The song started as a poem on a postcard to a brother in prison. It was first recorded in the ‘90s on an album nobody bought. I first heard it in Nashville last month, sung by Joe Pug, a 30-year-old rising star of deep, dark pop songs.
“This next one is by an Austin songwriter named Harvey Young,” Pug said at the High Watt Club, and I stood there, stunned by the incongruity of the moment. This hip “new Dylan” was covering a song by Tex Thomas (Harvey Young), whose Dangling Wranglers terrorized the Austin’s country music scene of the ‘80s. Led by Young and his musical sidekick Danny Levin, those raucous R&B cowboys played Hut’s every Sunday for a decade. But even possessing some of the best musicians in town, the talk was always about the crazed antics of “The Rawhide Messiah” Young, who possessed the energy and the ethics of a profane preacher. Nobody could talk down or out-drink or over-entertain Tex Thomas.
The rumor was that he also wrote great songs, but I never got close enough to the hearth, hanging back with the coke whores and lip-chewers and the guys with the skunkweed pockets. More drugs than hamburgers were sold in Hut’s on Sunday nights, let me tell you.
Back at Nashville’s High Watt, where the closest to a drug deal was someone buying a beer in thanks for a Benadryl, Joe Pug stepped up to the mic and started:
From deep dark wells comes pure clean water
and the ice will melt as the day gets hotter
and the night grows old as the sun climbs into the sky
The club grew quiet except for the voice and the strum. And then came the chorus, with a melody that packed more of the meaning:
As long as you’re not finished, you can start all over again
As long as you’re not finished, you can start all over again
When this beautiful song about hope and rebirth was over the crowd erupted and I felt a little low. I moved to Austin in 1984 and yet I didn’t know Harvey Thomas Young had such inspiring songs in him. I’d heard all the drug stories, but didn’t know this wildman had poetry in his soul. I was reminded of the time at SXSW circa 1991 when the great Memphis musician Jim Dickinson introduced a song by Blaze Foley to zero reaction. “Haven’t y’all heard of Blaze Foley?” he said to blank stares. This was just two years after Foley was shot to death on West Mary Street. “He’s from right here in Austin and he was a great songwriter. Ya oughta be ashamed.”
Harvey Young, now 64, never stopped writing songs, even though his heyday in the Austin music scene was over two decades ago. He just released his first album since 1995, More Than We Was, to get down for posterity such deep and wondrous songs as “Vagabond Soul” and “Don’t Say No.” The theme of all his material, Young says, is that life is a gift to embrace with both hands, even when things aren’t going great.
Young possesses what could kindly be called “a songwriter’s voice,” but the songs of this musical grandfather run around in your mind when you’re asleep if you listen to them late at night.
“My parents used to take me to Hut’s to see the Dangling Wranglers when I was nine years old,” said Young’s guitarist Gabe Rhodes, whose mother Kimmie goes back with Harvey Young to Lubbock in the ‘60s. “And I didn’t realize how much that music had sunk in subconsciously until I started playing those old songs with Harvey (recently). “We’d play ‘Highways of Gold’ or ‘Fugitive Animal’ and I’d be thinking ‘I KNOW that song!’ They never left me.”
We were talking at Guero’s on Wednesday, where I met with Young and Pug to discuss their unlikely mentor/protégé relationship. Pug later joined Young and his newest Wranglers (Levin, Rhodes, bassist Zeke Jarmon and fiddler Ian Stewart) for a version of “Deep Dark Wells” that aired live on Sun Radio 100.1 FM. “Harvey’s songs are part pop, part psalms,” said Pug, who moved to Austin from Chicago almost five years ago. “I think some of them are worthy of the Great American Songbook.”
The spirituality of Young’s music was preserved in the ‘80s in the collection Hut’s Hymnal compiled by Casey Monahan, who now heads the state government’s Texas Music Office. Nearly 25 years later, Monahan was the link between Young and Pug, turning the young songwriter onto the West Texas “warrior poet” about four years ago. Born Joseph Pugliese in Maryland, the wavy-haired Pug was a young playwright hopeful who dropped out of the University of North Carolina in 2005 to become a singer-songwriter in Chicago. Carpentry paid the bills, but at nights Pug hit the open mikes and assembled enough good material to record his first EP Nation of Heat. Before it became commonplace for musicians to give away their music to help create a fanbase, Pug handed out and mailed CD samplers to anyone who was vaguely interested and even a few who weren’t. But the music resonated and Pug ended up selling 20,000 copies of Heat. Leadoff track “Hymn #101,” embraced by NPR as the work of a rising songwriter, opened the doors on a career boosted by a two-month stint in the U.S. and Europe opening for Steve Earle on his Townes Van Zandt tribute tour.
A taste for Texas
Night after night, only two men came onstage with their acoustic guitars: Pug, then Earle. It was a master class in songwriting and performing for the kid from Maryland, whose compositional roots kept taking him to Texas. Such Lone Star songwriters as Earle, Van Zandt, Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Gilmore and Butch Hancock connected deeply with Pug, so after the Earle gig ended, he decided to move to Austin. He wanted to breathe in the air that had exhaled such tender masculinity in song. Pug had just released his full-length debut Messenger to critical raves and was ready to embark on his next chapter.
Monahan was friends with Pug’s label head Logan Rogers at Lightning Rod Records and he arranged a “welcome to Austin” breakfast with Pug at Cisco’s in 2010. During the meal, Monahan’s phone rang and he said he had to take it. “It’s someone who might be interested in my rent house,” he said. As coincidence would have it, the caller was Pug’s girlfriend Jamie Zanelotti (The Hems) and by the end of the week the former high school sweethearts were Monahan’s tenants.
Between their houses is a shed where Monahan played records by some of his favorite songwriters from Texas. “Joe was such a fan of the Flatlanders,” said Monahan, “and I wanted him to hear some of the other greats from Lubbock, so I played David Halley, Eddie Beethoven, R.C. Banks and Harvey Young.” Pug soaked it all in, but that Young song “Start Again” was the one that really stalked his writer’s mind.
Pug played Young’s 1995 CD Highways of Gold over and over and learned the chords and words to the #12 track without ever really knowing the title. After recording it as “Deep Dark Wells” and putting it on his 2012 LP The Great Despiser, he received a call from Harvey a few weeks before the LP’s release, thanking him for recording “Start Again.” Oops. The Pug album was already printed and ready to ship. “Ah, don’t worry ‘bout it man,” Young said with a laugh. “I think that’s what the (Mapleshade) label called it. I never did have a name for it myself.”
The lyrics for “Deep Dark Wells” came from a postcard that Young was going to send to his brother Norbert, in prison for bank fraud, but it was intercepted by Monahan while collecting lyrics for Hut’s Hymnal.
“It’s the only song we do that I didn’t write and we play it every night,” said Pug of the Young cover that he’s grown so close to. “It’s like marrying a woman with a kid and eventually the kid becomes your son. I identify with ‘Deep Dark Wells’ so strongly that if we have a short 10-song set, that’s one that we’d play.”
A family’s deep, dark wells
Born in 1951, Young grew up on a farm near Littlefield, the hometown of Waylon Jennings. Toddler “Tommy” moved with his family to Bakersfield, where his father was an in-demand lap steel player. Harvey Sr. was always on the road, touring with Patsy Cline for almost two years, so he became almost a mythic hero to his oldest son.
With a new brother and sister for Tommy, the family moved back to Texas in the early ‘60s and bought a farm in Farwell, near the New Mexico border. On July 4, 1964, Young’s parents and younger siblings Norbert and Debra, were coming to pick him up from his aunt and uncle’s farm, where a 13-year-old Tommy had worked all day. But Tommy heard a horrible crash about a quarter mile from the farm and went running. It was the family car, broadsided on that country road by a drunk driver. Harvey Young Sr. was dead. The rest of the family was hospitalized.
“I was not the same after that, as you could imagine,” said Young, whose mother Pauline also almost died in the crash. “I had been a good student, testing in the top 4% in the state, but my mind was just in the clouds. I had been emotionally destroyed, so I built a wall around myself so it wouldn’t happen again.”
Young found solace and release in the set of drums his father had given him just a few weeks earlier. “He said I should learn to play an instrument I didn’t have to tune,” said Young, who dropped out of high school to play drums for bands in Lubbock.
“I was scared of Tommy Young, which is what we called him back then,” said R.C. Banks, who moved from Lubbock to Austin in the late ‘60s to play music. “He was a tough sumbitch and he carried a chain with him,” said Banks. “Plus his Uncle Boozie was a gangster. You were wise to stay away from the Youngs.” But Banks’ band Showdown needed a drummer. And Tommy had a van, which was really the main reason Banks hired him. But in an O. Henrian twist, Young sold the van for a plane ticket to Austin and rent money.
“I had been in Austin about a year and I was wonderin’ what the big deal was,” said Young. “But then one day (in 1973) I went to a concert at Hill On the Moon on City Park Road and that changed the way I thought about music. It was the Storm, with Jimmie Vaughan, opening. Then Roky Erickson (with 13th Floor Elevators), who had just gotten out of the state mental hospital. And then Willie Nelson. That show made me realize that rock and country and blues could all fit together.”
Young was a good drummer, able to play everything from “Cisco Kid” to “Walkin’ the Floor Over You,” but he was also a songwriter on the side and came to rehearsal one day with an original composition he wanted Showdown to work up. “We fired him on the spot,” Banks laughed. “If you were a drummer, you kept your songs to yourself.”
But the material Young was writing was good and Banks, who was dating Chris O’Connell of Asleep At the Wheel at the time, suggested that Young pitch songs to the Wheel. Harvey ended up going on tour with the Western-swing band as a roadie/gofer and that’s when he met pianist Levin, who’s still his musical spouse 40 years later. The pair collaborated on “Don’t Get Caught In the Rain” for O’Connell, hitting the country Top 40, just barely. The Wheel also recorded Young’s “Baby.” Getting those first two cuts did everything for the songwriter’s confidence.
Young, who has always held day jobs as a rock mason or carpenter, was especially moved by Nelson’s 1975 masterpiece of spiritual redemption. “My dream was to one day make a record as good as Red Headed Stranger,” Young said, laughing. “Still dreaming.”
But Young was so serious about songcraft that, at age 25, he bought a 3 ½ acre spread on the San Gabriel River in Liberty Hill to use as a writer’s retreat. He’s lived there since 1976, the last 33 years with wife Patti.
He also kept an apartment in Austin- party central- during his 14 years fronting Tex Thomas and the Dangling Wranglers. He admits that the drinking and drugging got out of hand, but he made time to write. It kept him from going over the edge.
The title track of the Dangling Wranglers’ second LP Screaming In the Night came from a nightmare Young had about the car crash that took his father and his childhood.
“Danny and I always took songwriting seriously,” he said. “The Wranglers were supposed to be the vehicle to get the songs out to the people, but that vehicle just ran over everybody.”
We’re sitting on a picnic table outside at Guero’s and Young, uncomfortable in the heat, swigs water from a gallon jug. Pug, whose Windfall album is coming out Feb. 24, drifts away to call Jamie, now his fiancée, but not before a little marital advice from Young. “You gotta swallow a lot of shit when you’re married,” he said. “But you do it because you love them. That’s the secret.”
His songs aspire to a purpose, Young said. “If people like to dance to some of them, that’s fine, but I never set out to write a dance song. For me, a song starts with an emotion I want to pursue. I try to write songs that could be helpful or hopeful to someone going through the same thing.”
When Pug sat back down, Harvey excused himself to get some chewing tobacco, making sure everyone was cool with that. It was a chance to talk about Young in ways that would sound ass-kissing if he were there. Pug said the songwriter Harvey most closely resembles, in terms of spiritual storytelling, is Billy Joe Shaver. Like Shaver, Young grew up writing poetry in grade school. Both writers have the gift of exploring a range of emotions in simple lines.
And both are veteran fist-fighters who have never really gotten over the hardships of their youth. Pug came to Texas to find out what it is about his favorite songwriters, and there it is. Life is hard because it should be. Such grace does not come without debts to pay.