When I found the music of Steve Young, I had been heartsick awhile, and he was singing songs that told stories about a world I knew. It’s a world where you go somewhere and aren’t sure how you feel about it, where you feel the past pushing you away and pulling you back, where you cover sad feelings with crooked smiles and bitter words, where you make tough choices and always pay the price for them. Often those songs seemed to speak the story of my life far better than I could. Steve’s voice, full of grief, anger and tenderness, all fighting to be heard at once, lifted me out of myself and then sent me back home, as if his voice were my own at last discovered.
February, 1975. It’s an unseasonably warm, sunny day in Carbondale Illinois, and I am buying groceries at the mall. I wander through the JCPenney store on the way out and stop to thumb through some record cutouts. I pick up an album with a lime-green cover with a small photo in the center of a young woman walking across a bridge, Seven Bridges Road. The cover seems perfect for a Bread record, but I pick up the album nonetheless. The back side is more interesting, dense with information. There is a small black and white photo of a young man and woman walking toward the camera, eyes cast down. I survey the list of songs to discover that the singer wrote “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” the title cut of a Waylon Jennings album I own.
I have listened to Seven Bridges Road three times, and it isn’t dark yet. I feel like I have found a much weathered family Bible, so inscribed with my own family’s history that it is hard to know whether the book’s importance comes from the printed word or the handwriting that covers the margins. These songs are Steve’s stories, but they are at once the story of a people and, yes, my story too. The songs are sung with great passion and propelled by the same contradictions that move me forward some days, hold me back on others, and on the worst days collide like two full force gales.
I first found some of my tensions and contradictions mirrored in the great Southern novels. Last year I took a course on Southern Literature and Culture at Southern Illinois University where I am a doctoral student. We read 15 Southern novels spanning more than 100 years. I was drawn particularly to Faulkner and Penn Warren. In Faulkner’s magnificent Absalom, Absalom, Quentin Compson, a son of the South studying at Yale, tells his roommate the awful history of his family taming the wilderness of frontier Mississippi and the great sins that flowed from that conquest. Torn apart by conflicting impulses toward his home and the South, Compson pronounces the only benediction he can manage, “I love it, I hate it, I love it.” In Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Jack Burden offers a tortured tale of politics and class in the New South: “And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.”
Quentin Compson and Jack Burden express contradictions that I feel, but they are both from the aristocratic South, which seems a long way from the world of tenant farming that my parents carried with them and talked of often enough that I feel it is my legacy too. The course took a stab at this element of Southern culture in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. Our time would have been better spent on Steve Young’s songs, “Long Way to Hollywood,” “Montgomery in the Rain,” “The White Trash Song” and “Seven Bridges Road.”
In Steve’s songs, sometimes the hardscrabble culture of the South shows its kind face as in “Long Way to Hollywood,” a song about leaving the South.
All them ole Depression people, Babe, I know they took a heavy load.
All their children, my kinfolks and cousins, still walking down Tobacco Road.
Well, they still talk about Hank Williams, Lord they’re clinging unto his fame.
I’m of the same race. I’m from the same place. Got the same lonesome blood in my veins.
The lonesome blood that takes the singer away produces moments of nostalgic longing in “Seven Bridges Road.”
Sometimes there is a part of me has to turn away and go,
Running like a child beneath warm stars down the Seven Bridges Road.
More typically, the remembrance is bitter and sad as in “Montgomery in the Rain.”
I know I look funny to you all honey, but I am just one
Who was once from here and now who’s come back again.
I ain’t asking for nothing but my song and a cemetery wind.
I understand all of these things that day, but I will appreciate the songs more deeply as time goes on. What I don’t understand is how long these songs will endure as part of me, how I will lean on them through some of the greatest crises of my life until, finally, I face one that will require me to put the songs away for a time to be rediscovered later. I also don’t foresee that someday the singer and I will be friends and will grow old together in in the same city.
This February day, it is enough to have found songs that my own heart cried to have written. Had I known enough and believed enough, I would have prayed for these songs.
Like a lot of people, I take the presence of songs for granted. Songs appear and disappear. Sometimes they reappear in another’s voice. Sometimes they come back in the same voice. I hold onto a few, some from my adolescence, some to mark periods in my life, some to help cherish peak experiences, and a few just simply because they are truly wonderful. Still, for the most part, I treat songs as disposable commodities, not as great art that speaks my experience in some enduring way.
Mostly, I long for a song to speak how my life is right now. Once this immediate desire is fulfilled in a moment of clarity, I move on. Before I know it, a fog returns to obscure the nature of things. There I am, gripped once again by an insatiable longing to be understood, taught and comforted. Art that endures calls out my name not just one time but many times and changes along with me.
When I was 17, I preached a sermon for the first time. I took as my text part of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the beginning of the letter, Paul discusses the relationship of “suffering” to the “glory of God.” I was more interested in the connective tissue that linked those two terms: endurance, character, and, most importantly, hope. It was two months after my father died, and I was looking for a redemptive element in his death. Paul argues that suffering builds endurance, and endurance yields character that gives us the capacity for hope. I don’t know if what Paul writes is true or not, but I do know that I have always had to have hope to go on. I want to believe that longing is the seedbed of hope. In Steve Young’s songs, I find traces of what I have endured and hear my life named. That afternoon and for some time after, these songs give me a way to understand my past and to live with my conflicted nature. Later, Steve will write songs that are more hopeful and recast how I hear these earlier songs.
The novelist Jonathan Lethem has written that the listener, some of us at least, longs for “the voice, and what’s behind it.” What we want from that discovery “is to be with ourselves but not alone.” On a February day forty years ago, fate smiled on me, and I found the work of an enduring artist at an industrial dump site—the cutout bin—and felt I was not alone.
Everything is its own sigh at being what it is
And no more, an unanswered yearning
Toward what will be, or was once perhaps,
Or might be, might have been, or . . .
From “The Evening Star” by Rainer Maria Rilke
(Translated by Randall Jarrell)
(This is the first of two posts on the music of Steve Young. This post is a bit more conceptual than usual, but I shall return to my storytelling form in the second half. Some of the material here appeared first in my long essay “That Same Lonesome Blood” in the music issue of Oxford American, 2001. I owe a special debt to Marc Smirnoff for publishing that essay and for all of the help he gave in its editing. My friend Mark Lucius offered some valuable suggestions and caught a number of mistakes in this essay. Thanks Mark for the close reading.)