SURVIVOR Pegi Young

With her new album Bracing
For Impact, the
artist-also-known-as-Mrs.-Neil-Young flexes her creative wings and looks
forward with optimism.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

It’s close to 4 a.m., and all’s quiet on the Mother-Baby
ward.

 

Infants are shuttled to the nursery, allowing new moms a
brief respite for a few quick winks as dads sleep uneasily on nearby pleather
couches. Nurses come and go, checking in on their patients and preparing for
the shift change in a few hours. Outside, the wind whips the flags on the
flagpole at the center of the traffic circle, a strange Indian summer-like
Thanksgiving Day weekend. Inside, it’s silent, save for the beeps of the
monitors and the occasional scoot of some furniture on the floor above – Labor
and Delivery.

 

Across the room, my newborn daughter sleeps soundly in her
crib, a peaceful end to her exhausting first day of life.

 

 

***

 

It’s funny how certain albums come to define specific
periods of time, like personal soundtracks.

 

Tom Petty’s Full Moon
Fever
album was the soundtrack of the summer of 1989 for me. I was 12 years
old and remember riding to my summer league baseball games every weekend with
my Dad listening to “Free Fallin'” and “I Won’t Back Down.” Dad laughed at
Petty’s little joke about flipping the record before Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel a
Whole Lot Better” and explained why vinyl was superior to the compact disc.

 

Tomorrow The Green
Grass
came out on Valentine’s Day of my junior year in high school. I’d
recently broken up with a girlfriend, one of my first lessons in love and the
perils of long-distance relationships. I was a big fan of The Jayhawks’ previous
release, Hollywood Town Hall, and wondered how Gary
Louris and Mark Olson could top it. They did, and Tomorrow The Green Grass didn’t leave my CD player for months.
Listening back to it now, the songs take me back to that winter 16 years ago,
full of teen angst and intense navel-gazing.

 

Dad passed away in July 2007 as I was on deadline writing
stories on both Band of Horses’ Cease to
Begin
and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ 100 Days, 100 Nights. I’d spent time with both bands during
recording sessions earlier that year, and my editors wanted them for that
fall’s issue. Those albums remind me of the days I spent at the hospital with
my father, and the late nights writing those stories sitting at his dining room
table.

 

When Bracing for
Impact
, Pegi Young’s new album on Vapor Records, hit my desk a few weeks
ago, the title spoke to me. My wife had just entered the ninth month of
pregnancy with our first child, and I was anxious – nervous about the prospect
of being a parent and wondering how this new addition was going to affect my
life. Bracing for impact seemed like a pretty good analogy, and I wondered what
watershed event in Pegi’s life led to the title.

 

“It came from the album artwork,” Young explained recently
from the California ranch overlooking the Pacific Ocean that she shares with husband and rock
legend, Neil Young. “It’s this beautiful piece of art that was done by a young
South African woman whose father was killed in a plane crash when she was 12
years old. Everyone on board was killed, and it happened under suspicious
circumstances. She did this series of paintings as a cathartic way to deal with
her grief. I was drawn to this one piece that from a distance looks like a
flower. When you look closely at it, it’s actually pictures of people in the
bracing for impact position like you see on an airplane. It seemed like an apt title for the album given some of the things that
happened over the last year.”

 

2010 was a rollercoaster year for the Youngs. In January,
the couple lost Larry “L.A.”
Johnson, a close friend and an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker who headed up
Neil Young’s film production company, Shakey Pictures. Tragedy struck again in
July when Ben Keith, Neil’s long-time pedal steel guitarist and Pegi’s producer
and musical director, died suddenly at his home on Broken
Arrow, the Young’s Northern California
ranch.

 

“Ben was really a champion for me from the very beginning,”
Pegi says. “He helped me feel comfortable playing my songs. He’s such an old…he
was such an old, dear friend. I just trust, trust…it’s hard for me to speak in
the past tense about him. I trusted him so completely. He was always there for
me. Losing him was a big shock to all of us.”

 

When Young’s band – bassist Rick Rosas, guitarist Anthony
Crawford and drummer Phil Jones – convened to rehearse for the first time after
Keith’s death, Crawford announced he was leaving the group.

 

“I looked at Rick and Phil and was like, ‘Well, I guess
we’re the only ones left now,'” Young recalls. “That band had done over a
hundred shows together opening for Neil, so we’d gotten to be a pretty tight
little unit. Losing Ben really shook us up, and then Anthony left, so everyone
left after was a survivor. That’s how we got Pegi Young & the Survivors.”

 

 

 

To record Bracing for
Impact
, Young gathered the Survivors at Sunset Sound, the legendary studio
where The Doors, Zeppelin and the Stones cut records on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. In keeping
with her husband’s now infamous belief in recording during the full moon, Pegi
started the sessions the day before the full moon in May 2011.

 

“It was a total coincidence, a happy accident, but if it
works for him, I don’t discount it,” she says with a laugh. “I think it is a
time of great productivity, and his experience has born that out. Mine did,
too. We tracked seven songs that first two days, just humming along. It came
together really quickly.”

 

Bracing for Impact is a different kind of album from its predecessors – Young’s folksy 2007
self-titled debut and the darker Foul
Deeds
three years later. For her first album, Young “dug out a lot of stuff
from back in the day, but the second and third records have been a lot more
current.” Bracing for Impact is a
fuller sounding album than Young’s ever made, apparent from the first notes of
“Flat Line Mama,” the funky album opener with horn fills from Joe Sublett,
Darrell Leonard and Jock Ellis. “We heard horns on a couple of songs when we
tracked, so Phil called a few friends in to help us out,” Young says. “Joe and
the guys came in and put some wonderful parts on three songs. I really liked
how it turned out, and that’s a credit to Phil.”

 

Songs like “Med Line,” “Trouble In A Bottle,” and “Lie” all
have a slow-burning soulful feel, Young’s smoky voice sounding like a sultry
lounge singer. “Number 9 Train” and “Daddy Married Satan” show off Young’s
country-rock songbook. The plaintive “No Heartbeart Sounds,” inspired in large
part by the loss of LA Johnson, features some beautiful keyboard work from
legendary Muscle Shoals sideman Spooner Oldham. Just as he’s done for all of
Young’s records since her 2007 self-titled debut, Oldham lent his keyboard
playing and songwriting talents to Bracing
for Impact
, but the Muscle Shoals legend was also responsible for finding
Crawford’s replacement: Kelvin Holley, a guitarist from north Alabama who has
recorded with Gregg Allman, Donnie Fritts and Bettye LaVette, to name just a
few.

 

“Anytime Spooner speaks up for someone, you go with it,”
Young says. “Kelvin’s a terrific player, and his playing really worked well on
this record. He’s been a great addition to the band.”

 

As on her previous albums, Young kept
up her tradition of covering other artists on Bracing for Impact, delivering a brilliant version of the Danny
Whitten-penned ballad “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.”

 

“I didn’t know Danny, he was before my time with Neil,”
Young says of the late guitarist and member of the Crazy Horse who died of a
drug overdose in November 1972. “Songs that I’m drawn to are songs that I feel
like I can get inside of. I generally don’t do a straight cover of a song with
the same arrangement or in the same key. Typically, I hear a song that I love,
and I turn it into my own. Sometimes, my versions bear little resemblance to
the original, but I used Danny’s original song with the Horse as inspiration.”

 

“Song for a Baby Girl” is the only track on the album where
Keith appears, his gorgeous, dreamy pedal steel fills floating over the
album-closer. “The guys were rehearsing for the last CSNY tour, the Living with War tour,” Young remembers.
“Spooner, Ben, Rick and Chad Cromwell, who plays drums on that track, were all
in L.A.
rehearsing, so I called Anthony Crawford out, and Elliot Mazer came in and
produced. We cut it one day at the Sound Factory, the sister studio to Sunset
Sound. I love that Ben’s on it.”

 

The last song to make the record was “Gonna Walk Away,” a
Bonnie Raitt-style rocker with background vocals from The Watson Twins. “We
finished tracking, and I thought we were pretty much finished with the album,”
Young says. “I went to lay down that afternoon to take a nap and the song just
hit me. I was just like, ‘Good grief, do you have to come now?’ Got up, and it
just flowed right through me in one or two takes.”

 

With her third album in the can and getting strong reviews,
a revamped band to work with and a tour scheduled opening for Stephen Stills,
Young appears ready to emerge from her husband’s imposing shadow and show the
world that Broken Arrow
is home to two talented songwriters and artists. But don’t let her catch you
calling it a career.

 

“I’m 58 years old, so I don’t have any delusions,” she says
with a laugh. “But being able to bring music back into my life over the last
few years, I feel like the timing was perfect. I don’t regret not doing it
sooner. I wasn’t ready. I was raising my children, and frankly my confidence
wasn’t there. I was really shy about bringing out my songs. But Neil and the
guys were always so supportive of me from the very first day.”

 

 

 

Talk eventually leads to the Bridge School Benefit, the
annual charity concert the Youngs have honchoed every fall for the last 25
years that benefits a Bay Area school for children with severe physical
impairments. The cause is close to the Youngs’ hearts – Pegi co-founded the
school in 1986 in part to have a place for Ben, the couple’s son who was born
with cerebral palsy, to attend school. 2011 marks the school and benefit
concerts’ 25th anniversary, which is being celebrated with the release of both
DVD and CD compilations of performances from the concerts over the last quarter
century. I ask Young if she’s ever wondered what her “career” would look like
now had she been able to focus on her music earlier in her life, and she
replies without missing a beat.

 

“Taking care of our son was my absolute focus,” Young says. “There
was no question that’s what I needed to do, and it led to the Bridge School.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of Bridge School,
an entity that truly changes lives. Ben gave us entrée into the Bridge School
and the world of disabilities that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. We owe that
all to him, and I’m incredibly grateful to him for it.”

 

***

 

Dawn is breaking. Outside, splashes of orange, red and
yellow streak the cloudless sky, announcing the impending arrival of the sun
and the beginning of a new day.

 

Inside, my daughter sleeps peacefully in her crib. I watch,
counting and double-checking the number of fingers and toes and noting the
birthmarks and freckles that dot her small face.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde]

 

Leave a Reply