June 10th, 2013 Last Updated on: June 10th, 2013
Interview by Dr. Dawn Karima Pettigrew, Powwows.com Music Editor
Grammy Finalist. NAMMY winner. International celebrity. Passionate Advocate. Award-winning musical artist Jimmy Lee Young is a dynamic singer, songwriter and humanitarian. In a candid visit, Young opens up about his drive to succeed, his pursuit of important charitable causes and his dedication to his fans.
Q.What do you wish we knew about you and about your music right now that we don't already know? Tell us, please.
A: When I was very little, my parents played “Silent Night” for me, over and over, so I would take a nap before midnight mass. Later, in the middle of services the choir began singing Silent Night- when they were done I kept going- loudly– in key! I was tiny! It was a moment, and the priest said, “Let the child sing!” It was apparent from childhood that I had a voice to sing with, and that I loved music. I am obsessive about writing songs, staying up until morning to finish when I am in my groove!
Q: When I think of Jimmy Lee Young, I think of a talented musician, a passionate Advocate for Native culture, and a REALLY big star! What should I think of when I think about you? Who is Jimmy Lee Young?
A: I guess I am a die-hard rock and roller. I was lucky enough to have been around when music seemed to produce instant classics everywhere, every day. When you’re a little kid and Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez (whom I’ve met twice), The Association, The Byrds, The Mamas and The Papas, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath- the list is almost unending- are in your daily life, it becomes part of your grain. It’s no wonder lyrics are so important to me, as well as a beautiful unique melody. Imagine my mom hearing me belt old blues classics like, “Maybe” at age 6! Without these great artists, there would be no Jimmy Lee Young. I am a child of rock and roll!
Q: How did you start your musical career? I bet, well, I don't bet, but if I did, I'd bet there's a great story behind it. Can we hear it?
A: Sure! I joined the Air Force to get some education, and a ticket to the rest of the world! In my third year I met Gil Gabaldon II. We started jamming, and from day one I told him I was getting out and pursuing a music career. He wanted to drum, but had never really played much. We trusted each other, and I bought this double wide mobile home, so we would have a secure place to write and rehearse. He bought a drum set. We got jobs, and started writing and playing gigs. We did it the old fashioned way- we had moved away from our families, here in Southern California.
It was extremely difficult at first, but worked really hard at our day jobs, and at becoming true artists. At some point I worked two jobs so I could pay my half of the recordings. No compromise! We shared everything, down to the last bits of food! Those first years were tough! It took 10 years to get anywhere in the music biz. By then we had stable lives and great jobs, but we still had our dream, and the depth of our songs wouldn’t allow us to let go.
One day I did a favor for a friend- one year to the day that we started our first CD. I drove a truck all day for my florist friend, whose driver had boned out on her. That night at a party we were playing, my co-worker for the day came and brought a friend who was awed by us. He said I should give a CD to his godfather, Daryl Dragon of the Captain and Tennille. Daryl liked our music and helped me get started- from the ground up he taught me everything I needed to know. I consider him my godfather now, and will always be grateful to him! One day I took our CD to KCEL radio here in Southern California. They played a few tracks and the phones lit up! Matt Bachara was the DJ, and we never forgot what he did for us that day.
Then, I sent in my last 50 bucks and 5 CD’s to the NAMMYS at Daryl’s urging, and BAM!!! We got our first nomination at the Native American Music Awards with the first CD,” Apache”- it was for Best New Group. A year and a half later, our second CD “MAYA” led to 16 national music awards and a Grammy final for Song of the Year. By then we had like 32 nominations! We were nominated in categories from rock to country to pop to folk; from Best Male Artist to Songwriter of the Year all over the U.S. and in Canada. It seemed like every song entered was honored, and radio came calling! That first NAMMY win was accompanied by a win at the First Americans in the Arts awards- 2 coasts in one week. The emails and phone calls started coming, and life was never the same after that! Now, our music takes us as far away as places like Switzerland where we are nationally known, thanks to Pony Records.
Q: Tell us about your tribal background. Are there beliefs or traditions that influence your music, and the way you live your life?
A: I am of Mayan heritage on my mother’s side. She is from the highlands in Olancho, Honduras, land still inhabited by the native people there. My family came to the states in 1958. She brought with her all the traditional cooking and healing and legend/ lore that had been in our family since time immemorial. To this day, I can fix a host of things without western medicine and can cook a mean dinner! My father side is Wayu (or Guajiro) from Columbia, farther south. Both of my parents are of Native American and European bloodlines. My mother’s father’s people were from Spain, Italy and Germany- very common ancestries in Honduras. My father’s European side is Swiss-Italian from Locarno, Switzerland- the “Ticinese” people. I have appeared on Swiss radio there and they love our music. They call me “Pellerosa Ticinese”, which means, “The Red Skinned Ticinese”. I have a very spiritual side that is grateful to the Great Spirit. It makes me realize that this is a gift, to be shared with everyone, and I am blessed to have been given it.
Q: How do you classify your music? Will you share some of your favorite musical achievements with us? Where can we find and enjoy your music?
A: Since I am a songwriter, my music crosses all kinds of boundaries. I write rock songs, like “Apache”, “One Voice One Cry”, and “Skins”. I also write pop songs like, ”Remembering You”, “ Calling Out”, country songs like” Sweet Freedom” and folk songs like “ Idyllwild” and “ Chippewa Wind”. I think every CD should be a total work in the end, with the songs flowing into a groove. I tell people to make the time to kick back and listen, from beginning to end, and let me take you on a trip.
It’s been a strange twist that music competition and airplay have been a factor in getting the music out there. Some of my favorite achievements have been making the Grammys, and gathering over 28 music awards and 46 nominations. In November of 2012, we went with Olga Korbut to the Los Angeles Music Awards. She was given the Inspirational Athletic Achievement Award, and I was named Native American Artist of the Year. Also, I wrote a song called “Anduhyaun” for a shelter for women and children in Canada. Blanche Meawassige is the CEO and she asked me to be the national spokesperson. I played a show in Toronto, and the reception was AWESOME! I feel a kinship with the people there.
Q: Why do you think your music has caught fire in Native America and become so popular with wider audiences as well?
A: When we started to really push our music there was not a lot out there. But gradually I began to get together with other artists like Felipe Rose of the Village People, Yolanda Martinez, and Qua Ti Si, and share ideas on how to get more airplay. By the early 2000’s we realized that we were a “genre of many genres”. We each had our own style of pop, folk, hip hop dance etc., all with our own Native styling. I like rock and roll, and incorporate native instrumentation and rhythms into our songs. I also do songs that have nothing native in them except my heart. I believe it caught on and grew because it was so diverse, and we pushed so hard.
It’s because the Native stations, like Dan Smoke of Smoke Signal Radio in Canada, and independent radio stations were willing to listen, and give our records a spin. Also, because people will always look for spirituality in music, and we all have that in Native music. By far the most important thing is a groovy song. No matter what your image or story is, it all still comes down to having a groovy song to present. This has been our strength.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be an inspiration to others? I certainly see you as a cultural pioneer and a musical role model! How does that shape your sound?
A: I wanted very badly to become an artist and to do Gil proud in pushing for success. He trusted me to be dedicated, and was surprised at the hours I was willing to work at it- which was ALL the time! At the same time I wanted our music to be different, but I just went with what the Great Spirit inspired me to write . In my heart I wanted to give our people new music that might someday be treasured by all. Today’s hit song may be tomorrow’s traditional song.
In this process, I began to support many causes- an echo of my 60’s childhood! Anduhyaun and many of the ecological issues that Native America faces are primary among them. I would like that our story of success that began with nothing but 2 guys who had a dream and very little between them, who were willing to give up everything for that dream, could be an inspiration to anyone who dreams of being an artist. That if we could do it, so can the poorest kid on the reservation anywhere on Turtle Island!
Q: What obstacles did you have to overcome so you could start making music? What advice would you give someone who wants to begin a musical career? Did you have a musical childhood? Who influences you musically?
A: I have had many obstacles to overcome. It might be too depressing to name them all, but I left the military with very little to start with. Now, mind you, I could always have gone home to my family to start over, but for me that was not an option. We really were struggling, Gil and I in the beginning, and we would never have done it without his great heart being into this. But that poverty made me tough, and taught us that we could be strong and persevere.
My advice to anyone starting a music career, is actually not my own- it’s Carol Burnett’s- stay in school, because you’ll need money to support yourself, and make your projects. It may take a long time to get that going, and my case it took 10 years. Albeit they were some of the happiest years of my life! It was so tough yet so romantic to leave your familiar surroundings and struggle as an artist- it shaped my songwriting.
It was really meant to be, I think. As a kid, they say I was always singing something. And looking back on it, they were right. I haven’t changed. I’m singing in the car, the shower, over the stove, in the gym- I just write all the time, and really dig singing! I was influenced by the beautiful music of the 60’s and d70’s and the old blues classics. They have never left me.
Q: What do you hope folks will feel or find when they listen to your tracks?
A: I hope that people will find a familiar groove in a unique song. I hope that when they kick back, they will day dream, and be transported to a place that’s beautiful and poetic and kinda magical. Some say my style has a retro feel, and I don’t doubt it, because I like to make people feel the way music made me feel growing up. The Great Martha Redbone once said, after a benefit in New York, “That was fiery!” And I could tell I got the audience fired up with the song, because I go through a range of strong emotions in each song we do.
Q: Do you have particular songs that have special meaning to you and for you? Tell us about some of those?
A: I wrote MAYA for my mother’s people. It is like a bridge between us- those folks that still live in the “Aldeas” in Honduras. It begins with a UFO sounding hum (from the legend that some of these folks were taken away en masse) and breaks into the story of my mother surviving several revolutions in the 1930’s as a child, our culture, and my calling out to it, as it echoes back to me. It means a lot to me because I feel I captured what I wanted to say and what I wanted folks to feel when they listened.
Also, on the first CD, I wrote a song called “Guardian Angel” for my father who died in 1991, from cancer. As he lay dying, I swear I heard an angel singing in my head, and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t re-create that sound, but the song is beautiful, and brings tears to the eyes of front row fans every now and then. So, I felt I did justice to the memory. “Dreamer” from the latest CD, Great Spirit , is a song that took 10 years to write. The lyrics never seemed to come together, until suddenly one day, there it was. It is a dialogue between lovers, one of whom is giving up on a dream, and the other is resigned to the fact, but soldiers on. It is also the ultimate break up song, and allowed me to tell a bit of my personal life, in a universal way. “Great Spirit”, because it is in honor of that part God in all of us and “Mother Earth And Father Sky”, which honors creation around us, a very Native American tradition, but in a modern song.
Q: Music is a transforming force. Why do you think people should listen to yours?
A: Because it comes from mature artists, not kids. I give the kids their due, but what do you really have to say at 17, that some lyricist hasn’t written for you? We adults have lived those heart breaks, those joys, and those experiences that define us as artists. Our music is rooted in beauty of instrumentation and deep lyrical meaning, flowing harmonies. There’s rock, pop folk- storytelling in the Native tradition, you name it.
And above all else, it’s positive. A positive vibe that we hope brings people together, to groove on some beautiful music in peace and harmony. Our live shows have this emotion to them that is kind of indescribable, but powerful all the same.
Q: Who are you away from the studio? What fills your time, your dreams, and your days besides music?
A: It’s changed over the years. I used to be a gymnastics coach. I also put myself through college while on this trip. I was doing homework on the planes! Now I write, record, and rehearse. Those are my favorite things. Especially the recording- it’s spooky and magical to be in a darkened room with candles going, down by the beach in Orange County California. I live in the Mojave Desert above Los Angeles, sacred Indian land, and it inspires me to go out dressed in my regalia for photo shoots, and do ceremony and pray.
I like to have dinner with friends and I celebrate every holiday. I have this sense of humor that never quits! I love to joke and laugh and be happy! I still call my family every day, and take them along with me on a trip when we can. I try and spend time with Linda Blair at her doggie rescue. She inspires me with her hard work and selfless dedication.
My mom was there the night I won my first NAMMY. She hollered louder than anyone there when I won! She was screaming, “That’s my son!” And when I lost her, Crystal Gayle herself went looking for her in all the ladies rooms, calling her name! John Densmore of the Doors shook my hand! Felipe Rose of the Village People clapped and whooped when we won! It’s a great existence being an artist. Olga Korbut the Russian gymnast, asked me to marry her on our first date! We meet everybody, and love it!
I seem to appreciate everything more after all this. Even chores are no chore for me. I am the ultimate optimist. I dream that one day, we’ll wake up to find there isn’t a war going on anywhere on earth, hunger has been dealt with,and poverty is no more and people don’t suffer needlessly. Why should these be pipe dreams? And while we persevere, music paints the world in beautiful colors. And for me and for Gil, who has worked as hard as I: that long after we are gone, our music will still be on the airwaves, and “Apache” will still rock people’s socks off!
Q: Well, I'm sure you have readers' interest now. How can they find your music or connect with you?
A: I answer all the fan mail I get- literally. I like the dialogue with fans that love a song, or don’t like what I have posted on social media. If I have a public voice, we might as well talk about what matters, right? And who says we have to agree, as long as we listen to each other, and try and understand each other? You can write to us on Facebook.
DK: Thank you so much for sharing with us, Mr. Jimmy Lee Young! We look forward to much music from you.
Dr. Dawn Karima Pettigrew (Creek/Cherokee) is a Native American Music Award-winning recording artist, who hosts A CONVERSATION WITH DAWN KARIMA, a Native American talk show on TalktainmentRadio. The author of two novels, THE WAY WE MAKE SENSE and THE MARRIAGE OF SAINTS and co-author of CHILDREN LEARN WHAT THEY READ lives on the Qualla Boundary. Her NAMMY-winning CD is THE DESIRE OF NATIONS .
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