Folk royalty: Pegi Young warms up for festival

Fans are hoping for a surprise appearance by her legendary husband when Pegi Young &
The Survivors play three local shows this week. Image: Jay Blakesberg Fans are hoping for a surprise appearance by her legendary husband when Pegi Young & The Survivors play three local shows this week. Image: Jay Blakesberg

If you were devastated by the news that Neil Young won’t be playing at the Lockn’ (nee Interlocken) music festival this weekend, here’s some good news. You’ll still see a member of the Young clan at the fest.

Pegi Young, Neil’s wife of 35 years, launched her own solo singing career in 2007 and has since cranked out three records along with her legendary bandmates, piano player Spooner Oldham and bassist Rick Rosas. Pegi Young & The Survivors will take the stage early on September 6 and deliver its own brand of eclectic Southern rock in front of the Arrington, Virginia crowd.

Here’s some more good news. The trio, along with guitarist Kelvin Holly and drummer Phil Jones, both new to Young’s latest record Bracing for Impact, will bookend their Lockn’ appearance with Charlottesville gigs on September 4 at The Jefferson Theater and at Monticello on September 7 for the Harvest Heritage Festival.

“My band is just phenomenal,” Young said. “We keep moving forward. We go out and play music we feel satisfied with and put forth our best show every night.”

Young and the Survivors do a mix of tracks, written collaboratively among the band members, and covers of classic Americana tunes. While Young pens most of the lyrics for the originals, the latest LP also features Neil’s bar house romp “Doghouse.” It’s a contribution that works particularly well, according to Young, because she and her husband have similar songwriting styles.

“Some musicians might write strictly autobiographically, but neither one of us do,” she said. “There’s usually some inspiration that sparks the idea, but then they take off from there. They’re fiction.”

Young’s songs often are inspired by the darker side of life. Doom-and-gloomers “Flatline Mamma,” “Trouble in a Bottle,” and “Daddy Married Satan” each grace the new record. But there’s also a hint of hope in Young’s lyrics, not to mention plenty of jaunty melodies and horn runs to keep the audience upbeat and bouncing.

“That’s my specialty,” Young said. “My daughter calls them sad bastard songs. Sad songs with happy melodies.”

Young said her band’s covers have to be inspired, as well. Whether it’s her or one of her mates that brings the idea to the table, she insists the covers are always songs she can get inside and “deliver with conviction.” Over the years, that’s included tunes by Irma Thomas, Lucinda Williams, and Devandra Banhart, as well as rearrangements of her husband’s contemporaries.

“We take some liberties and hope the songwriters are O.K. with it,” Young said. “The other members of Crazy Horse have been very complimentary. Lucinda Williams—I got good feedback from her, as well as Devandra Banhart. It is nice that some of the artists we choose to cover have reached out.”

Young said her late-blooming music career and eclectic style have been inspired by her early days listening to music on the West Coast, when different genres started exploding in the U.S. She grew up fascinated by the public and college radio stations that were playing obscure music in styles she didn’t even know about.

“I loved that there were not such defined lines,” she said. “When FM radio started, it was all over the map. That was back in the day before it became a business. Everything has changed completely.”

Young has also changed a lot over the years. In addition to launching her music career, she and Neil founded The Bridge School in 1984 to help developmentally disabled children like their son Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy. It’s yet another cause for a duo devoted to an exhausting list of causes.

“It’s not really fatiguing to us because it’s such a joy and is having such a huge effect,” Young said. “The mission is to enable the students to achieve a certain level of competency. The big, over-arching goal is to enable participation through communication.”

Young said she’s had to deal with her own share of communication issues in her life. A self-described “really shy person,” she spent a decade singing back-up for her husband before gathering the gumption to put out her own release. Of course, having the backing of the guy who wrote “Old Man” is a pretty good way to ensure success.

“Neil has always believed in me,” Young said. “He’s a big supporter. I had written for years and he knew I did this when not a lot of other people knew. He just encourages people to express themselves in whatever their art form might be or their manner might be.”

Although they’re on the road separately these days, Young and her husband do still find opportunities to hit the stage together. And while what was lining up to be a great reunion opportunity at the Lockn’ festival won’t materialize, Young promises there will be other chances.

“We just celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary—we manage to find time together,” she said. “We try to intersect on the road as much as possible.”

So, any predictions about when those intersections might deliver fans a Young family sing-along?

“I learned a long time ago about trying to cast predictions.” Young said. “There is no cheese down that hole, as a friend used to say. Surprises are better.”

September 4 at The Jefferson

September 6 at Lockn’ Music Festival

September 7 at Heritage Harvest Festival