BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
If you don't recognize the name Steve Young, he's got an impressive list of references.
"Steve Young is the second-greatest country music singer behind George Jones. He has no idea how great he is," said Waylon Jennings.
"Steve is in a league with Dylan and Hank Williams, and he sings like an angel." That's from Lucinda Williams.
"For that voice, that guitar and those songs to come together in one person is a wonder," mused the late Townes Van Zandt.
Gram Parsons played on his first album, "Rock, Salt and Nails" on A&M in 1969. Van Dyke Parks plays on his latest, "Primal Young" on Appleseed in 1999.
Young's song "Lonesome, Orn'ry and Mean" became Waylon's signature tune. Hank Williams Jr. covered Young's "Montgomery in the Rain." And, boy, everybody's covered "Seven Bridges Road" -- from Dolly Parton to the Eagles.
But Young -- take a minute to sweep up all those dropped names -- is one of those musician's musicians, a songwriter's songwriter. They know him well even though you might not.
Darkly Southern and musically restive, Young is a visceral poet of the backwaters -- or, as he likes to consider himself, a wandering troubadour in the old tradition. He lives part of the year in the Barrio in Los Angeles, the other part in glitzy Nashville, and he spends every possible moment on the road. His travels fortify his songs with lyrical and musical colloquialisms that makes listeners cock an ear and say, "Hey, that's my turf in that song."
That's what makes him one of the last great folk singers.
We caught up with him this week in Nashville to chat about wanderlust, Greenwich Village and the odd opportunity to play the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.
You're too good a country singer to be in Nashville. What are you doing there?
It's not my favorite city, but I got rooted here years ago. My son's here. But yeah, I'm too diverse to be in Nashville. That's the problem. I don't consider myself a country singer, either. I'm more in the ancient tradition of the troubadour. I do folk, country and blues with a touch of rock. That pretty much makes it modern-day folk music. I'm fascinated by folk music. For instance, it's fascinating to me that the song "Streets of Laredo" originated in Ireland.
An Irish balladeer pining for the lone pray-ree?
It's originally about a sailor dying of venereal disease. But the same melody and sentiment evolved into a song about a cowboy dying in Laredo. That's folk music -- when it moves like that.
You must be a folk singer then, because you seem to be constantly on the move. Is a restless soul a necessity to be a folk singer?
It's the blessing and the curse, yes. Years ago, I tried to write in Nashville, tried to co-write and see if I could do it. One of these guys asked me one day -- and this just astounded me -- he said, "What's it like to be on the road and travel?" I assumed musicians and writers knew all about that. This guy just stayed in Nashville and wrote. He wasn't a troubadour, he was one of those Nashville craftsmen.
I can't stay put like that. What would I write about? The folk music process involves travel. It involves seeing different things, exchanging ideas, exchanging stories. I have fantasies of settling down and all that, but at this age I realize that's not gonna happen.
How old are you?
I'll be 60 on July 12.
Is your mix of styles endemic to that wandering, or does that spring from growing up in the South?
It's largely a product of growing up in the South. I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians. The music of the mountains and its Celtic influence fascinated me. I was lucky to hear street singers in Gadsden (Ala.). There was music in church, too, from guitars to some pretty wild gospel. I heard all of that, plus the pop of the day, the standards. I even encountered flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya when I was a teen, and I was blown away by that. I was open to music period, and I stayed open.
On "Primal Young," you seem to be quite open to folk music from Scotland. What inspired that exploration?
Well, there's that Scottish influence underneath all that music in Appalachia, but in high school, in a literature class, I completely fell in love with the writing of Robert Burns. He collected folk songs, you know. In fact, that's a lot of what he did. I studied that stuff for hours, reading the footnotes, trying the dialect, trying to understand completely what he was saying.
So what brings you to the Woody Guthrie festival?
I've always admired Woody Guthrie. When I was a teenager and starting to play guitar and absorbing music around me, I encountered Sing Out! magazine. I learned all about the New England hierarchy of folk singers, Pete Seeger and all that, and through them I encountered Woody Guthrie. I identified with him and what he had to say. I had grown up with similar people who were very poor and rural, down-to-earth people. My father was part Cherokee, and he was a sharecropper when he was 13 years old. The fact that Woody was willing to speak out against the wealthy powers that be and tell the truth about these kinds of people was very inspiring.
It was unusual. The country people I liked were great musicians, but they didn't have the same attitude. Indirectly they represented these poor as whatever, the common man, but they weren't saying it like Woody was saying it. They didn't want to get too deep into the dark truth of things.
Do you find it as easy as Woody to probe those deep, dark truths?
I live there. It's difficult to get me out of the deep, dark truth. It's healing to me, but I guess the masses see it as depressing.
Did you run into Seeger or any of those Sing Out! folkies when you hit Greenwich Village in the early '60s?
I ran into Phil Ochs, saw Dylan from a distance. I'd never been outside of the South when I moved to New York. New York completely blew my mind. I'd never heard people talk to each other that way unless they wanted to kill each other. It took some time to adjust. I did some auditions, and they said, "Yeah, we'll give you a job, but we're booked for three months." I couldn't wait three months for a job. I was using an apartment loaned to me by Dick Weissman of the Journeymen, so I was there long enough to absorb some things. Then I went back home to digest it all, but the South was harder to live with after New York. The South was never tasteful to me again.
But you mined it for so many great songs. The "Seven Bridges Road" is a real road, right?
It's an old road in the countryside outside of Montgomery. It turns into a dirt road and crosses seven bridges. It became this enchanted place, with moss hanging from ancient oak trees -- a beautiful setting, like something out of Disney. I thought my friends had made up the name, but it's actually the folk name for this road; it's not official. People have just been calling it Seven Bridges Road for over a hundred years.
There's a longing that that song comes out of. A myth has sprung up around it, that it's about going to Hank Williams' grave. That's not entirely true. Sometimes we'd go out Seven Bridges Road, then go back to Hank's grave and sing songs and drink at 3 a.m., which used to you could do. It's just part of the nostalgia for those times and that road. It's such an innocent little song, really. I thought nobody would ever understand it. Shows you how wrong I am.
What: Woody Guthrie Folk Festival benefit concert featuring Steve Young with Luke Reed
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
Admission: $20 plus service charge at the door or through www.okctickets.com
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.