The good-time 80s and the onset of MTV were not particularly kind to the acoustic guitar. Oh sure, it made a few strummy cameo appearances, notably in The Cure’s “In Between Days” (1985) and Johnny Marr’s performance on “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (The Smiths, 1986), but in that showy, decadent mid-80s era of peak-opulence, the folk guitar, the symbol of the humble proletariat was decidedly out of fashion. In a cold world of synthesizers and squared-off drum machine beats, a simple strum from a beautiful Martin 6-string was suddenly an anachronism, and in an angular age, the supple curve of the all-wood acoustic was quaintly unnecessary.
The folk set from the 1960s and 70s were lucky to get out of the 80s alive. Some, like Cat Stevens bolted. Some, like Dylan got lost for a while. Some adapted to the synthesized, mechanized era but never really got their original organic groove back, at least not fully intact. Some, like Paul Simon inventively rose to the occasion, but it was a perilous time for simple troubadours who relied on authenticity as their brand and humanness as their currency.
Luckily, the pendulum swung and by the end of the decade a neo-classic roots rock movement was afoot. Indiana-born John Hiatt delivered a couple of Nashville-produced powerhouse albums, Bring the Family and Slow Turning. Peter Case broke away from his band, The Plimsouls to release a deeply affecting series of solo albums, both artists offering music heavy on lyrics, real drums, and acoustic guitars. Also arriving and signaling cunningly at the end of the decade was the jovial, celebratory Traveling Wilburys album, a reunion of a fictional band but a very real coming together of familiar voices emerging from the wilderness. Not coincidentally, Jim Keltner was there on drums for all three occasions.
Other artists were coming in from the cold in the last half of the 80s as well. It was around this time that Elvis Costello released his folky, very personal King of America album, Billy Bragg momentarily put aside his political broadsides to flash us his Cockney heart in Workers Playtime, and Dylan released his most focused, organic-sounding effort of the decade with Oh Mercy, while new artists Shawn Colvin, John Wesley Harding, Tracy Chapman, Michael Penn, and Suzanne Vega began to revive the singer-songwriter movement, all with varying degrees of folk mixed in.
Also coming into focus at the tail end of the 1980s was the beginnings of another back-to-the-roots movement in rock, what would later be termed the “alt-country” genre, which arose as a fusing of a few disparate elements — country rock, punk, and a strong desire to return to roots music after the showy theatrics and glossy, mechanized aesthetic that MTV wrought on the music industry as a whole and on the mindset of the music fan individually. Bands like Jason and the Scorchers, The Long Ryders, and The Georgia Satellites tapped into a sort of Southern shitkicker vibe, but it wouldn’t be until the 90s when the Illinois-based band Uncle Tupelo and later Old 97s and Whiskeytown reached further back to Gram Parsons to tap into the country soul of the genre and then to shift slightly from that Bakersfield pure country sound to the folk-country crossover sound of the slyly groundbreaking Harvest album by Neil Young.
Luckily, the pendulum swung
The consensus view is that the 1990 Uncle Tupelo album, No Depression is the first proper alt-country album, but it’s not until their moodier 1993 swan song and major-label debut, Anodyne that the band really hit their stride, twanging and rocking with a sense of purpose, identity, and an alt-country sound that resonates with all of the influences that inform the movement, Woody Guthrie, Classic Country, Gram Parsons, Doug Sahm, and also Neil Young. Uncle Tupelo’s songwriting duo of Jay Ferrar and Jeff Tweedy would split right then and branch off into two influential bands Son Volt and Wilco, and the full array of alt-country bands would then spring up in the mid-90s, The Jayhawks out of Minneapolis, Old 97s out of Dallas, and Whiskeytown out of North Carolina. These and a crop of other great bands would seek to fuse rock, folk, country, and a touch of punk with an ear for authenticity and would come to make some of the best rock music of the 1990s under the alt-country banner, but of course, labels and genre typing are limiting.
Neil Young was of course doing something very similar in the early part of the 1970s.
Ironically, simultaneous with alt-country, another ragtag movement out of Seattle under the label of “grunge rock” emerges and it’s at this time that someone dubs Neil Young, “The Godfather of Grunge,” a particularly meaningless honor because none of the Seattle grunge bands had much in common in terms of sound or style beyond wearing flannel, that is, something Neil was known for too. A clunkier, more accurate moniker for Neil Young would be “The Ancestor of Alt-Country” (which is why I’m not in marketing). But truly, starting with his contributions to CSNY’s 1970 album, Déjà Vu, on through a good portion of his own After the Goldrush album (1971), and landing squarely with a full country-folk-rock fusion album, Harvest (1972), Neil Young carved out the territory for what would much later become a legitimate movement in the mid-90s that would make some of the most heartfelt, personal music in rock history at least partially in his image.
As well known for his sudden mood shifts as his singular talent, Young is notorious for abruptly ending projects and tours midstream, changing directions musically, and deserting everyone on a whim, as Crosby says, “that’s just Neil.” Even within the brief lifespan of Buffalo Springfield, his stylistic genre-hopping went well beyond eclecticism into subversion, darting between pop (“Burned), folk (“I Am a Child”), hard rock (“Mr. Soul”), progressive folk-rock (“Broken Arrow”), and lush orchestral settings (“Expecting to Fly”). But even more confounding to his bandmates than his stylistic zigzagging was when Young chose to split off from the group to pursue a solo career on the Warner Brothers label, sending one of America’s most interesting and talent-heavy bands to its early demise, only two albums in, right at the peak of its musical arc. It was never smooth sailing for Buffalo Springfield and their short career was weighed down with struggles, creative conflicts, and drug arrests, but their 2nd album, Buffalo Springfield Again is one of the rock’s most fascinating treasures, and their breakout single “For What It’s Worth” from their debut is nothing short of iconic. One final album, Last Time Around (1968) was pieced together while Neil was off working on his own self-titled solo debut, Stills went on to conquer the world with CSN, and the remaining members formed the country-rock outfit, Poco.
In the months after he left Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young met Danny Whitten and Billy Talbot of The Rockets, just off the release of their own debut album and jammed with them at a Whiskey A-Go-Go gig in Hollywood, immediately asking the core of The Rockets to back him in the studio on the three prototypes of Young’s rock vision, “Down By the River,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and “Cinnamon Girl” on what would become the core of his 2nd album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (all three songs and the title track were written in a single day while Neil was laid up in bed suffering from a 103° fever!). Serving as an antidote to the sublime, billowy renderings on his initial solo outing, the second album released in 1969 under the moniker, “Neil Young and Crazy Horse” is a raw and sweaty, high-stakes affair, a titanic masterwork that serves as a proper launch to the career of one of music’s most enduring rock stars. Crazy Horse would go on to record as a band on their own and to tour and record with Neil Young over the coming decades, but not before a few tragedies intervened that would weigh heavily on everyone involved, Young included.
Neil Young is one of the most mercurial characters in rock, but also one of its most durable survivors
Never content to stay in one place for too long, Young is cajoled into joining up with Stills in his new supergroup, mostly to lend some lead guitar toughness to their touring outfit, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young is born, unofficially at first with Neil playing as a sideman at Woodstock (refusing to let the cameras on him, threatening to bash any camera operator who came near him with his guitar), but then as a full member on their second studio effort, the gutsy and eclectic Déjà Vu, one of the best albums of 1970. Musical arguments in the studio were non-stop with Stills and Young both fighting for control, and it wasn’t long before Neil moved on again, but not before the band quick-releasing “Ohio” as a single within a week of the Kent State shootings in May 1970, and going out on a lucrative mega-tour with the band, a massively popular series of sold-out concerts documented in the live CSNY album, Four-Way Street (the buzz from Young’s solo set during these concerts would make him a bona fide star). CSN and Young would come together and burst apart many times over the next 40 years, usually with Neil bailing with no notice, either from the studio or on the road.
Young’s next album was focused but somewhat transitional, involving some heavy rock recorded with Crazy Horse but also a number of intimate acoustic-based tracks, all based on some of Neil’s most engaging lyrics inspired by the screenplay to a film that never was, “After the Goldrush.” With help from Stills, CSNY bassist Greg Reeves, Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina, and a 19-year-old Nils Lofgren on guitar and piano, and mostly recorded in a makeshift studio in the basement of Young’s Topanga house, 1970’s After the Goldrush is a fantastic album both in terms of songwriting and performance, and a lot of people’s favorite. It provided Young with his own commercial breakthrough, reaching number 8 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and selling a ton. By this point in his short career, Neil was at a dizzying peak in terms of accomplishment, creativity, and audience acceptance. It was thrilling to contemplate where he would go next.
The songs just kept coming. Young embarked on a North American solo acoustic tour that fall and by January 1971, he had written the nucleus of tunes for his next album which can be heard on the 2007 archival release, Live at Massey Hall 1971, which captures Neil at a pinnacle, just the man, his guitar and his powerhouse song catalog one night in front of a Toronto audience. Only two weeks later, while in Nashville for a performance on The Johnny Cash Show (also appearing were James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt), he and producer Elliot Mazer spontaneously committed the new songs to tape, and within months, Harvest would be completed.
By this point in his short career, Neil was at a dizzying peak in terms of accomplishment, creativity, and audience acceptance
Mazer, a New York-based producer who had retrofitted a two-story Nashville Victorian house just off of Music Row as Quadrafonic Studio (live studio in the large living room, drums in the kitchen, control room on the porch) had previously produced the 60s rock classic Cheap Thrills for Janis Joplin’s group Big Brother and the Holding Company and the nearly straight country Silk Purse, Ronstadt’s 2nd album of her solo career. Quadrafonic had recently recorded a top 5 hit for Joan Baez as well, a version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the record that made the song famous. After a friendly dinner (or breakfast, depending on who you ask), Young and Mazer decided to give working together a try.
Coming off the surprise double-platinum success of After the Goldrush, the decision was made to scale everything back and record a homey, mostly acoustic album. Quadrafonic would be perfect. That night, Mazer brought in drummer Kenny Buttrey and bassist Tim Drummond (two of Nashville’s session kings) as well as a musician who would fit prominently into Neil Young’s entire career, and would help shape the sound of Harvest, the subtle genius of the steel guitar, Ben Keith. Billed as The Stray Gators, these are the handful of musicians who, along with the homey setting and sound of that converted house, would make Harvest more than a slapdash tossing together of ingredients, but a profound, cohesive, endearing work, a milestone and an inspiration for generations to come.
Performing for months in theaters as a solo act, just guitar, piano, and harmonica probably helped Neil focus and project his own brand of intensity. Harvest might be minimalist and homey, atmospheric and personable, but it’s still high-stakes. Track one, “Out on the Weekend” is rich with all of the portent, soul, and intense minimalism that Harvest has to offer, plus a killer harmonica solo by Neil himself.
On the first night of recording, basic tracks were cut for three songs, including “Old Man,” a song written for the caretaker on Neil’s recently purchased ranch. A story is told of the recording of Harvest about Neil getting Kenny Buttrey to play more simply on that night, so he agrees to sit on his left hand. The minimalist rhythm section work on the quieter songs only adds to the hushed intensity and overall impact and sound of the album.
Two days later, “Heart of Gold” was among the songs recorded, and James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt were invited to lay down background vocals with Young, the three of them crowding around a single mic. Linda recalls in her book singing higher in her range than she could ever remember on the chorus of “Old Man.” Taylor also laid down a memorable accompaniment on the banjo-guitar (a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar). Neil has explained numerous times onstage about the song, that he was uncomfortable with his newfound success, a young hippie millionaire with a recently purchased sprawling property, trying to find commonality with the working class ranch hand. The resulting recording is everything great about Harvest, including the special sauce of Ben Keith’s sneaky, warm steel guitar.
The three also recorded background vocals on “Heart of Gold,” the single from the album that would shoot to number one in the US and Canada, and number 10 in the UK charts. The “falling ass-backward into money” aspect of Neil Young’s career is an inspiration for hippies. miscreants, slackers, and ne’er-do-wells everywhere. Bob Dylan heard “Heart of Gold” on the radio and swore that it was him. The irony that Neil Young set out to simmer things down with Harvest and ended up scoring a #1 hit single, his first and only, is the stuff of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, but there it is, (and so it goes).
Harvest is not all quiet songs. Three rockers were recorded back in California in the barn at Young’s ranch. Neil pounds out “Are You Ready For the Country” on the piano, backed by The Stray Gators digging into a rollicking, lopsided march led by Buttrey’s irregular syncopated drums and pianist Jack Nitzsche’s slippery turn on lap steel. “Alabama” is a more compassionate takedown than its companion piece “Southern Man” from the previous album, but the spare, chunky rock sound here is more of a foreshadowing of the brooding trio of albums that will form Neil’s notorious “ditch trilogy,” his dark night of the soul following the death of his friend and Crazy Horse bandmate, Danny Whitten. The guitarist, main songwriter, and soul of the band was one of the junkies in Neil’s life that inspired “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which was recorded live at UCLA in January 1971 and sits between “Alabama” and the side B’s final track, the murky rocker, “Words (Between the Lines of Age).” Crosby, Stills, and Nash help with background vocals on all three of Harvest’s rock songs, in various formations but never as a full trio.
Rounding out Harvest are the piano-based title track, a soft country shuffle that features Ben Keith’s vibey steel and two Jack Nitzsche-produced and arranged songs with the London Symphony’s orchestral backing, “A Man Needs a Maid,” which benefits from a lovely piano performance by Nitzsche and interesting shifts between musical sections, and “There’s a World,” which serves as a good point on side B to get up from between the speakers to get a snack. All in all, Harvest is a pretty eclectic collection, almost uniformly made up of extraordinary songs, which benefits from a very effective running order, starting with the arresting, quiet intensity of “Out on the Weekend,” shifting to a couple of lush piano-based songs with “Harvest” and “A Man Needs a Maid,” then slipping into the warm comfort of “Heart of Gold” and finally, parading to the end of the side with the jovial “Are You Ready for the Country?” Side B opens with the breathtaking “Old Man,” reprises the orchestra with “There’s a World,” and then rocks out to the end with the quietly harrowing “Needle and the Damage Done” bisecting the rowdy “Alabama” and “Words.” While not Neil Young’s best album, it’s certainly a great listen and a surprisingly unified vision, given the range of venues, large and intimate, that served as its recording spaces.
Commercially, Harvest was a massive success, going on to become the highest-selling album of 1972 and sitting on top of the album charts in the US, UK, and Australia. Looking back at the time of the release of the career retrospective, Decade, Young famously wrote in the liner notes that the success of Harvest landed him in the middle of the road, so he felt more comfortable “heading for the ditch.” The next three albums, Time Fades Away (new songs recorded live in concert on the Harvest tour), Tonight’s the Night, and On the Beach form the aforementioned “ditch trilogy,” offering some of the most starkly confessional and incisive songs and recordings of his career. Not appreciated in their time, this span of contrarian albums eventually helped to burnish Young’s reputation as an authentic firebrand, only making him a more heroic figure to the generations to follow.
It’s fair to say that the country-folk-rock fusion sound of Harvest came about by accident. Neil Young did not come to Nashville intending to make a record. Getting thrown together with the Buttrey-Drummond rhythm section and the vital inclusion of Ben Keith on pedal steel was just happenstance. The recording session was spontaneous; they were available. But what bent the country players toward a new fusion was Neil Young’s nature, his aesthetic, his intensity, and the psychic weight of his songs.
Listening to Ben Keith’s atmospheric style of playing on Harvest, it’s hard to think of a precedent for this utterly vibey approach to the pedal steel guitar. In places, Harvest feels like a continuation of After the Goldrush, except for the tighter, more elegant drum style of Kenny Buttrey, and the stillness of the perfectly shaped clouds of chord pads provided by Keith’s steel. The two albums taken together provide a map to this fertile period of the Neil Young catalog and in many ways, Harvest feels like a sonic refinement of the proposition offered by the After the Goldrush, even if it’s slightly more uneven in terms of songwriting than its predecessor. One thing is true, Harvest has a coherent sound to it. It’s the sound that every label executive has been trying to coax out of the man ever since. “Yeah Neil, but when are you going to make another Harvest?”
That alt-country sound would be preserved in amber until broken into roughly two decades later, just when it was desperately needed to breathe some humanity and authenticity back into rock. It’s not that Harvest broke new ground in country music, it only borrowed from the aesthetic. And Harvest is not the first country-rock album by any stretch, but it’s probably the first rock album of any notoriety to borrow heavily from country and still remain a rock album.
Maybe it takes an outsider to get a fresh look at American archetypes. Neil Young is a Canadian. So are all but one of the members of The Band, the guys who pretty much invented the Americana genre of rock by performing similar acts of reverent fusion. Even the Illinois musicians in Uncle Tupelo were just Midwestern tourists playing with the Appalachian sound in the 1990s, but their timing was perfect, they did it with intention and had great songs, so they deserve their place in rock history too.
Eventually, the pendulum did swing back from that perilous time for the folk guitar when MTV was the not so benevolent dictator of musical styles. The late-80s troubadour movement took hold, alt-country caught fire, and eventually even MTV got into the neo-folkie act with their ubiquitous Unplugged series, where even Neil Young was given an honorary slot, documented on his 1993 album, Unplugged.
Harvest is not the first country-rock album by any stretch, but it’s probably the first rock album of any notoriety to borrow heavily from country and still remain a rock album
Hounded by fans and labels since its 1972 release, Neil Young finally did reconvene The Stray Gators around that time to revive the Harvest concept on his popular 1992 album, Harvest Moon, although the production is a lot less dry and intense and sounds to my ear much more like his lush slightly countrified 1978 album, Comes a Time. But it’s all good with Neil Young — I love that album too.