performers. Go see him live if you get the chance.
TREVOR: How’d you get into playing music?
STEVE: I couldn’t do anything else and I always wanted to be a musician from when I was a tiny kid, and I told people I would be. Of course, they didn’t believe that. And they thought it was a pretty bad idea, too …
TREVOR: This was in Montgomery, Alabama?
STEVE: The nearest thing I had to a home town was Gadsen, Alabama, but I was actually born in Noonan, Georgia. That’s still far from Atlanta. My family was unsettled and would move around, and I would sometimes live with my grandmother. She lived in Gadsden, but all these people originally were from Georgia. But, you know, I was fortunate in the music of that time and that place was very rich and real, more real, than it is today, you know. So it had a lot of influence on me.
TREVOR: Mom and dad, they didn’t want you to play?
STEVE: Oh, no. Nobody did. Their idea of security would be to become a mailman.
TREVOR: When did you get a guitar?
STEVE: I couldn’t get one. They were too poor, and a guitar to me was like an astral dream as a kid. It was a magical thing and I really wanted one, but I could not get one. I even sold seed. I took the ad in the back of comic books and sold seeds door to door to get this pictured guitar, and they said it was made out of cardboard. (laughs) When I was about 14 my mom became convinced enough that she bought me a real guitar. It was a Gibson ES 125. Little thin body electric. Simple guitar. And from there I really started to learn, or how to play.
TREVOR: Did somebody teach you? Did you take lessons?
STEVE: There was a guy that helped me get some fundamentals and he believed that I was a real musician, and he went out of his way to help me, but other than that, I was mostly self-taught. That’s one reason my playing is kind of eccentric. And I would watch and listen, and I heard, and the street singers, whom I loved.
TREVOR: What were you playing, folk music tunes?
STEVE: I would play different things, some folk, some gospel because my grandmother wanted to hear some of that, blues, country, and also at that time the hit parade was on, and the top 10, whatever, the standard type coming out of that era of the big bands. So it was a wide variety of music that I heard, and really liked all of it. And then when I was a teenager I saw flamenco guitarists. That had a big influence on me, because I didn’t even know what flamenco was.
TREVOR: That was Montoya?
STEVE: Carlos Montoya. And the sounds that he could get out of one guitar just blew me away. I was just a kid in high school. He played at a community college in Beaumont, Texas, which is a terrible place near the Louisiana border. I was just obsessed with guitar, and I learned the basics of what I know between 14 and 17.
TREVOR: When did you decide to try and make a career of it?
STEVE: I never thought in terms of career. I just saw it in terms of being able to play and sing and doing what you wanted to, and being a free guy. I never had ambitions to be a star or anything like that. I wanted to do my own thing and do it my way, and people could take it or leave it, which was a pretty arrogant attitude. I mean it’s a tough enough business to try to…
TREVOR: I take it you never really had any other job other than music?
STEVE: No, I tried to have other jobs. I did have some. I couldn’t hold them very long. You know, the people would say “Ah he’s,” whatever, “He can’t do this,” or else I just couldn’t, or I would just bail on them, and getting’ up and going in, and doing the whole thing. I think the longest I ever held a job was about six months. One time I was a mailman in L.A, the worst mailman they ever had. But I’d made a high score on the tests and they thought I’d be a good mailman. (laughs) I told them I would never play music again. I quit.
TREVOR: Did you have recording agreements?
STEVE: My introduction to the recording world… There were two guys in Gadsen, Alabama named Richard and Jim, and they did this Appalachiany, folky, whatever, weird bag, mixture, and they had comedy. They were really trying to make it, whereas I was just kind of a wandering bum, but they wanted me to open shows and to play guitar behind them and they really appreciated what I did, and put up with me. In Montgomery, I was always getting in trouble about local politics and the junior Klansmen were pissed off at me, and Montgomery was getting’ pretty intense and one day they said “Hey, we got a contract with Capitol Records in Hollywood, California. Do you wanna go? And I said “Yeah, let’s go.” That was 1963.
We went to Capitol Records and we did an album. They did their album and the producer really like me and he wanted to produce me, but I was just too crazy. I was drunk all the time. I know they secretly recorded me in the old Capitol studio singing a song. As I’m playing it back on these huge speakers, I said “Hell that sounds good. Who is that?” They said, “It’s you, you fool.” (laughs) I would get in sessions. I was doing session work. I’d go down to the Musician’s Union, and get what to me was a lot of money. But I didn’t know what to make of L.A. or California, and I said “Well, I’m gonna go back home, but when I went back it was more miserable than ever. So being in California did something to me, in a way that still goes.
TREVOR: So you, how did you make your career?
STEVE: It was tough because, because I was uncertain and there was nothing really that commercial or ever has been in a way about what I did, or do. So I would try to do gigs, and a lot of them were miserable and just didn’t work, but I finally made a record for A&M. It came out and nobody got it, but a few people got it. I was invited to the Newport Folk Festival in ’69 by Jim Rooney because he got it. So there was a little sparkle of…
TREVOR: Who’s Jim Rooney?
STEVE: He’s a musician who now lives in Ireland, but he was instrumental in the old folk world. He either ran or started Café Lena in the Northeast, which was a famous old folk club. I played the folk festival.
TREVOR: And it went over well?
STEVE: I was stirred up, very conflicted personally, looking back. So when I would present myself, it wasn’t clear what I was doing. It created problems and it went on like that for years, and finally I wanted to stop dealing with the whole music thing, and I opened a little guitar store with a friend, in San Anselmo, California. I did that for a couple years and then I couldn’t take it anymore, and finally Joan Baez cut “Seven Bridges Road.” That was my first significant event. Over the years I became more respected, slowly but surely people heard things and liked them.
TREVOR: What are some other cuts that were successful?
STEVE: “Lonesome, Ornery And Mean” was my next most successful cut, which Waylon Jennings did. It’s still a song that even today is loved by a lot of young people, apparently. So it all worked out in a pretty good way because I don’t require a great deal. So, between getting some royalties and doing some gigs that I really wanna do, I can make a living, I have made a living, but it was a lot of hard times in between there, just struggling and trying to find some kind of footing somewhere doing something.
TREVOR: So, these days right now you’re happy? You enjoy it?
STEVE: Oh, yeah, because I do it pretty much on my terms when I wanna do it, and I’m very lucky in spite of me. I’ve had a wee bit of success, and, because I’m the worst self-promoter in the world. I really don’t care about a “career.” The thing that bores me the most is Steve Young promo.
TREVOR: How many albums have you made?
STEVE: There must be about 11, and I’m well overdue. I need to make some more. I’ve become too much of a perfectionist now. I have to come off that. I got a lot of good ideas I need to finish, and just go ahead and record them and accept that nothing is perfect.
TREVOR: How many songs have you written in the last year?
STEVE: I’ve finally finished a couple. They must be 100 or more songs that are almost there. If I would just do the final work. I get distracted with all these other little things and somehow I’m just not finishing them.
TREVOR: Do you play music every day?
STEVE: No, not necessarily every day. I go in spells, and I got a bunch of recording gear and I try to understand how to work it, and it’s more difficult than I thought. I like to fool with the stuff and I go up in my little studio and once you get into it, you may stay there hours doing it.
TREVOR: Give me a couple high points that have been thrilling for you as a musician.
STEVE: When Waylon Jennings did “Lonesome, Ornery & Mean.” Everybody else was thrilled when the Eagles did “Seven Bridges Road,” and I really appreciate them doing it, and it certainly has helped me be who I am and be kind of free. The little things that thrill me now are not really very significant in terms of big career or anything. For example, I have a memory of playing one time at a place where they treat alcoholics, which I am one, drug addict/alcoholic; I just don’t use or drink anymore. I did a song I wrote about alcoholism. There’s a bunch of old black guys there, and they gave me standing ovation and that was a thrill.
TREVOR: You live in Nashville. Why?
STEVE: I was living in the San Francisco Bay area and … oddly, it’s crazy, I’d forgotten about some of my great differences with the South, and I went back and it was a shock. I went through a divorce there. My son had been born in San Francisco; he was just about two or three years at that time, and out of the necessity in about ’81, I bought this house in this old neighborhood when they were cheap, and then I would go away other places and rent it out to some friends. Over the years, I just got rooted there, and it’s a place that I know in a sense, but if I had a lot of money, I would probably really buy a place in California. Or keep this house and then have another house. I really, I did a lot of years of commuting back and forth. I had an apartment in L.A. in Echo Park.
TREVOR: How many gigs do you do a year?
STEVE: It depends on what I want to do. A lot of times I do gigs in order to get somewhere. If I want to go from Nashville to L.A., I’ll go to Texas first probably and do several gigs. Texas is the most supportive state for what I do. I’ve got a guesthouse where I can stay and hang out. So I’ll go down to Austin and look around, and then I like to go from San Antonio to El Paso on the back roads. You go through Del Rio and Langtry.
TREVOR: You’re driving yourself?
STEVE: Yeah. That’s what I love to do.
TREVOR: What kind of car do you drive?
STEVE: Toyota Camry.
TREVOR: Is it lonely being out there?
STEVE: Oh, yeah. You get lonely, but I’m a loner. I need friends, I need people, but I’m essentially a loner person as far as big family commitments go.
TREVOR: What do you do for fun?
STEVE: I look at good old movies, good old music. Try to record it. Try to play and write some. Go to the gym and work out. That’s about it. That’s about as fun as it gets.
TREVOR: Is there anybody contemporary you’re listening to or a fan of?
STEVE: Contemporary? What the real meaning of contemporary? Would Dave Alvin be contemporary?
STEVE: Well, well I can appreciate very much Dave Alvin, Tom Russell, people like that. I’m serious. But most of the young folk people? I don’t get it.
TREVOR: It’s, uh, Sunday morning, and you’re going to put on some music. What will you play?
STEVE: I’d probably play some Blind Willie Johnson or Elvis’ Sun Sessions, or something old probably. The past fascinates me, and a lot has been lost and will never return. It’s like the modern country, so-called country, it has no roots, no soul. The old guys that produced this stuff worked out in the fields, and I know what it was, because I was there at the tail end of it. I was there when Elvis came on the scene. People don’t understand, and certainly young people think he was some fat, burned out old guy, a joke. Well, before that, he was something for real.
TREVOR: Tell me the three best shows you’ve ever seen.
STEVE: Carlos Montoya, then I would have to say, and I’m not just saying this because they’re here now, it would have to be probably some of the shows I’ve seen Tom Russell and Dave Alvin do. I’ve seen Waylon do some good shows, and I say this kind of reluctantly, David Allen Coe with his band. It was comical in a way; he put down his band at one show they did then on the stage they slowly came together and became friends again.
TREVOR: Okay, you’ve just been on Roots On The Rails for four day, what’s your take on this?
STEVE: This is my second train trip, and only now do I get why these people are addicted to this. There’s a magical camaraderie, and even though being on this train is a form of suffering in a way, it’s a wonderful suffering, an escape from the folks’ real world, to this wondrous, friendly, creative, appreciative little bubble. So it’s really a great thing, and now I see why as some of these people have told me, “One reason we come back is because of the other people.”
TREVOR: The fans are respectful.
STEVE: Very respectful and they’re very supportive and accepting. It always worries me a little bit. I had a conversation with somebody here about, “Don’t think because some songwriter writes a great song, that he’s a wonderful person. That’s a big mistake.” I’ve seen a lot of musicians play that, and I don’t want to do that because I have a saying that most artists are failures as human beings.
For more on Steve Young, go to: http://www.steveyoung.net