Jesse Colin Young Keeps Tripping On His Roots

The eternal Youngblood gets it together with reflections on music, motorcycles and memories of the Youngbloods

Jesse Colin Young (Art: Ron Hart)

Jesse Colin Young has had three major passions in his life — his family, his music and his motorcycles.

At age 78, the man who was born Perry Miller retains a focus on each, and while his musical legacy will always be secure — thanks in part to his primary role in the Youngbloods, the seminal folk/country/rock band he cofounded in 1965 — it was a bout with lyme disease that sidelined him for nearly a dozen years. Fortunately, his family and his passion for biking kept him grounded, but when he was finally able to make a return to music last year with Dreamers, his first album in 13 years, his return to music made his life feel fully complete. 

Now, with a new project, tellingly-titled Highway Troubadour, a circle is complete as well. Spawned from a series of videos filmed by his wife Connie, it finds him offering up solo renditions of songs that have become synonymous with his 55 year career. Some of the tracks will be familiar to his faithful followers — among them, “Quicksand,” ”Sugar Babe,”“Song for Juli” and “Darkness Darkness.” Others will be less so, given that a new song, “Tripping On My Roots,” was written specifically for his aforementioned video series. 


VIDEO: Jesse Colin Young Tripping On My Roots: Taj Mahal

“It was not an easy thing,” Young admits when asked about what it took to make the album. “It was a hard thing, but it was like, okay, let’s cheer ourselves up.’ So I made it in a studio which is close to my home, and that I thought that would be reasonably safe. I’d go out there three or four times a week, for three or four hours a day. I guess I got around 21 tunes recorded and once we started to mix it, it sounded pretty good.”

Young says that prior to 2019, lyme disease crippled him to the point where he was simply too weak to record. “It’s disabling,” he says. “I had no energy, no memory, just joint pain, muscle pain, nerve pain. Crazy shit. Anxiety. Tense anxiety. Panic attacks. Some people go all the way to bipolar. My wife got this pamphlet and I read it, and that’s when I realized I had lyme disease because before I had all the physical and psychological symptoms. I probably had it 20 years, half of it undiagnosed. I was in the woods all the time, and in the ‘60s lyme disease wasn’t discovered yet. It wasn’t until the ‘80s that they isolated it. My doctor, Dr. Horowitz, was always looking for a cure using a combination of five or six antibiotics. So five or six years ago I went on this regimen that he invented for his wife. She had it for two-and-a-half years, but now she’s asymptomatic. So for the past year and half years I’ve had no symptoms and no active lyme. It’s still still there, but now I’m a different guy.”


VIDEO: The Youngbloods “Get Together”

However one obvious question remains. Why isn’t “Get Together,” the Youngbloods’ biggest hit — albeit the one they didn’t write —not included on the new album?

“We had just done something with that last spring,” Young explains. “I released a new version with Steve Miller. It’s a beauty. We did it for a Hawaiian charity that distributes food to the hungry. But it needed some star power, and thankfully, Steve said, ‘I’m in!’ When he got off tour last fall, we added him on vocals and guitar. It’s a lot like the original, but Steve adds some real grit to it with his guitar playing. So having just done that, maybe ‘Get Together’ can be on a volume two.”

Indeed, Young says he’s delighted to become reacquainted with making music, especially given the fact that he was separated from it for so many years. “I’m carrying the whole thing,” he remarks, referencing the fact that the new album features only his vocals and guitar without any other embellishment. “It’s really exciting for me. It’s been a real adventure every day, working on my guitar playing. I’m even thinking about the next solo record. It was a little strange in the beginning, but it’s so familiar now. But there’s still a lot for me to relearn. When I sit down with the guitar every day, I still feel that way. I’m also working with my voice, and happily, it’s still there.”

That same enthusiasm is given his motorcycle, which he poses with on the album cover and which he’s pictured riding on in the booklet that’s tucked inside the album. Cycles, he says, have been a lifelong love. 

Highway Troubadour by Jesse Colin Young

“I think my mother must have parked my stroller besides a Harley,” he muses. “And then, when I was a kid, the Marlon Brando film ‘The Wild One’ came along. I wanted a Triumph, but I ended up with a ’52 Cushman Motor Scooter which I got it in South Florida and rode 1500 miles all the way back to Pennsylvania, cruising along at 35 miles per hour. That was a cold but wicked ride. But I had been dreaming about doing that since I was four or five. So I scootered out to Ohio State University where I was going to school and then I dropped out and experienced a Jack Kerouac on the road experience, turning the scooter into a Triumph. It was only $300 and I was in heaven.”

So too, his love of music was initiated early in his life, thanks to a hint of parental indoctrination. “One of the first records I ever owned was a Glenn Miller record,” he recalls. “My mother gave it to me. She set me up with a Victrola when I was eight, and there were a couple of Glenn Miller records in there that she may have forgotten about and that gave me an early taste for jazz.”

While Young had started his music career prior to the Youngbloods with his 1964 solo debut The Soul of a City Boy, his efforts began in earnest when he and fellow folksinger Jerry Corbitt joined forces as a duo that they dubbed The Youngbloods, taking the name from the title of Young’s second solo album. “It started from a friendship of Jerry and myself,” Young explains. “The guy had a beautiful baritone voice. So that worked that way for awhile and then we started into Elephant Mountain, our third record, and we moved to San Francisco. Then Corbitt, who was experimenting a lot with psychedelic drugs, said ‘I can’t fly anymore.’ So he quit the band. Charlie Daniels was our producer, and that was a great thing because he and Corbitt went off and started the Corbitt and Daniels Band. Corbitt and he clicked, but once again, when that band started to take off, Jerry quit again. He was part Irish and Indian, and he had a hard time with alcohol.”


AUDIO: The Youngbloods High On A Ridge Top

After the Youngbloods ran out of steam, and following a final album, High on a Ridge Top, Young then segued into a solo career which has yielded 18 of his own albums to date. 

“I have this recording that’s a history of my life,” Young says of his latest, the aforementioned Highway Troubadour. “Yet the first time I started recording those songs, I broke down in tears. Some big wave of emotion from those times of my life, whether it was related to ‘Four in the Morning’ which came from my Soul of a City Boy album, or ‘Quicksand’ which came from Elephant Mountain. They are my history and the most emotional part of my history. It caught me by surprise. I hadn’t sung some of those in twenty years, and the emotion just got me.” 


VIDEO: Jesse Colin Young “Cast A Stone”

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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