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Forever Young

After seven years, Steve Young finally lets go of a new batch of songs.

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Veteran singer and much-covered ("Seven Bridges Road") songwriter Steve Young is one of those artists whose cult followings among other musicians border on the worshipful. The kind of player and writer who transcends the fugitive life of the performer and retires to the meditative silence of a Zen master. But after a seven-year layoff between albums, Young came down off the mountain last year with Primal Young, a shimmering mirage of a disc that, despite its calm, fails to soothe.

The first thing that lets you know Young hasn't found peace is the voice he uses to sing the opening cut, "Jig." The man Lucinda Williams says "sings like an angel" sounds tentative, his voice zigzagging off the trail of the melody. A song Young calls a "distillation of [his] childhood impressions and fascination with" Appalachian music, "Jig" resorts to an ironically slow pace in a one-take attempt to shake loose the troubles Young had trying it at a fast tempo. His vocals gain force as he gets the hang of the new speed, but he's aware that at first, he sounds outside the song, an intruder.

"These guys weren't bluegrass players," Young says of the otherwise capable Andy Kamman (drums) and Al Wolovitch (guitar), who played on the "Jig" session. "They didn't hang with that. We just started goofing and played it slower. That was the first time I'd sung it that way, so there's some off-key stuff. But it has charm."

To Young, charm is one of the synonyms for truthfulness. A man who takes seven years to come up with an album is either patient or unbearably stubborn. Young will tell you that for him, the two qualities meet in the middle, where doggedness doesn't have to be charmless, just true.

"I'm very slow," he explains. "It might take me years to write a song. Seriously. It's not that I don't have ideas, but I'm reluctant to let them go, honestly, ever. To me, songs are bigger than life. It's like shooting a bird out of the sky. You have to bring down the idea and edit it and lose certain things.

"I finally figured out that I don't want to finish songs," he says. His chuckle is rueful; he doesn't see how anyone can turn loose of a song. "I've reclaimed some songs in the past, changed the lyrics in performance. I'm trying to be more productive now. As I read about other writers and artists, I see that I'm not alone in that. I talked to a painter and she said the same thing. The painting is always part of what you intended, but it can't be the total thing you intended. I used to think painters didn't have to deal with that. I admire photographers. It's a moment and there it is. I envy that."

Young is working on new material -- he usually is. He splits his time between California and Nashville but says the commercial pressure of Music City prevents him from accomplishing much work there. ("It's a place that has no imagination," Young says of Nashville. "It starts to choke me.") And these songs have little to do with that region of the United States, anyway.

"This group of songs is related in the sense that they are set in the western U.S.," Young divulges. "There's a song about Selena, the Tejano singer who was killed. There are songs about Los Angeles and Mexico, a song about a woman in Chinatown. I'm just now getting to these songs, but I've been into this idea for many years. I've been predicting that folk and country, which have always been fascinated with the border thing, will include that Latin or Tejano sound."

Young speaks from his home in Echo Park, a Los Angeles suburb whose fabled grubbiness, not surprisingly, has charmed the singer into permanent loyalty. "Echo Park is the very soul of old Los Angeles," he declares. "It's what's left of the spirit of that community. Unfortunately, now that people aren't as afraid to come here, I think it will be gentrified.

"I see life through a Native American consciousness," Young continues, explaining that he feels a kinship with California's nonwhite population. "My father was part Native American, but he didn't grow up in that culture. He grew up as a poverty-stricken misfit in Georgia. My father and grandparents farmed. They struggled. They were poor. They grew up with the earth and were rejected by those around them. I love Mexicans. If you go to East L.A. and the Supermarcado, you'll feel the same spirit I felt as a child. A connection to the earth. I literally love them so much."

The cover of Primal Young is a photograph of Milton Arlen Horsley, Young's step-grandfather and one of the first to integrate the family with a less rural population. Horsley had owned farm land and lost it. After selling whiskey illegally during Prohibition, Horsley ran fruit stands, one of which, in Gadsden, Alabama, he stands in front of in the photo.

"That was the nearest thing I had to a hometown," Young says of Gadsden. "I'm a dying, forgotten breed, a curious character of the South. My views and the way I am almost got me killed in the early '60s. The Klan was after me. I mean, I was doing protest songs in Birmingham and Montgomery. This wasn't Greenwich Village. I must have been drunk or mad."

Young has dried out, like the outlaw country singers with whom he was briefly lumped in the '70s -- guys such as Waylon Jennings who still admire him. In his late fifties, Young looks less craggy than Willie Nelson and altogether healthier than his songwriting brethren. And like those musicians, Young has a natural way with autobiography, which you can bet will one day get into print. If there's little serious self-aggrandizement in his reminiscences, he's not shy, either.

"Let me tell you a story," Young says when various compliments regarding his voice are mentioned. "When I was a wild young man in the early '60s, these guys had a Capitol record deal and I was playing guitar for them. The producer secretly recorded me singing and played it back. I said, 'That sounds great. Who is it?' But there are still records of mine that make me cringe. Some of that is just engineers who don't care what I sound like."

There's the stubbornness. As long as Young lives with his songs, it doesn't help him let go when he doesn't get along with the producer. (J.C. Crowley, who worked on Primal Young, remains a friend. "Any time you make a record, it's a test to your friendship, but J.C. is a great producer," Young says.) "I am stubborn," Young admits. "I can see that now. I've had a hard time in the past with some producers when it comes to what I agree to let go by and put on a record. It's part of what I do: knowing what's right to me. Sometimes they have to back off and just let me do my thing. I'm really an interpreter, and like an actor, I have to have room to act."

Of course, what Young interprets best are his own songs, and what makes him an enduring figure among fellow musicians is that he recognizes the need to examine even his own material from the outside. "It's a matter of being confined," Young says. He lives in a song as he writes and rewrites, righteously protecting it. But eventually, he says, "You can let it go."

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