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was convinced that I was wasting my breath talking with anybody in
Nashville. From my point of view, they were a bunch of hillbilly
idiots. But I stopped by to see Roy
the RCA sessions came out of that.”
Chapter Five: The Light at the End of the Bottle
“When I left Nashville, I went back to L.A., briefly, then to New Mexico. And I lived in Wisconsin for awhile, in Madison,” Young said. “There was a hip little scene going on in Madison and I was back into my old drinking and wandering troubadour ways. I had wrangled a deal with RCA Records and knew it was coming up, but I wanted to do an acoustic, more non-commercial record before I did that because, in my mind, we were going to do something much more commercial with RCA. I ended up doing an album for Mountain Railroad Records, for Stephen Powers.”
That album, Honky Tonk Man, was the first in a succession of independently produced albums over the next few decades.
“The Mountain Railroad deal was one of those really natural kind of events. We recorded it at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis, the studio parts. It was one of those good old studios, you know? Analog and all that. We recorded two live tracks, Sally Goodin and Traveling Kind because Powers wanted to see if he could capture them in a live setting.”
Critically, the album garnered more praise than one might think, it being on a small folk-oriented label. The critical favorite seemed to be a beautifully layered version of The Band's The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down, but it gained mention on the merits of the overall choice of songs.
“I thought it was good,” Young said, breaking his overly critical stance when it comes to his own recordings. “And it apparently has held up well. It's out of print again (note: it was later reissued by Rounder and even later by Drive, a label owned by Powers), but it is kind of a classic in its own way.”
Considering that the musicians were regional if not local and the label itself was so small, Young's praise rings true. The musicianship is first-rate by anyone's standards and the recording quality is surprisingly topnotch. Add to that the fact that Young had not played with any of the session people previously and it is almost magic.
“No, I had never met them before,” Young replied when asked. “We met just for those sessions. Though I did know Betsy Kaske who sang some harmony, and of course I knew Powers, the producer. It was, after all, his label. But I had never met the others.
“That was a good studio. There was an engineer there who was really good too. I was told that Dylan recorded there and I don't doubt it. The engineer and that studio were from the good old days in the sense that it was as good as recording was ever going to get. The musicians were quick, too. When I played the songs with them, they got it right off. I remember having the steel player (Cal Hand) do a sustain part on Rock Salt & Nails. No problem. We thought that it would be a good idea to re-do Rock Salt & Nails because that album was already out of print. I did not yet know how albums could go in and out of print so quickly.”
Of course, there was little to no chance of the album making any real waves. Again, distribution was so limited as to prevent it. Still, Young had done what he had set out to do. The album was completed and logged in. Young asked no more.
The Return to Nashville.....
Young next rode the proverbial rails to Nashville for a follow-up to negotiations with RCA which had been ongoing for a good year to a year and a half. He held out little hope, having soured on the major labels in general and Nashville in particular, but was willing to give it another go.
“I had earlier stopped by to see Roy Dea,” he recounted, “after three or four friends had prevailed upon me to do so. I was convinced I was wasting my breath to talk with anybody in Nashville. From my point of view, they were a bunch of hillbilly idiots. But after talking with Dea, I decided to go ahead. Of course, there were legal hurdles to be overcome and I used some of that time for the Honky Tonk Man album.
“Roy Dea was the man behind the whole RCA thing. A lot of people at the label were against doing it, but Dea wanted to go forward from the git-go, much to my surprise. RCA went along with it because that's what Roy wanted to do.
“The timing was good. I moved back to Nashville in part to be near my son, Jubal. I couldn't deal with just running away and leaving him.”
The first album for RCA was aptly titled Renegade Picker.
“Renegade Picker I thought was a very commercial record. I was trying to play the game and Dea was a very talented producer. Some people think it was the best album I've done, to date, but I think it only showed certain sides of me. There were sides of me that Dea didn't really understand, that he didn't want to deal with.
“Even that record turned out to be too far out, I guess. But RCA was committed, in their way. They spent some money for a band and was trying to put Steve Young out there on the road. They seemed to think they had this new Waylon Jennings or something. They got some FM airplay and dismissed that, saying they wanted AM airplay. The occasional Black station would play it, which was ignored, and there were squabbles between the pop people and the country people. It just didn't work. And my drinking was getting worse and worse. I was out of it more and more. Still, they renewed my contract.
“A couple of years later, they released No Place To Fall but did very little promotion on it. Both those RCA records were hailed by critics and got four star reviews in magazines like Rolling Stone, etc. Many people still believe they were the best albums I ever made, but I don't quite see it that way. They are, to me, too country. But that's just my view of it.”
It was during this period that the bottom fell out.
“(After the RCA albums), I dropped way out,” Young said. “I hit bottom with my drinking, although I still went on the road with a band. We were all a bunch of drunks and I don't know how we survived, but we did.
“You know, I've lived this charmed life. I don't quite know how I made it through. I went through this big soul-searching time of whether to live or die, whether to be or not to be--- the Hamlet story. Finally, I figured there was really no escape. I didn't want to leave my son in that manner so I went to the Black hospital in Nashville--- Meharry--- the detox unit. It was the perfect place for me because of my deep identification with the Black culture. It was more nurturing and real to me than it would have been at some Betty Ford Center.
“I really wanted to know: Am I alcoholic? Of course, I'd been drinking for four solid years. It was a comical question. And it was amazing that I was still alive. I began to get sober and go through all of these things. I did a lot of meditation and a lot of soul-searching. I dropped way out and became a troubadour, surviving in Europe for a number of years. And only now (note: 1993, the year of this particular interview) have I entered even this far back into the game. Because I was locked out. A lot of people just didn't want to deal with me. They remembered the old days, you know? When you make an impression on people, believe me, sometimes that impression lasts a long, long time.”
Long Way to Hollywood