Steve Young was hardly as well known as his fellow country music outlaws, but as a songwriter, at least, he most surely left his mark—particularly with the 1973 Waylon Jennings album titletrack “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean.”
He also supplied Hank Williams, Jr. with “Montgomery In the Rain,” and gave The Eagles—not to mention Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Ian Matthews and Rita Coolidge—“Seven Bridges Road.”
A complicated artist, Young clearly had a great impact on those who knew him and of him.
“The outlaw movement in country music was initially about claiming artistic freedom and integrity,” says acclaimed country singer-songwriter Laura Cantrell of Young, who died Mar. 17 at 73. “Steve Young’s music was made with exactly that—he wrote with freedom and didn’t mold his songs to one genre or temperament other than his own. The results were spectacular–very original songs that carried his southern roots and way with language into the folk clubs of New York and Los Angeles and ultimately out to a much wider world than folk or country music.”
Jeff Laramie, who runs the SRO Artists booking agency out of Middleton, Wis., remembers Young as “a gifted guitarist and an even better songwriter—and wonderful guy” from the late 1970s, when he was VP for the Madison-based Mountain Railroad Records, home of Young’s 1975 Honky-Tonk Man album. Then label mate Richard Pinney, on Facebook, likewise lauded Young as “a kind and generous soul.”
“He was a tremendous influence on me and my friends,” wrote Pinney. “We were lucky to be a stop on his musical journey. His duets with [Mountain Railroad artist] Betsy Kaske were superb.” He posted video of Young performing Honky-Tonk Man’s “Traveling Kind” solo and added: “Those that knew him will remember the first time they heard him do this tune whenever and wherever it was.”
Legendary singer-songwriter/composer Van Dyke Parks recalls meeting Young in Los Angeles in 1964, then starting The Gas Company band with him—Young on lead guitar, Stephen Stills on rhythm.
“He became the guy when it came to cross picking guitar,” says Parks. “But he had Cherokee and Scottish blood—more Cherokee than Scottish—and for that reason, in part, he was a sea of contradictions–a very troubled man who tried to write himself out of his troubles.”
Born in Georgia, Young, notes Mississippi native Parks, was a fellow southerner.
“He was the only man I ever met who picked cotton,” he says. “He came up from nothing and was dirt poor. During the Selma [Civil Rights Movement] days, it wasn’t fashionable to be southern, and I was embarrassed that I was born in Mississippi. But I had a great alliance with Steve: He had a framed picture of [segregationist Alabama] Governor George Wallace in his bungalow—with a penciled-in Hitlerian mustache! He was very funny, very deep and very resourceful, and definitely a rebel and role model for Waylon.”
Young was also the subject of Parks’ song “The All Golden.”
“He was so highly personal, pitiful and noble,” says Parks. “He was a total rebel and anti-authoritarian, and I loved him with my whole heart–and he said he loved me because I put up with him!”
Francis Macdonald, who heads Glasgow’s Shoeshine Records label and launched its Spit & Polish imprint in 2000 to release music from Cantrell among others, licensed Young’s 2000 album Primal Young for U.K. release via Spit & Polish. He recalls buying the 1997 Young compilation Lonesome On’ry & Mean and putting “Woman Don’t Weep” and “One Woman Man” on compilation tapes given to “people I wanted to impress.”
Macdonald first saw Young perform in 1994 at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow.
“He had a devoted following in the U.K. and seemed to make it over for shows every few years,” says Macdonald. “At that time he was promoting [1993 album] Switchblades of Love, solo acoustic, and in great form. He was, of course, a great guitar player and a heck of a singer.”
Macdonald asked Young if he could interview him for a fanzine.
“I wasn’t a writer, but it meant I got to talk to him after sound check in his dressing room. He was very gracious and gave considered responses to my random questions. He talked fondly about the Latino neighborhood of Silver Lake [in Los Angeles] where he was living, and I remember him saying how much he liked Hank Williams and the sounds of Sun Records, and that more recently, he was a big fan of the Handful of Earth album by the Scottish folk artist Dick Gaughan. He later covered ‘Worker’s Song’ from that album on Primal Young–which I was thrilled to get to license for release in the U.K.”
“And now he’s gone,” concludes Macdonald. “Another bitter lesson to remember what we have while we have it.”