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“I believe I did not achieve major success partly because
A Preface: I was sitting on my bunk in an Army barracks one cold January day in 1970 when a friend, Robert Hall, who had just returned from Florida on leave, tossed a couple of albums on my bunk. “Here are two albums you won't be able to live without,” he said and walked away, telling me over his shoulder that he wanted them back. Those two albums were the first Allman Brothers Band album and Rock Salt & Nails by one Steve Young. I knew immediately upon hearing the first notes of the Allmans that what Hall had said was true but it took me a couple of years to understand the musical genius of Young. When I got it, though, I really got it and have been a staunch Steve Young fan since. Through the years I have grabbed everything I could by him and have never been disappointed. I shake my head every time I realize that he is not a household name. His voice is unique and amazing and his music timeless. If you've heard him, you already know. For those who haven't, let me introduce you to
Part One: The Long Way To Hollywood
If ever there was a personification of dichotomy, it is Steve Young. A musician by trade, he has fought constantly against everything that would have brought him success. He knows it, in retrospect, and accepts it and probably wonders on occasion what things would have been like had he been more amenable to the music business, but such was not the fabric of Steve Young the man, regardless of the makeup of his music.
“For one thing,” he explained, “I am not willing to do all the work that you need to do (to attain major success). I am not willing to give up my time to do everything in order to make people like you or notice you. I have always just wanted to do what I wanted to do. That's all.
“I mean, I didn't want to do it their way. I wanted to do it my way. I was stubborn and arrogant about that. I went through some very hard times and then started to survive which is what I have done to this day. As long as I can do that, that's okay as far as I'm concerned.”
You think he's kidding? Young has made music a career for over four decades and during that time has burned more than a few bridges. Sometimes it was due to his stubbornness, probably, but arrogance? It is not arrogance when you choose your own path in the face of the powers that be. That is personal choice.
There is a reason Young is the way he is and talks the way he does and to understand it, you not only have to know his music, you have to know his story. You have to know that not only could he have been a contender, he was and is one. The ups and downs of his journey is a fascinating story, told here in mostly his own words.
Born in Georgia to a sharecropper father, Steve Young started life at a disadvantage but to hear him tell it, you might not think so. He reflects on his youth rather matter-of-factly and without regret. Life was to him what life was and what the hell, there is no changing the past anyway.
“My father, who was part Indian, didn't for some reason fit into society very well,” Young said in an early interview for this story. “He was ultra, ultra poor. He began sharecropping when he was only thirteen and his sister Eula, who worked with him, was ten. His father--- my grandfather--- had been killed about that time. It was a very brutal system.
“He would get into trouble and move around a lot, so we moved back and forth between Alabama and Georgia. The nearest thing I had to a hometown was Gadsden, Alabama where my mother's mother lived. Most of my extended family was from Georgia, but we migrated around Alabama a lot.
“My life was somewhat troubled. I was from a really dysfunctional family. My father would just disappear sometimes. Though uneducated, he was an intelligent guy but we were very, very poor. He left us when I was very young.
“My grandparents--- they admired Franklin Roosevelt because he was the only guy who ever gave them a break. They had come from the land. It was hard and bitter work with little to nothing to show for it at harvest time. They ended up living in these small towns. They had lost their roots, so to speak--- their connection to the land. They had tried to sell out, to make something more, but it didn't work out for them. They wound up losing it all.
“So my life at the time was very uncertain and troubled, but colorful. I remember there was always music. My mother sang and my father was fascinated with music and sang some, so I ended up latching onto music myself. That was the one thing which to me was very rich and beautiful--- the imagery and sounds of Southern music. And that means folk, bluegrass, gospel, blues, country--- all those different forms.
“As a very small child, I told people that I would become a singer/songwriter/musician. I had a little toy guitar and I'd make up songs that would go on for thirty minutes or more and people would finally say, man, we've heard enough. They were humoring me, of course, but I told them I was going to be a musician. Somehow I knew that.”
Music eventually became everything to him and he was soon on a quest for something beyond the toy he played.
“There used to be these ads on the backs of comic books,” he remembered. “You sell seeds and you get these prizes. I did that. I sold a bunch of seeds and got this prize that I thought was going to be a guitar, but what it turned out to be was a cardboard guitar. So I take it to these guys who have played a little and they say, man, this is not a real guitar. We can't tune this thing. I mean, I still thought you could make it work.”
Spurred on by the music surrounding him, Young refused to give up.
“There were street singers who I heard on the streets of Gadsden and places like that and they were really important to me” he recalled. “I loved listening to them. Most people would just walk by and wouldn't want to be bothered by them, but as a child I wanted to stand there and listen all day. It was fascinating to see the strings vibrating.
“Finally, I got my grandfather one day to take me to what they called trade day--- kind of a swap meet. I found this old warp-necked Silvertone guitar and talked him into getting it for me. You couldn't really play the thing and he didn't want to do it, but he bought it for me.”
Young practiced on that old Silvertone until it became apparent that he was not going to quit.
“When I was about fourteen, my mother finally relented and said, okay, okay, I'll get you a guitar. Sun Records was happening--- Elvis and all of those guys who recorded for them. So I got a real guitar--- it was a little Gibson ES 125 thin-body electric. We got that sometime in the fifties, maybe 1956, and it cost $125 which was a lot of money in that day and time. It had one pickup and some acoustic sound as it did have a thin hollow body. And I learned to play it. I had this childlike astral vision of the guitar--- highly creative and colorful--- bigger than life. That's what a guitar was to me.
“Not too long after I got that guitar, my mother remarried and we moved to Beaumont, Texas. Johnny Winter and I were in the same graduating class. I began playing some gigs there and then moved back to Alabama. I never thought about going to college, never thought about studying or doing anything else other than music. I just started playing and the folk boom came along.
“I played a lot in Birmingham. We had almost a little beatnik thing going on there, believe it or not. Birmingham had some elements that most people wouldn't know about and there are certain things of beauty about that city in certain neighborhoods.”
Beatniks in Birmingham? While it sounds like a recipe for disaster, you have to understand Young's mindset. Back then, he loved three things: writing, music and boxing. But that wasn't all he had. He had personal problems as well.
“I had this alcohol problem,” he explained, “and once I went to Montgomery I got introduced to drugs and things. I found I was a natural-born addict..”
Alcohol and drugs were enough, but Young was a beatnik in the South playing what Southerners at the time considered a seditious kind of folk music. Some might even say he was looking for trouble and while that wasn't exactly the case, trouble was bound to find him. Eventually.
“I'm in Birmingham doing these gigs and I'm drinking and getting into trouble and I just don't care about tomorrow, I live for today. And I start getting into more trouble and sometimes when I'm drinking I say things I maybe shouldn't say, politically, and do some things I shouldn't do. You know. I end up singing these Dylan songs or songs that I wrote and it winds up being a real problem. I mean, this wasn't Greenwich Village. This was Montgomery and Birmingham and I was right there doing it. That's how crazy I was. I mean, I was lucky to get out alive.
“Of course, some of it has to do with my own anger, too. Here was a righteous cause and I could vent some of it. I was sincere. So, things were getting more tense for me and, as always, my drinking was a problem. And I was a big part of the problem.”
The problem grew until, even in his stupor, Young knew he had to get out. People were out to get people like him, if not him personally. The writing was on the wall. Luckily, he was handed an out just in time.
“I knew these folkies, Richard and Jim,” he said. “Richard Lockmiller and Jim Connor were from Gadsden and they were taking a serious run at being successful. Hootenannies were big and folk music had come on strong. They were much more professional than I was--- I was eternally a drunken troubadour--- but they would put up with that and say, oh well, okay, nobody can play like him. So they grabbed me. They had a record deal with Capitol Records and grabbed me out of Alabama at just the right moment. I needed to get out of town and they said, come on, let's go to California.
“It was 1963 and I went and, really, just the trip across the country--- the desert, the Indian vibes and all of that, was a great experience for me. I was going to L.A. to do this record. It was a whole new world.”
Chapter Two: Welcome to L.A.