Most singer-songwriters don’t wait a lifetime to release their debut album. But for Pegi Young, whose self-titled collection of country-rockin’ heartache tunes comes out June 12th on Warner Bros. Records, life kept getting in the way. “I’ve been writing songs and poetry since high school,” she says. “It was something I’d always wanted to do but could never make time for. There were other things that took priority.”
Young’s greatest priority was co-founding The Bridge School for special needs children like her son Ben, born with cerebral palsy. She also raised a daughter, Amber, and toured the world as a backup singer with Neil Young, her husband of nearly three decades.
“I’ve been living five minutes from a state-of-the-art recording studio for 25 years,” Young says of the Northern California ranch she shares with her family. “But the timing had to align.” With The Bridge School running well (Young is still president of the Board) and her kids grown, Pegi finally had time to get into the studio. On Pegi Young, she turns out a set of gorgeous, twangy songs that ponder the tug-of-war between love and independence.
After several years of performing with Neil Young’s various touring ensembles, including members of Crazy Horse, and legendary musicians Donald “Duck” Dunn, Jim Keltner and Booker T. Jones, Young gained the self-assurance she needed to make a record as well. “All of these great experiences kept leading to me stepping out and trying my own thing,” she says.
For Young’s album, she assembled producer Elliot Mazer and members of her husband’s bands, including bassist Rick Rosas, drummers Karl Himmel and Chad Cromwell, songwriter and keyboard great Spooner Oldham, guitarist Anthony Crawford and steel guitarist Ben Keith (who played on Patsy Cline’s classic “I Fall to Pieces”). Sessions were done in Northern California and Nashville in 2006. Later, country stalwart Marty Stuart was added on mandolin and the Jordanaires contributed their renowned harmonies. “It was terrifying, I will not lie,” she says. “These guys are world-class musicians, but they could not have been more supportive.”
At first, Pegi Young set out to record covers by songwriters she admired, a handful of which appear on her album. She chose “Sometimes Like a River,” written by Toni Brown of the pioneering Berkeley, California group Joy of Cooking (“I’d always loved that song and wanted to try it,” Young says), “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet,” a little-known ballad by blue-eyed soul men Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, and the lovely, yearning “When the Wildlife Betrays Me,” written by Will Jennings, Jimmy Buffett and Michael Utley. “We’d done a bunch of tunes, and then Anthony (Crawford) asked me, ‘OK, when are we going to do your songs?’” she says.
Young, who wrote most of the songs on this release, reached deep into her personal archive to assemble original material. “I was around 20 and living in a teepee when I wrote ‘Key to Love.’ There’s a line in there about ‘wondering why it went so fast.’ What could’ve gone so fast at that age? Now I have a whole other perspective on that,” she says. “So even though some of the songs were written by a young girl, now they’re being told through the eyes of a woman who’s lived and experienced things.”
The mid-tempo epic “White Line in the Sun,” from around the same era, was inspired by a cross-country hitchhiking trip when Young, born and raised in Northern California, set out to visit her brother in Vermont. “At the time, I wrote ‘I’ve seen both the mighty oceans,’” she says. “Well, I’ve seen a few more oceans since then. But the part about traveling roads forever and never being through, I look back on all the touring I’ve done since then and think, ‘Yeah, that’s life on the road.’”
Young came up with the gently rocking “Heterosexual Masses” in the early ‘70s while working as a bartender. “It was at a community gathering spot in rural San Mateo County, where we still live,” she says. “I was watching this sort of dance that went on between patrons night after night.”
It also happens to be the bar where Pegi first met Neil Young, whose influence is felt on the album, but never dominates it. “I didn’t ask if he’d play on it, and he didn’t volunteer ahead of time. I used his studio on our ranch and got the band together. They’d made a space for him in case he came by,” she says. “The first day he just stuck his ear in to hear what was going on, and the next day he joined in.”
Neil Young’s trademark stinging guitar and harmonica makes a few appearances (“Hold On,” “White Line in the Sun” and others), along with a turn on electric sitar on Pegi’s semi-psychedelic “Love Like Water.” But his impact on the album is equally philosophical, like recording to analog tape, which he has staunchly advocated over digital technology throughout his career, and trying to arrange sessions around a full moon. “It tends to be a very productive time,” Pegi says. “That’s something I got from Neil.”
I can’t help but be influenced by him. I’ve lived with him for almost 30 years,” she says. “But I had my own ideas about what I wanted these songs to be.”
On the album’s opening track, “Fake,” a song she wrote within the last five years, Young articulates those ideas as she considers maintaining one’s identity in a long-term relationship. “It’s one of those things you contemplate: ‘Do I matter, does it make any difference, would you even notice if I was gone?’” she says. “I know it’s crossed the minds of friends my age who’ve shared their lives with someone, the question of ‘Where do I fit in?’ and the crying out for some time alone to think about it.”
It sounds a little melancholy, and that’s certainly a theme that runs through the album. But Pegi Young is also celebratory, a magnificently played collection of songs that reveal how youth is sometimes prescient, and how it can take a lifetime until that wisdom is fully realized. For a woman whose devotion and love helped build a family, a school and a community where challenged kids can find self-confidence, it’s rewarding to hear Young find her own musical confidence on this moving album.