Pegi Young's Best Songs: 10 Great Tracks From the Undersung Songwriter
The late Pegi Young may be publicly known for her 36-year marriage to the legendary songwriter Neil Young, but she had a music career full of heart and candor that stood on its own. That was just one facet of a life lived on her own terms. The musician and philanthropist passed away at 66 on New Year’s Day (Jan. 1) after a bout with cancer, leaving behind a legacy of selfless action -- and an underrated songbook.
Two years after their 2014 divorce, Pegi and Neil had little contact -- but ran into each other backstage at the final Bridge School Benefit, the annual fundraising concert for the nonprofit org Pegi co-founded in 1986. For any recent, high-profile divorcee, it could have been the recipe for disaster -- but it didn’t sway her from keeping the show humming along. “Take the high road, that’s my approach,” she stated to Rolling Stone. “The concert is about the kids and the preschool, and that’s so much more important than the Neil and Pegi drama.”
And she never stopped taking the high road. Her passing marks the end of a philanthropic career spanning over three decades in the form of The Bridge School, an institution for children with physical and speech impairments inspired by her son Ben Young and stepson Zeke Young. All the while, she also recorded five sterling Americana albums, credited alone and with her backing band the Survivors -- a crack ensemble that included organist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Kelvin Holly, bassist Shonna Tucker and others.
Her 2007 self-titled debut was lovely yet unassuming, featuring heavy contributions from Neil. But as a songwriter, Pegi Young grew funnier, bolder, more confident all on her own -- culminating in her final album, 2014’s Raw, in which she wrung out her grief, confusion and loss in the wake of the divorce.
Even so, she refused to take cheap shots. “I guess I just want people to know … there’s not only hope, but forgiveness,” she said of Raw’s message. “I’m a living persona of that.” There’s plenty of forgiveness in Young’s music -- and a wealth of other feelings. “Key to Love” teases out the inexplicability of eros with haunting detail. “Flatline Mama” and “Trouble in a Bottle” are tongue-in-cheek odes to chemical dependency. And for any jilted lover needing a jolt of camaraderie, “Why” or “Gave My Life to You” is your poison.
Forget the tabloids and associations: Pegi Young leaves behind a mellow, intelligent body of work in her own right. Here’s a rundown of her ten greatest songs.
“Heterosexual Masses” (from Pegi Young, 2007)
Neil kicked off his 1992 album Harvest Moon with “Unknown Legend,” a wistful ballad about meeting Pegi when she worked at the Bella Vista restaurant in Woodside, California. (“I used to order just to watch her float across the floor,” he sang.) Fifteen years later, Pegi released her own dispatch from her old day job: “Heterosexual Masses,” a satirical jab at the mating rituals of straights. It’s about watching the singles dance every night while tending bar: “You can have such fun / Telling lies and pinching asses,” she croons about the caddish regulars. Where “Unknown Legend” was a dewy and romantic how-did-you-guys-meet account, “Masses” is uproarious fun from the opposite side of the bar.
“Key to Love” (from Pegi Young, 2007)
As a recording artist, Young was a late bloomer -- she didn’t record her own music in a studio until she was in her fifties. Better late than never: for her self-titled debut, she simply dug out her old compositions from her “little brown suitcase” she habitually carried around and sang them. She’d been hiding some serious gems: “Key to Love” is a simmering waltz for the wee small hours. “Drive without your glasses / To a moonlit path at night,” she sings. The late slide guitarist Ben Keith plays like he’s in soft focus.
“Starting Over” (from Foul Deeds, 2010)
Young stretched out for her second album Foul Deeds, which featured a mix of moody originals and covers by Lucinda Williams, Devendra Banhart and more. “Starting Over” is the best of the bunch, written for an unnamed friend whose wife passed after 50 years of marriage. “It was just too stunning to think, ‘Well, now what?’” she recalled of the memorial service. From Young’s observance of grief came this bittersweet country shuffle, illustrating the baby steps into normalcy after a traumatic event.
“Traveling” (from Foul Deeds, 2010)
Written after Young spied a moving van on the side of the road, “Traveling” flips an everyday sight into a story rich with mystery. “Someone’s always traveling / They’re moving out, they’re moving in,” Young sings, leaving the details hanging. She recorded the tune with a full band, but this stripped-down take is the keeper -- mostly just Young and a spooky Wurlitzer part from Spooner Oldham.
“Trouble in a Bottle” (from Bracing for Impact, 2011)
Young turned up both her R&B leanings and waggish sense of humor on 2011’s excellent Bracing for Impact. “Trouble in a Bottle” boasts a particularly effortless groove even while Young chides and cautions about the seductive power of the bottle: “You’ll hate yourself in the morning / You didn’t heed another warning.” The slippery, Memphis-style horn section helps this harsh medicine go down.
“Lie” (from Bracing for Impact, 2011)
A dejected ballad about being left “alone with the wind,” “Lie” almost foreshadows her scorned-lover persona six years later on Raw. It’s also a plain gorgeous performance, with Oldham delivering raindrops of Rhodes and Neil cranking his electric low in the mix. Bracing also features a cover of Neil’s “Doghouse,” a very deep cut from his 1980s Bluenotes days about being thrown out by the wifey. Taken with the accusatory “Lie,” one could suspect a deeper undercurrent going on.
“I Be Weary” (from Lonely in a Crowded Room, 2014)
“I was always a shy girl,” Young remembered in a 2017 interview. “I always felt a little insecurity — more than a little insecurity.” She never expressed this feeling more touchingly than on “I Be Weary,” the opener to her gorgeous 2014 album Lonely in a Crowded Room. For any late bloomer who occasionally wants to “crawl back in the cocoon,” Young’s got you. And with a wizened folk-rock gem like Room under her belt, her insecurity may have been misplaced.
“Walking on the Tightrope” (from Lonely in a Crowded Room, 2014)
A jangling highlight from Room featuring a lively harmonica lead from Mickey Raphael, “Walking on the Tightrope” finds Young’s character “Dancing on the edge of a dream / Trying to let go of the past.” Her relatively flat singing voice, sometimes a mixed bag on previous albums, finds its perfect backdrop. The power-popping “Tightrope” paints her as a won’t-back-down underdog -- one who’s having the time of her life as she slays psychological monsters.
“Gave My Best to You” (from Raw, 2017)
If Young had subtly touched on marital uncertainty into her songs before, her post-divorce album Raw throws the entire cocktail in your face and leaves you with the tab. “Gave My Best to You” is an excoriation of Young’s mid-life crisis: “Everyone’s disposable / Everyone’s replaceable / Everyone’s dispensable!” she seethes over a honky-tonk backing.
“You Won’t Take My Laugh Away From Me” (from Raw, 2017)
In 2014, Neil released Storytone, a maudlin, Hallmark-worthy album about his new partner, Daryl Hannah. Where that album came off as tone-deaf, Raw remains vital -- and “You Won’t Take My Laugh Away From Me” is the acidic highlight. As a song, it’s rough-hewn, but what it represents is pure gold: Pegi having the last laugh. She literally breaks out into chuckles at the end as the band pounds out one last caveman chord, like she’s parodying Crazy Horse on Ragged Glory.
Grace, heart and no small amount of humor: that’s what we’ll all miss about Pegi.