Pegi Young’s powerful new album, Raw, gets right to the point. Opening cut “Why” kicks off with Young’s impassioned alto, demanding, “Why’d you have to ruin my life? Why’d you have to be so mean?” Over the soulful Americana rock of her band the Survivors – led by legendary keyboardist/songwriter Spooner Oldham – Young taps into a surprisingly primal force.
There’s a reason for that. Young wrote most of Raw in the wake of her 2014 separation and divorce from Neil Young, to whom she’d been married thirty-six years. Over the decades, the pair had raised a family, made music together, and worked to support northern California’s Bridge School for severely disabled children. Pegi founded the Bridge School in 1986 after being unable to find the right kind of care for their son, Ben, who has cerebral palsy.
[Raw] was very cathartic for me,” Young says. “What happened was real, but I also look at this record as having a universal quality to it. I’m certainly not the only one to go through a late-in-life divorce, and I’m not going to be the last. But in my case, it was so painful because we’d been together for so long.”
Yet the songs – most co-written with guitarist Kelvin Holly and Oldham – aren’t all expressions of anger. The first track to be released from the album is “Too Little Too Late,” a raw and poetic psalm of regret, the truth-tellin’ “Gave My Best to You” and a rockin’ update on “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” convey resilience and sass. A gorgeous, stripped-down version of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter” explores the grace of forgiveness. As a whole, the album is a journey from shock, to rage, to sadness, to strength, but not necessarily in that order.
Young sees Raw as the soundtrack to the seven stages of grief. “It’s not a linear process,” she says. “You bounce back and forth. And each song could be sung by either party.”
In addition to chronicling this new chapter of her life, Raw also reflects the music Young has been drawn to since growing up in northern California in the 1960s. “Yes, I remember dancing in the living room to Motown,” she says. “I’ve always loved harmonies, lyrics, and rhythm. I used to go to the Fillmore and the Avalon and Winterland.”
Although it would be decades before she would take her work to the stage, Young was writing poetry in grade school and studying it in college. She picked up an acoustic and taught herself some chords and folk covers, and became a bona fide hippie nomad: hitchhiking around the country, with stops in Vermont and Canada. By 1972, she’d settled down with her dog in a teepee in northern California. “I bought it for $200,” she says. “My first home.” In 1974, she was working in a restaurant and living in the teepee when she met Neil Young.
The rock & roll road, family life, tending to the Young children, and the creation and operation of the Bridge School kept her busy. But by the early ‘aughts, Young, having toured with her ex-husband and spent time in the studio with the best of the best, was ready to become a recording artist in her own right, encouraged by Neil’s longtime manager Elliot Roberts. Two songs written during “the teepee years” ultimately graced her eponymous 2007 debut album. “I mostly set out to do covers,” Young says of that collection. “I was really shy about breaking out my own songs, but about three days into it, my guitarist original lead guitarist, Anthony Crawford convinced me to bring in my stuff.” The country-rock-tinged album also marked her first recorded work with Spooner Oldham and the late pedal steel icon Ben Keith, both of whom she’d sang alongside on Neil’s tours. They formed the original core of Pegi Young and the Survivors.
Raw features Oldham and several more recent Survivors, including Muscle Shoals-based guitarist Kelvin Holly, a veteran of Little Richard’s band; drummer Phil Jones; and the newest “Survivor” Shonna Tucker (Drive-By Truckers), who’ve added soulful muscle to the sonic texture. The group lost their original Bassist the renown Rick Rosas in 2014.
“With Kelvin in the band, we’re going to a place in my wheelhouse, more R & B stuff, like Otis Clay’s ‘Trying to Live My Life Without You,’ which also has the great horn sounds [from the TexiCali Horns] and harmonies of the girl groups I listened to as a kid.”
Of her five albums, Raw is the first on which Young is credited with production duties. Her M.O: “Be authentic, be true, sing what’s in your heart. It’s not about making it perfect, it’s about letting it be real, sometimes raw and flawed, as long as it’s true.” This also includes highlighting her band, the Survivors, whose camaraderie she credits with strengthening and inspiring her. That is most evident on unabashed rocker “You Won’t Take My Laugh Away From Me,” a defiant strut of hard-won confidence that ends with Young’s joyful laughter.
“My laugh has always been rather distinctive,” Young says. “It’s something I can hold on to that’s still mine.” As for the future, Young has started work on a memoir and making plans for a tour around Raw’s release. “I am a survivor,” she relates. “Although we named the band The Survivors after Ben Keith died, We didn’t have any idea some ten years ago, what an apt name it would turn out to be! I’ve gone through a lot of good stuff and scary stuff, and I will keep going forward.”