Late bloomer Pegi Young comes to Belly Up Aspen
ASPEN – At the 1994 Academy Awards, Pegi Young sang back-up for her husband Neil on a performance of the song the song “Philadelphia,” which Neil had written for the Jonathan Demme film of the same name. It was a potentially nerve-wracking experience: The performance was hushed – just Neil at the piano, backed by Pegi and one other singer, playing an especially naked, emotional song. The audience was filled with A-list celebs; Johnny Depp introduced the song. An enormous national audience watched on TV.Topping it off, it was Pegi Young’s debut as a professional singer.”That’s going in in the deep end,” she said.Still, from the way she describes it, singing at the Academy Awards was a lot less scary than a singing date she had on a quiet, northern California ranch, a little more than a decade later. That gig had no audience – as long as you don’t count the musicians in attendance, including keyboardist Spooner Oldham, steel guitarist Ben Keith, and bassist Rick Rosas, who were assembled to help record Pegi’s debut album. All were close associates of Neil’s, which might have relieved Pegi’s nerves. But to Pegi, they were, at the moment at least, exceptional and vastly experienced players, who were about to record songs by a newcomer.”It had its moments of terror,” Young said from the deck of her house on that California ranch, “thinking of all the musicians up on the ranch, ready to work with me. It was, ‘Ahh, is this a good idea?’ I’d known all these guys for years, but knew them as a wife, a mother, from the Bridge School” – a school for physically handicapped children that Pegi co-founded in 1986. “But they didn’t know me as a songwriter. I wasn’t confident that people liked my songs.”At one point in the terror stage, literally in the bed with the covers pulled over my head, my husband laughed and said, ‘What are you worried about? It’s just world-class musicians crawling all over the place.'”Young tiptoed into that first recording session by starting with songs written by others, and the list shows her range of musical history: “Side of the Road” by Lucinda Williams; “The Sky Isn’t Blue Anymore” by the late Cajun musician Bobby Charles”; “Body Breaks” by Devendra Banhart”; “Sometimes Like a River” by the early female rock band Joy of Cooking.Then lead guitarist Anthony Crawford asked when Young was going to break out her own songs. “And once I sang one of them, the spout was open,” she said.”Pegi Young,” her 2007 debut, features six originals, many of them written as far back as her high school years. The terror faded; Young said recording her first album turned out to be fun, and allowed her to ease into her second album – “Foul Deeds,” released in 2010 – with little nervousness.Now she seems to be roaring ahead at full speed. Her third album, “Bracing for Impact,” set for release next week, comes just 17 months after “Foul Deeds.” Of the album’s 11 songs, nine were written by Young.There’s nothing tentative about the way the album kicks off: the opening track, “Flatline Mama,” is a sassy, funny, rollicking song about a man who wants his woman sedate: “No booze, no pills, no THC/ ‘Cause he wants peace and serenity/ She’s a flatline mama,” Young sings in a tune that combines country swing and ’60s girl group backing vocals. She moves smoothly into rootsy r&b mode on “Trouble in a Bottle,” and has no trouble slipping into a more meditative space for “No Heart Beat Sounds.” Young does a lovely country-ish version of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” written by the late Danny Whitten, Neil’s bandmate from Crazy Horse. She shows off her confidence on “Gonna Walk Away,” a song about boldly setting off on her own.Young has a stated attraction for darker material, and that is emphatic on “Bracing for Impact.” But she knows how to lighten the mood: “Daddy Married Satan” might be about severe family strife, but the beat bounces along, and Young sings in a feathery tone.Young brings her songs on the road in a tour that has her opening for her husband’s on-and-off bandmate, Stephen Stills. The tour, with Young backed by her band, the Survivors, stops on Saturday, Nov. 12 at Belly Up Aspen.••••Growing up in San Mateo, Calif., Young was magnetically drawn to what was happening a few miles up the peninsula. “I made my way to San Francisco as soon as possible, in 1968, just after the Summer of Love,” Young, who turns 59 on Dec. 1. She didn’t want to simply see Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service perform – though she does recall that, at the Avalon Ballroom, you could wait till 1 a.m., then pay a dollar and still catch the headline act – she wanted to add her own music to the scene.”I did some street busking, sang with friends in the living room – that’s that time,” she said. “People just did that, and I wanted to be in that scene.”Young never got far as a performer, but she kept writing – lyrics that she often set to music, even if she had no outlet for performing them. “It was just the immediate moment of writing, expressing myself. That’s what I had always done,” she said.In the ’70s, while working as a bartender, Pegi met Neil Young, and the two married. (On Dec. 2, they intend to celebrate a momentous anniversary – 33 and a third years together.) In 1978, the couple had a son, Ben, who was diagnosed early with a severe case of cerebral palsy. Any dreams Pegi had of becoming a performing musician were put on hold, as she devoted herself to motherhood and, in 1986, establishing the Bridge School, which is funded in part by an annual concert, headlined by Neil, that has also featured the Dave Matthews Band, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder and Nine Inch Nails. (Pegi did, however, have a hand in music history, serving as the inspiration for songs on her husband’s great 1992 album “Harvest Moon.” The opening track, “Unknown Legend,” is a straightforward tribute: “She used to work in a diner/ Never saw woman look finer/ I used to order just to watch her float across the floor.”)After the 1994 appearance at the Academy Awards, Pegi joined up with a group of women in her neighborhood to start a singing group. “I had a teepee set up in the backyard, and we’d really practice singing,” she said. “Nancy Hall would bring in music; we’d work out parts – it wasn’t just an excuse for the girls to get together.” The group, which numbered around eight, would sing the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, the Mamas & the Papas – “anything with beautiful harmonies,” Young said.The group, dubbed the Mountainettes, played a few local gigs, once opening for Buck Owens. The group – or at least, four of the singers, Pegi included – were good enough to get hired to be backing singers for a major artist: Neil Young used the Mountainettes on his 2003 “rock novel” “Greendale.” The Mountainettes were also featured on the “Greendale” tour, which made a stop at the 2003 Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival in Snowmass Village. Pegi has since become a regular on her husband’s albums, appearing on 2009’s “Fork in the Road,” 2007’s “Chrome Dreams II” and 2005’s “Prairie Wind.”Neil has returned the favor, playing some harmonica and guitar, and adding vocals, to “Bracing for Impact.” But Pegi tends to keep Neil at something of a distance from her own songwriting.”He hears what I’m playing and I hear what he’s playing,” she said. “But we write really differently. We write what comes from our own inner selves.”Pegi is, though, a fan of Neil’s, and finds his singular approach to music and career inspirational.”His ability, his drive almost, to keep changing and let whatever can come in come in, has been a huge influence on me. I don’t know what it is about him – he’s on the cutting edge of things; he’s prescient,” she said. “It’s about just making music that’s fulfilling for yourself, for you to feel good about, that’s true to you, honest – that’s all you can do. That’s the best lesson I’ve gotten from all these years, as he goes through different things.”Around 2007, Young thought it was time for her own evolution. There was nothing momentous behind recording her debut album. “I think it was just timing,” she said. “I’d been writing most of my adult life. I had a whole backlog of stuff, and I’d been working with Neil quite bit. I think it was [Neil’s longtime manager] Elliot Roberts’ idea: ‘Why don’t you get in the studio and make an album?'”Pegi is not quite the veteran musician yet. She confessed to a case of nerves as she began thinking about the current tour, an eight-show swing through Colorado, Arizona and California.”I’m getting pretty nervous about performing again – and that’s a good thing,” she said. “I’m feeling those butterflies, and that tells me I’m ready to go out there.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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