Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Interview | Pegi Young: "You've just got to give back."

I'm inside Pegi Young's tour bus.

For a while, it's just me and Pegi, sitting next to a lone open window. It's mostly dark, and the only sounds are our voices. Until, that is, when two members of her band walk in and join us for a few minutes.

First comes Spooner Oldham, who is famous for recording in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on songs such as "Mustang Sally" and "When A Man Loves A Woman." He also played on Neil Young's Harvest Moon. Oldham now plays piano and the Hammond B3 in Pegi Young's band, The Survivors.

I say hello to Spooner, and he looks at me -- almost through me -- with eyes that are heavy and old.

"It's nice to meet you," he says.

"Likewise," I respond.

Later walks in Rick Rosas, who I last saw at Bonnaroo in 2011, when he was playing as a bassist with the reformed and reunited Buffalo Springfield.

"The Bonnaroo show was a thrill," I tell him. "What a memory."

"Thank you so much," Rosas responds. "What a great time that was."

Pegi looks at me and says, "I've got an amazing band." We talk about them for a bit.

"I've known Rick and Spooner the longest," she explains. "I've known Rick since back in the 80's. Spooner and I were trying to remember when we met, but it might have been around the International Harvesters time. He worked with Neil on Comes a Time, but I was not there -- Neil and I had met, but we were not together yet. But he's just a genius. And I've gotten to be in other bands with him -- Neil's bands -- the Friends and Relatives tour. That was a great tour -- Duck Dunn on bass, Jimmy Keltner on drums."

Legendary names float in and out of our conversation. This is the life that Pegi Young lives.

I ask her about her last time in St. Louis, in 2007, when she opened for her husband, Neil, at the Fox Theatre.

"That was a beautiful theater, I remember that," she says. "It was just gorgeous. I'm not sure where we are in St. Louis right now. I saw a big sign down there called 'The Grove.'"

Pegi continues to talk about her band, which once included the late Ben Keith, who, as you may know, first played with Neil Young on Harvest in 1972.

"You know, we lost Ben," she says, looking out the window with a long stare. "His style of playing was so unique -- I haven't tried any pedal steel player since. We've got one song in the new batch (for a new album) that is probably going to want pedal steel, so I might venture back into that territory. We miss Ben as a human being, as an incredible musician -- he could play anything. And we was just a dear friend."

I mention to Pegi that her husband once said that were some songs that he would never play live again, because he would never try to replace Ben Keith.

She looks me in the eye.

"Yeah. Yeah...and I have the same situation," Pegi responds. "I, of course, don't have anywhere near the catalog Neil has, but there are certain songs that the steel is so integral, like "Hickory Wind." I didn't write that -- it was a Gram Parsons song -- but without the steel...I can't do it or "Key to Love." I wrote "Key To Love" when I was like 20, and who would have dreamed I would have the great Ben Keith play that incredible part on it."

The Survivors' current touring lineup includes a new guitar player, Kelvin Holly, who played with Little Richard for fifteen years, and drummer Phil Jones. Bracing for Impact is the name of their latest album.

"When we get done with this run, we're going to go back to the studio," Pegi says. "We've been traveling a lot, and sleeping a lot on the bus."

Again, she stares out the window.

"I've been on the road for most of my adult life, so it's very natural," Pegi continues. "And we all live on the same bus, which is a little different when I'm traveling with Neil, and then it's our bus and it's comfortable -- it's our family bus. But this bus, I've got the back lounge, which has been converted to Princess Pegi world."

I change the subject to her earlier days, when she was 20 and living in a teepee.

"Card-carrying hippie," she says with a laugh. "I don't have a teepee currently. Although, since I've been living on the ranch in California with Neil, which has been 35 years now, we did have a teepee set up on the lower lawn for a while."

We both laugh. I then ask her if she read Neil's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, which was released last summer.

"Oh yeah, I was an editor," she explains. "I made sure he spelled names right, and ran through sequence of events. His life's been so full, sometimes he gets things mixed up. But as far as content or anything like that, that's not my job."

"Would you ever write a book? You've led an interesting life," I tell her.

"Yeah, I would probably write a book eventually," she says. "I have had an interesting life, you're right. Both before I married Neil and since."

Bracing for Impact features "I Don't Want To Talk About It," a cover by the late Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who was the subject of Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done."

"I did not know Danny," Pegi says. "He had passed before I was in the picture. But, he wrote a beautiful song, and I love that song. When I do a cover, it's really important to me that I can get inside the song, so you're not just singing it without meaning it. And then you try to do it justice to the writer, and in this case, his memory."

Pegi Young did not release her first album until 2007. I ask why she waited.

"I was just way too shy," she says. "Way too shy."

"But now you're on Letterman," I quip.

"Yeah, shoot," she says, eyes getting big. "I've gotten over it, apparently."



We both laugh for a few seconds, until our conversation turns to the Bridge School, which she co-founded in 1986. The Bridge School, explained on its website, is "a non-profit organization whose mission is to ensure that individuals with severe speech and physical impairments achieve full participation in their communities through the use of augmentative & alternative means of communication and assistive technology applications and through the development, implementation and dissemination of innovative life-long educational strategies."

"I'm not hands on day-to-day anymore, but I'm on the phone and email with our Executive Director all the time," Pegi explains. "So, much of what I envisioned originally was making this have a global impact, because it's not just kids that can get to Hillsboro, California, to benefit from what we're doing there. The school is transitionary by design, so the kids stay with us for a period of time before they transition back into their home school districts. And we follow them, and we work with the receiving teams. Participation through communication."

We switch back to her music, which now consists of three albums, largely of original material. I ask about the one she's about to record, and if she is as passionate about analog as her husband.

"Obviously, I get very heavily influenced by living with the King of Analog," she says, laughing. "But, yeah, I am. I just had an interesting conversation with an engineer yesterday who we're thinking of working with, and he was all about digital. And I was like, "What? We have to roll tape!"

We talk more about the King of Analog, Neil Young.

"I've been lucky to be in a lot of his bands, and now he's in Crazy Horse, so, obviously, they don't need anyone else right now," she says. "Neil and I talk every day. He's super happy playing with the Horse right now."

"We're really normal," she continues. "I'm in my garden. He's playing with his model trains. You know, I cook dinner. We live a very normal life, really, with very extraordinary moments mixed in."

I ask about those extraordinary moments, and her overall outlook on life.

"It's really simple, Jason," Pegi says. "You've just got to give back."

Amen.

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