Could you dismiss Pegi Young as having a charmed musical life? I suppose so.
But Young’s third LP, Bracing For Impact, is an album from a woman who’s long past her first tentative steps out into the musical world. Her music is as confident as it is introspective, and Young’s skillful songwriting makes the listener wonder which songs are really tongue-in-cheek, because they all reach deeper. The transitions are seamless, and even the three songs not penned by Pegi Young (including one by her husband, Neil) fit in perfectly with the theme of survival with a smile.
Ghosts abound—from the beautiful pedal steel of the late Ben Keith, to a sad song of Danny Whitten’s, to the playful spirit of her departed dog, Carl. And still Impact is unflagging in its storytelling, embracing the tragedy and the unintentional comedy alike. It’s just life, after all. However charmed it might seem for some, there’s always another shoe waiting to drop. But we move on, we create, we laugh through the anguish and stress. Pegi Young puts it all into perspective beautifully with Bracing for Impact.
Pegi and her band of legendary musicians, The Survivors, embark on a tour today (March 21) that will include dates with Willie Nelson and an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. As I quickly discovered in our conversation, Pegi Young is herself the archetypal musician: she loves touring, loves collaborating, and loves her vinyl.
Bracing For Impact has lots of different musical elements—rock, Dixieland stuff—and maybe more blues and R&B than your previous records. Are these some of your favorite genres, or did the songs just work out the way they did?
I mean, kind of “yes” to all the above. When we brought in Kelvin Holly as lead guitar player in the band after Anthony Crawford left, he had fifteen years of experience playing with Little Richard, so y’know, he’s a solidly R&B guy. And, of course, with Spooner Oldham in the band, we also got the great Muscle Shoals sound. So, the songs ended up kind of lending themselves to that sound.
I think the Dixieland band sound you’re referring to was on “Trouble in a Bottle” and that was our drummer Phil Jones’ idea. We were recording in LA and he had a horn section down there that he knew… we just sort of heard that. And that was an older song, but we re-worked it a little bit, gave it a different tempo. We recorded it a different way back with the other band before Ben Keith passed away and Anthony Crawford left the band, so we kind of perked it up and then it sort of lent itself to the Dixieland band sound. A lot of it was kind of a collaborative effort when we were in there recording, just thinking, “What would sound cool here?”
It seems like you surround yourself with collaborators and supporters who are like family. Why is this so important to you?
Well, most of the guys in the band… well, all of the musicians that I started with were all guys I’d known for twenty, thirty years because they’d worked with my husband and we’d just gotten to know each other over time. There are two relative newcomers to this band, but having said that, I’ve been working with them now for a few years. So, when I first went into the studio for my first record, I think it’s safe to say I was really terrified and intimidated! [Laughs] And working up my new songs—my new old songs at that time—stepping out from being a background singer to a lead singer was a big leap for me. So, it was really important that I feel safe.
Do you ever find that you doubt yourself now? Do you ever feel unworthy? I know for many artists doubt can creep in even when they’re doing well.
Well, you know I think that yeah, there’s probably some, “Ooo, is this song really any good, or am I just thinking it’s great and everyone else will go, ‘Whaaaat?!’” [Laughs]
We just rehearsed for a week last week and I have four new originals and two covers that we worked up. And we’ve also been playing on the road a song that we recorded for Bracing For Impact, but didn’t end up putting it on the record, and then another one that I wrote kind of along the way.
I guess I just get so much affirmation from the band that this time they really were very positive about the songs. And the one that we kind of never quite got for the first record, it’s a wonderful Jerry Ragovoy tune called, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.” We were working on it, trying to replicate what the first one sounded like, when all of a sudden Rick Rosas—the bass player—just started doing this Motown kind of lick on the bass and we all just jumped in and went for it. It was like, “Oh, yeah! Now this song’s coming to life! This is cool.”
That’s awesome. It sounds like being on the road inspires you to write and to co-create.
Well, you know a lot of these songs… gosh, let me think, now. We were scheduled to be on the road opening for 10,000 Maniacs and we were all geared up to go, and the lead guitar player in that band had to have emergency back surgery. So, our tour got cancelled, but sort of at the same time I was writing. I’m really grateful that we had this week to just rehearse—to just get together and play, and work out songs—because in the past what we’ve done is pretty much get together prior to a tour and we have one to maybe three days of rehearsal. We needed the time to really suss these ones out.
You’ve opened for Willie Nelson, Stephen Stills, John Mayall and quite a few other notable musicians. Now you’ll be opening for Willie again for some shows. Do you find that inspiring, or is it really more that you have your own stuff kind of brewing in your mind?
Oh, it’s totally inspiring, my gosh—those guys are legends—all of them. Stephen’s a really good friend of the family, of course, and Willie too, for that matter—although a little different than Stephen because Neil and Stephen go back so far. But Willie is so gracious and so welcoming, and his band and his crew are just great, great people. And that one show we did with John Mayall was just kind of mind-blowing to me because I was a teenager when I was first listening to the Bluesbreakers and stuff. I was like, “I can’t believe this! I’m actually opening for John Mayall!” Who would’ve thunk it when I was sixteen years old?
He really is an amazing performer. I saw him at the Eureka Springs Blues Festival probably a decade ago and he killed it.
He’s just great! And he was just a very wonderful gentleman. The bass player in his band is really good friends with Rick, the bass player in our band. So far, everybody that we’ve opened for has just been super welcoming and supportive and I couldn’t ask for it to go any better.
I wanted to talk about a couple of the songs on Bracing For Impact, firstly “Daddy Married Satan” which, although I know it’s tongue-in-cheek, I found myself wondering if you knew my father’s second wife…
And I know everybody’s pulling out “No Heart Beat Sounds,” but I think it’s for good reason. The whole theme of, “once you start to relax, you’ll get blindsided.” I understand it was written when tragedies were sort of piling up in your life, but you don’t strike me as someone who really thinks this way, so I’d love to hear more about this song in particular.
Well, that song is an interesting one because the first thing that came to me was the melody. I worked that out on the piano when we were over in Hawaii. Then our son became very ill and was in the hospital over there, so I was fishing around for the lyrics. Then he got better, so it was really gonna end up on this great, cheerful note and then a really close friend of our family died very suddenly—within a matter of weeks after we felt like we were out of woods and out of the sludge of just trying to hold on and make sure our son was going to be okay. So, then it kind of went a whole different direction and it turned out to be… it is kind of a sad song. I can’t sing it without thinking of my buddy.
It does seem like tragedies kind of come in threes almost—like a bunch will happen at once.
Yeah, they do kind of seem to come in threes. That was a difficult time, that whole year, really—2010 was… we were like, “Oh, boy! We’re out of 2009! Phew! Great! We’re leaving that behind us.” And then 2010 was a tough year, too. Really tough.
You know, I’ve read other interviews with you and it seems like the focus inevitably shifts to your husband or to your philanthropic work with the Bridge School. Does that bother you at all? When you do interviews like this, are there other things you wish the focus was on?
Well, you know, I think it’s quite natural that people will bring up my husband. He’s obviously such a well-established musician; he’s had such an incredible career and body of work. And we’ve been married thirty-five years, so that’s never unexpected. And then I love talking about the Bridge School. I’m really proud of my association with the Bridge School. We’re in our twenty-sixth year and it’s grown from a small… well, it never was a small vision; it was a small school with a big vision! We’re actually starting to really realize that vision in ways that I may not have even dreamed possible.
The Bridge School Benefit Concerts are always amazing, especially with the way the musicians interact with the kids on stage.
Well, I think the kids really set the atmosphere for it to be the unique concert that it is. Having the kids right there, the families, the staff, the artists. We always host a barbecue up here on Friday night for all the artists so everybody can get to know each other if they don’t already, and our son lives with us, so they can get to understand a little bit more about what this event is all about, and what the funds raised will go towards.
And by the end of the weekend, shoot, the kids are doing interviews with the artists and the artists are really beginning to get a much better understanding of the nuances of what’s going on with these kids. They’re very much like any normal, able-bodied kid—they’re just living in different bodies, but they’ve got a sense of humor, and their comments, and their personalities. By the end of the weekend, friendships have been formed. For example, Eddie Vedder has been playing the show—second to my husband—he’s played it the most often. During that time period, he had kids and his kids are becoming friends with the Bridge School kids. He’s already friends with some of the founding students who are now in their mid-thirties and even early forties, believe it or not.
When I was on tour with Everest, I got to meet your son and see first-hand how the Bridge School has impacted his life. It was awesome seeing the guys interact with him as well, as I know they’ve participated in the Bridge School Benefit, too.
The Everest guys are just terrific. And our crew—many of them have known Ben since he was born, he’s just very accepted out there. He’s been on the road since he was about—I don’t know—three, four, five weeks old? [Laughs] Well, even in utero he was on the road, for that matter! [Laughs]
You recorded Bracing For Impact and your previous albums in analog as opposed to digital. Was that an important decision for you?
Well, you know it was kind of a natural decision. The first records we recorded here at the ranch. My husband’s got a world-class studio here and it was all set up for analog recording. He’s well-known for being a huge proponent of analog. Then the last record we did in LA [at the Sound Factory], but we really searched out a studio that still ran tape.
You get a warm sound, you get the room sound, you get the imperfections. It’s not fixing everything so it comes out sounding perfect—it’s got a lot of the human quality to it. I’m kind of big on vinyl.
So, you have your own collection, I’m assuming?
Oh, gosh, I do! I couldn’t even believe it! I was just looking back through… what was I looking for? Something sparked a memory for me of an early, early Fleetwood Mac record called Future Games. This is prior to Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joining the band. And Christine McVie is one of my favorites—I think she’s just fabulous. She is just awesome! So, I listened to a couple of her tunes and I thought about trying some covers, but we have so much other material that we haven’t gotten to it yet. But she’s got one song on there, “Show Me A Smile” and it’s just… so sweet. It sounds like to me, and I don’t know her at all, but it sounds like she’s singing to her little son or something. It’s just a beautiful song, so maybe one day we’ll get to it.
But yeah, I pulled out The Joy of Cooking record [Laughs] from back in the late ’60s for my first record and reworked, “Sometimes Like a River”. It’s amazing to me that these vinyl records have stayed with me all these years because I used to move around a lot. But, anyway, they’re here. And Neil’s got a huge Jimmy Reed collection; we’ve got quite a mix downstairs where I keep them all with our turntable. [Laughs]
I have to ask—what turntable do you use?
Oh, gosh… it’s a BNL, I think! I’m pretty sure.
I know we’re running up on time, here, but is there anything else that you’d like to talk about?
Well, we are going to playing a lot of our new songs out there. In fact, I’m going over to the studio today to do a little vocal overdubbing. But we’ve got the songs worked out, and the band’s going to rehearse next week in Washington before we start off. We’re doing a taping for Letterman on the 26th, but I’m not quite sure when it’s airing. I don’t think it’s airing the same day. That’s super exciting! I’ve done Conan and Jimmy Fallon a couple of times each, but now we’re moving into the 11:30 time slot! [Laughs] We’re movin’ up!
Pegi Young & The Survivors
March 21: Sixth & I, Washington, DC
March 22: The Chameleon, Lancaster, PA
March 23: The Speakeasy at Local 121, Providence, RI
March 25: Joe’s Pub, New York, NY
March 28: Ortliebs Lounge, Philadelphia, PA
March 29: House Of Blues, Boston, MA
April 1: The LAB, Asheville, NC
April 2: The Double Door Inn, Charlotte, NC
April 4: Freedom Hall Civic Center, Johnson City, TN*
April 5: Big Sandy Superstore Arena, Huntington, WV*
April 6: Indiana University, Bloomington, IN*
April 7: Coronado PAC, Rockford, IL
April 8: Holland Performing Arts Center, Omaha, NE*
April 10: Gallagher Bluedorn PAC, Cedar Falls, IA*
April 14: Overture Center for the Arts, Madison, WI*
April 15: Paramount Theatre, Cedar Rapids, IA*
*Supporting Willie Nelson