Success from the side

After years as a side-man, Craig Young is home making his own music on his own terms

Published on October 18, 2013

Craig Young remembers, as a three-year-old, standing against the table in his family’s home, listening to his father sing.

The song was “The Penny Fair’s in the Cove” — a tune he’s heard his dad sing a hundred times since — and his father was strumming a guitar, accompanying himself.

Young has a clear memory of the sound of his father’s guitar and how it made him feel. He couldn’t put it into words as a toddler, but he knew he loved it and wanted, one day, to play the guitar himself.

Less than 10 years later, using his guitar to accompany the youth choir at his church in Ramea, Young decided if he could make a career out of playing music, he’d do it.

Country music was his genre of choice; thanks to his father, whom he says “lived and breathed” country. Young was almost a teenager before he realized there was any other style of music.

“In my house, that was all that was played,” he explains. “Our record player was stacked up with records, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and all that kind of stuff. It was constant.”

With his dad’s hand-me-down guitar, Young taught himself to play, eventually forming bands in high school and playing at dances. Living in Burgeo at age 15, he was invited to play in a band with some guys in their 30s, who allowed him to play solos and breaks. He learned from the band’s other guitar player, by trying to copy what he did.

Eventually, Young moved to Halifax to study music at Dalhousie, but dropped out after a year when he was invited to play in a band with George Canyon.

“I thought, why do I need to be here studying what I want to do when a door has opened up for me to do just that?’ Young says.

After that band broke up, Young found himself with a thriving career as a side musician with various country acts. Touring with Juno nominee Jason McCoy, he got the chance to open up for country star Terri Clark.

“Terri would come out when me and Jason were playing and just watch me play,” Young says. “Every show, they said, she’d come over on the side and listen for a while. At the end of the shows she came up to me and told me how much she enjoyed my playing. They went their way and I went mine, and when I got back to Calgary, where I was living at the time, I got a note from her band leader, asking if I wanted to audition for the band.”

While many country artists go to Nashville in search of a break, Young went down there already having one, and his gig in the Terri Clark Band lasted more than nine years. He moved to St. John’s in late 2008 — marking the first time he had ever visited the capital city, apart from a 2001 Mile One show with Clark.

Since he’s been home, he has released two solo CDs — “Back Home,” which won the 2011 MusicNL award for country album of the year, and the recently released “Black Diamond Strings,” which, he learned last week, has earned him four 2013 MusicNL nominations: DC Design House Male Artist of the Year, CBC Entertainer of the Year, Country Artist of Group of the Year and Bell Aliant Fan’s Choice Album of the Year. He’s also nominated for the Side Musician of the Year award.

Young, who has four Canadian Country Music awards under his belt as a side musician, says he understands the value of award nominations and was shocked to realize people think of him as more than a side musician.

He also doesn’t really think of himself as a country musician.

“People say that about me, because of the sound of my voice. Because it’s such a baritone voice, they think of Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash or even Garth Brooks. I don’t see that as bad, but I don’t emulate those guys. I don’t really look at the lines anymore. This is the only voice I’ve got, and I just tend to let it go naturally where it wants to go. My music is just my music and if you want to put a name on it, I guess you’d say it’s some sort of folk music.”

“Black Diamond Strings” has a few original songs and some traditional material as well as instrumentals — Young displays a focus, like he always has, on guitar playing before singing, instead of the other way around.

Though he didn’t write the other tunes, he has made them his own, putting his own stamp and personal, storytelling style on them, and added a family connection: his two sisters, Rebecca and Frances, sing on the album, and local musicians like Duane Andrews, Glen Parsons and Alex Dinn make appearances. The result is a collection of songs that span from the Larry Cordle title track to Scottish reel “Flowers of Edinburgh” to Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”

Young engineered, produced and mixed the album himself in his at-home studio (and has begun producing other local artists’ records as well), and that makes him appreciate his MusicNL nominations all the more.

“I’m really proud of the fact that it’s been given the thumbs up. Just the fact that when all these people went to pick out which guy should be in these categories, my name kept coming back around. I’m proud and a little bit shocked.”

Young visited The Telegram’s studio earlier this week — see to watch him performing his original song, “The Ballad of Henry Rose.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury