I could write about how under-recognized Steve was. It's true. But, honestly, I'm not sure he gave a damn. I heard Steve once jokingly refer to his friend and fellow songwriter Richard Dobson as "more obscure than I am!"
Steve Young was after something much bigger than fame: Truth, Beauty, Spirit, the Great Mystery ... or "It" as Dean Moriarty and even Rabbit Angstrom might say. I cannot think of another performer in the popular music idiom who captured "it" like Steve did.
Or as Townes Van Zandt said of Steve: "For that voice, that guitar, and those songs to come together in one person is a wonder."
In 1997 or so, I contacted Steve and made arrangements for him to play a gig at Dobbs (then called the Pontiac Grille, I believe) with John Train and the Rolling Hayseeds (who at the time contained Mark Tucker and Mike Frank both of whom would later join John Train) opening up.
Before the gig Steve, Kevin Karg (of the Hayseeds) and Steve Demarest and I had dinner at Lee How Fook in Chinatown. Steve ordered up the "Buddha's Delight". Of course he did!
We talked about how the Hayseeds had a number of Steve Young songs in their repertoire (including most of Steve's legendary "Renegade Picker" lp) and that maybe they could back up Steve for part of his show. Steve kept his cards to his chest. I couldn't really tell whether he was enthused with the idea.
In any case, we got back to the club for sound check and Steve climbed on stage. The Hayseeds were already there, instruments at the ready. I'll never forget the look on Steve's face when they kicked into "Renegade Picker" (not an easy number!). It was one of relief (Steve could tell that the Hayseeds were for real) and, more importantly, appreciation. Steve really dug that musicians half his age were so obviously enthralled by not just his legend but his actual music (sometimes the former seems to obscure the latter).
For the actual show, John Train and the Hayseeds opened up. Then Steve played a solo set which contained a nearly 10 minute unreleased (to this day!) ballad. An insane thing to do in a rock club but Steve stilled the room. Next followed Steve's set with the Hayseeds. As I wrote in a recent tribute to Richard Drueding: you had to be there. Kevin Karg told me that there may be a tape of this gig floating around. I'd love to hear it. Rich Kauffman, you out there? I think they were even considering releasing it at some point. At evening's end, Tom Heyman from Go To Blazes hopped up on stage and played "Rock, Salt and Nails" with Steve and Karg. What a night!
I urge you to check out Steve Young's music. And to that end, I give you my Steve Young Top Ten.
1. Renegade Picker: The phenomenal title track to Steve's 1976 release on RCA. Steve was more than a country and folk guy. He could rock like no one's business and this is a prime example. I picked up a copy of "Renegade Picker" on cassette in an LA record store. It was still in the shrink wrap from 1976. I popped it into my cab's cassette deck and a whole new world opened up to me. Steve sings: "I"m partly hippie, partly kicker too // I get around I get around // I won't ever settle down." Some critics have said that Steve invented the Outlaw movement. I won't argue the point.
2. Home Sweet Home Revisited: This is the final track on "Renegade Picker" but I could have included every track in between for my Top Ten. The record is that good. In any case, this is a "cover" of a Rodney Crowell song. I put "cover" in quotes because Steve Young didn't cover songs -- he inhabited them. This song is the musical and philosophical flip side to the Renegade Picker persona. Steve was a complex dude.
3. Seven Bridges Road: Steve's most popular composition covered by many including the Eagles who had a hit with it. You can't really call someone "obscure" with that fact in their history, right? Steve himself recorded "Seven Bridges Road" many times. I think my favorite version is on his "No Place to Fall" lp also on RCA in the mid-70s.
4. No Place to Fall: Title track of aforementioned lp. Probably my favorite Townes "cover" of all time. Enough said.
5. Lonesome On'ry and Mean: Waylon Jennings took this one up the charts. Steve and Waylon shared a unique ability to sustain notes. Almost operatic sounding but gruff as hell. I'd give Steve the edge as a singer and I know Waylon would too. Waylon considered Steve the second best country singer in history with only George Jones (who I wrote a dedication to several years ago upon his passing which can be found at trainarmy.com) in front of him. Steve recorded "Lonesome On'ry and Mean" a number of times as well. I'd start with the version on "Renegade Picker" tho. Good luck finding this stuff by the way. For me, that's half the fun.
6. Long Time Rider: Steve kicked drugs and booze in 1980 and holed up in the Silverlake neighborhood of LA. He started working with synthesizers which alienated much of whatever fan base he had left at that point. Again, Steve wasn't after making fans. I didn't hear this album until many years after its initial release (in 1990 in France only!). But when I finally tracked it down, it dealt a knock out blow. This one's for fans of Neil Young's Tonight's The Night or Big Star's Third. The word "harrowing" is overused but it applies here. The title track of "Long Time Rider" may be the best thing Steve ever did. "In that bottle I was a long time rider" Indeed.
7. War of Ancient Days: Another one from "Long Time Rider". Unflinching stuff about divorce over a bed of synths and peerless singing. "I see our son as he goes walking // And I know he hurts inside." Raw and real.
8. Useful Girl: Steve sings this Richard Dobson composition on his "Stories Round the Horseshoe Bend" live release. I thought so much of Steve's arrangement, I copped it for the Donut's Pow lp a couple years back.
9. That's How Strong My Love Is: It's usually a very bad idea for a white person (or any person for that matter) to take on a song associated with Otis Redding. But Steve did on his debut "solo" album "Rock Salt and Nails" (produced by none other than Tommy Lipuma and including Gram Parson and Gene Clark as backing musicians!). And, at the risk of blasphemy, I'll say that Steve outdid Otis. That's how good a singer Steve was!
10. Love Song: This one can be found on Steve's 1993 release, "Switchblades of Love." This is my favorite Steve Young song (other than "Long Time Rider, hah!). I love the stillness of it. I asked Steve to play it once and he said: "You have good taste." I'll conclude by quoting a lyric:
"In these modern times of money and bottom lines // they say romance of the heart is dead // But they didn't look in mine // So would you lift with me // where the moonlight still meets the sea // Leave our shackles and chains behind // and go running free" -- Steve Young, "Love Song", 1942-2016, RIP.
- Jon Houlon,