You wouldn’t need to know anything about Jubal Lee Young's background to hear that this is a cat who has the proverbial “it.” But heritage he has indeed. On his third album “The Last Free Place in America”, the only son of outlaw country-rock/Americana royals Steve Young (“Seven Bridges Road,” “Lonesome On’ry and Mean”) and Terrye Newkirk (“My Oklahoma”, “Come Home, Daddy”) comes ever more into his own.
Young’s smoky molasses-rasp of a baritone sounds both familiar and new at the same time on this collection of eleven originals and one cover (Richard Dobson’s “Piece of Wood and Steel.”). Along the way, Young conjures the spirits of everyone from John Lee Hooker on drone-y blues like “Boom, Boom, Boom” and “Dead Miners” to the classic rock of Bob Seger (“Piece of Wood and Steel”) to the sort of snakey-fiddle, cracked shot-glass outlaw country-rock Hank Jr. made back when he was still cool. (“Justice or Death.”)
Young has survived some dark times – when not working in radio (for Nashville’s once-ubercool WKDF), he spent his 20s drinking, drugging, and wrestling with his legacy by rocking way harder than was entirely necessary, and you can hear that era distilled to its purest essence in the midnight malevolence of “Animal Farm.” And on the jaunty, hilarious “I Refuse,” you can hear him exult in his relatively newfound comfort in his own skin.
Nowhere is Young’s soaring voice or sharp songwriting skills displayed in bolder relief than on the title track, which was inspired by a passage in the Woody Guthrie biography Ramblin’ Man. Late in his life, the disease-wracked and bottle-wrecked Guthrie had been institutionalized in a Brooklyn nuthouse, where at last he found relief from J. Edgar Hoover’s black-suited Red Scare inquisitors. “They decided he was probably harmless if he was in the nuthouse, so they kinda wrote him off,” says Young. “A couple of his Communist friends came by and were expressing concern for his well-being, and Woody said, ‘Y’all don’t worry about me. I’m okay. In here, I can stand up and say “I’m a Communist,” and they just look at me and say “Aw, he’s crazy.” This is the last free place in America.’ That whole book was a good read but that one story just jumped out at me – I thought ‘that’s a song.’
“It’s kinda still true,” Young continues. “We claim this is a free country and it’s not in a lot of ways. Whether the Constitution prohibits or not, the social mores will. The whole churchiness of America can be uptight.”
So too can be the Americana world Young is often lumped in with. “I’m okay with it,” he says. “I don’t know if they are okay with me, though. When the genre first started, it was a lot freer than what it is now.”
And just as Guthrie could only find freedom in a Brooklyn nuthouse, so too does Young look in Americana’s dark places. If Young is to dwell in Americana, he dwells in its slums – the back alleys where Patterson Hood passes a joint to Scott Miller while Todd Snider sleeps one off nearby.
-John Nova Lomax