According to Waylon Jennings, Steve Young was the second best country singer in the world, second only to George Jones. Waylon should know, he also one of the best. The only difference is that Steve Young might be one of the most overlooked singer/songwriters and country singers that we ever knew. In fact, one of the greatest singers – period.
The passion and intensity in his voice makes you stop in your tracks and just listen. It´s the heart singing, it´s the soul singing, there is nothing false, no hiding. Steve Young was never afraid of the deepest feelings, and his ability to channel them through his voice, was endlessly unique.
Steve Young was born in Georgia in 1942, and grew up in Alabama and Texas, the family moving around for work. He was a songwriter already as a teenager, and made his own mix of folk, country, blues and gospel. He joined the Greenwich Village in the early sixties, but in 1967 he founded the psychedelic country band, Stone Country. It was with them he made his debut as a recording artist, and they released their only album in 1968.
In 1969, the group was disbanded when Steve signed as a solo artist with A&M Records. The same year Steve had his solo debut with the album “Rock, Salt And Nails”. The title song shows Steve´s gifts in full blossom.
There is a lot of cover songs on the album, but Steve is making them all his own. Starting fittingly with the soul classic, “That´s How Strong My Love Is”, his beautiful voice digs deep as the best soul singers.
There is also some originals on the album, included one of his best known songs, “Seven Bridges Road”, in its first version. The strength and heart in Steve´s voice, makes a drama come into the delivery that lifts the songs from the usual country album, even if there´s never doubt about Steve´s roots in country music. Still – he is an outlaw, and an early hero of the outlaw movement.
Both Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman contributes to the album.
Even if the first album was well received, the next one, released in 1972, was the real establishing of Steve Young as a full-grown singer/songwriter. The album was called “Seven Bridges Road”, and a new version of one of the songs from the first album appeared.
One of the reasons this song is one of Steve´s most known songs, are of course Eagles´great live version from 1980.
One of the other great songs, a perfect country song, was “Lonesome, on´ry and mean”.
Steve´s version is superb, but this song was best known in Waylon Jennings´version. That´s another artist making songs his own.
The third song we have to mention, is “Montgomery In The Rain”. As Steve lived in Alabama in his childhood, the ghost of Hank Williams wasn´t far away.
“So if it’s alright with you before I get back the train.
I wanna go out to Hank’s tombstone and cry up a thunderstorm
I wanna se Montgomery in the rain.”
One more time, the cover was more known than Steve´s perfect version. This time it was Hank Williams Jr that made the song a hit.
In 1975, “Honky Tonk Man” was released, with the perfect country opener and title song. Even if Johnny Horton´s original from 1956 is fine, Steve makes the definitive version.
The album has a varied list of songs, both covers and Steve´s own. He also introduces The Band´s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Steve´s vocal as usual is strong all through the album.
Next year Young releases a new beautiful album, “Renegade Picker”, another great collection of songs. His heartbreaking version of “It´s Not Supposed To Be That Way” is one of the absolute highlights of his career.
Another is the beautiful “All Her Lovers Want To Be The Hero”. His soul is burning.
“Broken Hearted People”, a Guy Clark original, is one of the songs building a bridge between old and new country music, and Steve makes a brilliant job bringing it all together.
Another song that shows what a great singer Steve is, is the wonderful ballad “Old Memories (Means Nothing To Me)”, where his voice, as always, betrays his real feelings, which is the opposite of the lyrics, as in “She Thinks I Still Care” by George Jones, “Most of the Time” by Bob Dylan and “I Don´t Think Of Her” by Bob Neuwirth. All great songs.
The next album was “No Place To Fall”, in 1978. The album mostly consisted of cover versions, backed by the best Nashville musicians, among them Buddy Emmons, Buddy Spicher and Kenny Malone. The great Tracy Nelson sings backup vocals.
The title song is of course the Townes Van Zandt classic, but this might be the definitive version of the song. To show the raw emotions in all it´s naked beauty, first take look at the stunning live performance from 2012. If you don´t get tears in your eyes, hm…well, maybe Steve Young is not your cup of tea, after all?
Even if the album are almost bursting at the seams of great cover songs, of the greatest songwriters, as Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, J J Cale, it´s important to notice that Steve´s own songs stands bold beside them. As the very strong ballad “Dreamer”.
“Yeah I ‘ve paid my dues
Sung my blues
Traveled lonely miles
I’ve loved and lost and paid the cost
For the dreaming in my mind”
And then, just one more cover from this album – the old blue grass song “I Closed My Heart´s Door”, made known by among others, Roy Acuff. Young charges the song with power and blood and fire, and makes it a existential crying in the wilderness.
“No Place To Fall” was a great album, as you understand, but didn´t sell much. The next in line was “To Satisfy You”, 1981 – his own songs where narrowed to just one, the rest cover versions. Listen for instance to an overwhelmingly tender version of Dylan´s take on “Corrina Corrina”.
Steve´s own song, “The River And The Swan” ends the album:
“So I´ll be the river, and you´ll be the swan,
I´ll reflect your wings as you cross the sun.
When you´ll go away, that´ll be too soon,
but I´ll still send you this song, as you circle the moon.”
Here the song in a live version from 2002.
In the late eighties Young spent a lot of time in Norway, and it´s with great sorrow I must admit that I never got to see him live, as I was getting to know his works a few years later. That´s really as sad as some of his songs. His album “Look Homeward Angel” (1988) was even recorded in Norway, with norwegian musicians Jonas Fjeld and the great Ketil Bjørnstad backing him. A beautiful production and a new environment for Steve, but his voice and spirit rises above the waters, as you can hear in the title song. Steve was rised a southerner, but a hard-line agnostic and always interested in Eastern philosophy as in buddhism. An outlaw also in that field. Never did make any wows to any religion, though.
It´s a eighties production, that´s for sure. Steve Young makes his tribute to another great songwriter, David Olney, by singing his great song “If My Eyes Were Blind”.
“Long Time Rider” was released in 1990, one of Young´s most introvert and obscure albums, difficult to find these days. Steve himself experimenting at the synthesizer, screaming and crying out his soul music into the space, hoping that somebody will listen and offer compassion.
Steve Young was always a great live act, but the first live album came in 1991 – him and his guitar, at the top of his game. A great overview of his career, both own songs and covers. A voice with no restraint. As in “Drift Away”.
Another great Dylan cover was included, “Don´t Think Twice, It´s All Right”.
Then to the album I first bought myself, and what a revelation it was. Already before he started to sing I was drawn in to the world of Young. “Silverlake” just blew my mind. Here was a voice to die for.
The album is one of his most perfect productions of his career, backed by Benmont Tench, Steven Soles, Kathy Moffatt and David Kemper.
“Love Song” breaks my heart every time I listen to it, even after all these years.
But if I were a poet,
I´d write about your eyes
If I were a Pharaoh, darling
I´d paint your face on Egypt´s skies
If I were a mystic warrior on the plains,
You´d be my sunrise.
And I could ride off in the sunset
An be happy all the days of my life
And that´s just the words. With Steve´s voice the song lifts you to heaven. Beautiful beyond words.
In “Midnight Rail” he tells the story of a wandering life, with great conviction.
“WELL I AM A MIDNIGHT RIDER,
I RIDE A MIDNIGHT RAIL,
AND I’VE SEEN A GLIMPSE OF HEAVEN
AND AT LEAST HALF OF HELL.
FOR I RODE YOUR ROADS FOR MONEY
AND VAIN DREAMS OF FAME.
BUT NOW I SEE ITS ONLY LOVE
THAT’LL MAKE ME PLAY THE GAME.”
One of the many highlights of the album is the great song “Angel Of Lyon”, co-written with Tom Russell.
Steve Young is not holding back. Never. Even when it comes to love. His love songs are of the greatest, in all their blue glory. Like in “My Love”.
And listen to the funky exquisite performance of “Shelter You”, the song that ends a perfect album.
When Elvis Presley sings a song, it´s very much done, and it´s a hard act to follow. Willie Nelson of course made a great version of “Always On My Mind”, but in my book Steve Young´s version of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” is just fabulous. In the liner notes to his last studio album, the great “Primal Young” from 2000, he tells us about his grandfather that let him play the Elvis version on the jukebox. What´s very interesting is that Steve tells us that he tries to deliver it the way he heard it. That´s a fantastic example of how a real artist can transform his impressions into something new and much deeper, even without knowing it. That´s true art. That´s Steve Young.
Still he chooses cover versions from the top of the hill, like Merle Haggards wonderful “Sometimes I Dream”, perfectly matching the Young landscape of songs and heartbreak.
A truly great last album with all the ingredients that makes a Steve Young worth listening to, again and again, and each time exploring new land. This time also Scotland.
Steve Young died in 2016, the year so many great artists died. His fans and friends would know, and the sorrow goes deep to all of those who knew him and his great contribution to music and to our lives. It fills my with great sadness that he didn´t get the attention he really deserved, neither in life or when he died.
Sixteen years before he died, he made the unforgettable beautiful “No Longer My Heart Will Be Truly Breaking”.
“I don’t know how long It may be in coming
I don’t know how long It may be taking
But my deliverance is promised now
No longer will my heart be truly breaking
Well you just can’t break it
Cause you just can’t take it
Not on this world any more
Cause it seen through the tears
Its seen through the years
And I don’t know how
But one day
It saw through the fears
And I don’t know how long it may be in coming
I don’t know how long it may be taking
But my deliverance is promised now
No longer will my heart be truly breaking .”
Steve continued to play live, but would never release another album of new songs. The last song of “Primal Young” was also released on his last official album, the live album “Stories Round the Horseshoe Bend”. (By this time he also made an interestin interview with “No Depression”). The song is “Little Birdie”, a traditional song arranged and rewritten by Steve. Like Bob Dylan, he shows us how the old songs sometimes can reach deeper than anything else we know of. Especially sung by the right singer. As Steve Young. I envy all that still has the possibility to listen to him for the first time.
“Little Birdie, little birdie
Come and sing me a song
Got a short time to be here
Got a long time to be gone
Little Birdie, little birdie
What makes you fly so high?
It’s because I¹m a true little bird
And I do not fear to die
And if the grace is coming
I say just let it come
It won¹t need no TV preacher
Beating on their drum
Little Birdie, little birdie
What makes me love you?
It’s because you see me in my sorrow
But I¹m searching for a patch of blue
Just like you
Little Birdie, little birdie
Come and sing me one song
I got a short time to be here
Got a long time to be gone”