Neil Young Heads To The Country On ‘A Treasure’

Neil Young entered the mid-’80s under fire from his record label for making music it said it couldn’t sell and under attack from the IRS for having “too much artistic control.”

He was making a rockin’ kind of country music that didn’t resemble his greatest records and his label said didn’t appeal to radio programmers. Those things didn’t matter to Young, though. He was having the time of his life, playing 85 shows across North America in 1984 and ‘85 with The International Harvesters, and you can hear it on his new live album, A Treasure.

“I don’t like boundaries,” Young said in an interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum this week. “They don’t really work. They do for some people. It all started when they started formatting radio and separating things into different little areas that they could talk about and then restricting who would play what. That was very counterproductive, when they took the decision-making from the individuals and gave it to the corporate heads. That was destructive to music. But we’re coming back.”

A Treasure doesn’t just hold up 26 years later; it fits right in and again shows Young for the pioneer he is. It arrives at a time when roots music is on the rise and artists like Taylor Swift, whose music and spirit Young says he enjoys, are erasing boundaries that were created decades ago.

Photo: AP Photo
Fox Theater, Oakland, Calif.

Young helped define the folk-rock movement as a solo artist with Crosby, Stills & Nash and with the newly reunited Buffalo Springfield. With bands like Crazy Horse, he helped push rock ’n’ roll into the 21st century through his influence on artists like Kurt Cobain, Jeff Tweedy and . And his ideas about country- and folk-rock still resonate, in part inspiring a thriving indie scene that feeds such cultural touchstones as .

Young gathered reporters and some of The Harvesters at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Monday to talk about the release of A Treasure. He said he was exposed to all kinds of music growing up. He got his country from popular Canadian acts like Hank Snow and Ian Tyson and lesser-known acts like Bluegrass Bob & The Bobcats.

“Nobody ever heard of them, but I grew up with them,” Young said. “So that’s always been around. And I love Jimmy Reed. He’s not country. He’s blues. But I don’t see the difference. I just see real music. So I’ll take a little wherever I can get it.”

And that sometimes includes present-day country music.

“Yeah, I like Taylor Swift,” Young said. “I like listening to her. I kind of like watching her respond to all the attacks. I like the ways she’s defining herself. So I keep my eye on it.”

Young focused on Nashville early in his career, coming to town in 1971 to record his iconic album Harvest. That’s where he met bassist Tim Drummond, who would serve as his tour guide and “architect” for assembling The Harvesters.

Players joining them on tour included the late pedal steel player Ben Keith, keyboardists Spooner Oldham and Hargus “Pig” Robbins, the late Cajun fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux, drummer Karl Himmel, multi-instrumentalist Anthony Crawford and bassist Joe Allen.

Each had made waves in the music world before joining Young. Drummond had played with artists as diverse as Conway Twitty and James Brown. Himmel laid down a defining shuffle for J.J. Cale that’s still imitated, and he played with Bob Dylan and George Jones. Keith had been an influential figure in Nashville for two decades before Young came along. And Oldham was busy writing and playing on some of the most iconic recordings of our time, Young noted, including Farfisa organ on Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

“That’s a defining moment there when someone plays an instrument that everyone relates to around the planet,” Young said. “That’s the kind of musician he is and the kind of musician all of these guys are.”

Young set them free on the songs that make up A Treasure. “Are You Ready for the Country?” and “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong” are well-known Young staples. But five unreleased songs will be new for fans who don’t obsessively trade bootlegs of live performances.

The album-closing “Grey Riders” might be the song that best showcases Young’s ability to meld sounds. It opens with Thibodeaux sawing a haunting melody over a simple 4/4 beat as Young sings of ghostly riders who pass in front of his window. There’s a haunting synth sound building the tension, and Oldham helps pick up the pace with a tinkling piano section before Young launches into a powerful guitar solo.

It’s not unlike a song you might hear at one of today’s arena rock-influenced country shows. At the time, it was too far out for country radio and even Geffen Records. But Young’s band recognized it for what it was.

Oldham, like Young, is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s a key architect of the Muscle Shoals and Memphis sounds and has worked on some of the songs that define modern music. Yet his time with The Harvesters ranks among his favorite.

“This sits right at the top, in the top five, because of all these people in the band,” Oldham said. “Rufus, Neil, Anthony, Karl, it was like a family on the road. And we got to know their wives and girlfriends. The music on stage every night was a thrill. It kept elevating our minds. Even though we sort of knew the songs, you could sense the freedom to step further if you wanted to.  It was challenging. It was fun. It wasn’t boring in any sense of the word for a player.”

Young called The Harvesters the greatest single collection of players he’s ever joined on stage and said he thought he was the weak link in the group.

“They should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame and I really hope they are someday,” Young said. “And I think this record really displays why.”