by Adam Gold
On Tuesday, Neil Young (musician/Canadian) released A Treasure, a live album culled from a mid-'80s tour, as backed by The International Harvesters — the ace group of Nashville session players and sidemen who were his band on his 1984 foray into country-rock, Everybody's Rockin', in the case of Ben Keith, Karl Himmel and Tim Drummond, as well as his then-shelved country endeavor Old Ways.
On Monday, Young hosted handful of media folk — including myself — at The Country Music Hall of Fame, where (kinda like in the video posted above) he talked about the special place A Treasure, and the period in his career it was recorded in, has in his heart (due mostly to the joys of playing with his musical Harvesters the likes of pianists Spooner Oldham and Hargus "Pig" Robbins, fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux, bassist and country consiglieri Tim Drummond, bassist Joe Allen, guitarist Anthony Crawford, drummer Karl Himmel and late, great steel-guitarist Ben Keith). Young's joy at this time was achieved despite the legal battle his then label, Geffen Records, was waging against him — accusing him of making "artistically uncharacteristic" country records.
Following the presentation I got a pinch-self opportunity to speak briefly with Young about what makes a great sideman, and the state of country music in Nashville today, versus when A Treasure was captured. See what he had to say about that, and more, after the jump.
Nashville Cream: As somebody who's played in a lot of different situations — whether it be as a solo artist, or with bands — you know Nashville has a huge culture of sidemen. What do you think makes a really great sideman?
Neil Young: Well, whatever these guys have is definitely what it takes. All of these guys, I mean, they just would pick up any song real fast, any arrangement, but they play with an original spark, they’re not imitating anybody. They’re confident and they have so much soul that it just comes out every time they breath. And, you know, it [was] just a great privilege for me to play with them, and I think you can hear it in the record. It's not not hidden at all, they’re all just wonderful, and if you’re looking for a description of a great sideman, these guys are the ones. They’re really good, they’re all of them amazing musicians. Rufus Thibodeaux, I mean you listen to him play on this record — I defy anybody — [it's like], "Where did that come from?" It’s just so deep.
NC: The context of the tumultuous label situation you were in when you recorded this record is interesting in hindsight. These days most labels would probably be thrilled to have an artist come to them and say want to make country records. How have you witnessed country, and Nashville, change over time?
NY: Well, I’ve heard all kinds of things about today’s music from, y'know, some people saying that they have to snap it to the grid or the radio stations won't play it. I don’t believe that, I can't believe that’s true — that it has to be absolutely perfect or they won't play it. Is there any truth to that? There’s no truth to that. But people are saying that kind of thing, so there must be something going on that is restricting the freedom. and whatever that is, we need to get rid of it, because that’s not gonna help any kind of music. I don’t care whether it's rap, or country, or rock 'n' roll — you’ve just gotta be free.
What sometimes happens, I guess, in a business, or in a town that revolves around a business, is that the business kinda takes over. So I think that’s something to watch out for. But, aside from that, there are some great writers. Taylor Swift is a great writer, and there are so many great country writers out there, and great performers — some of them are Canadian, some of them aren’t. And, you know, they’re just great, so I totally support it. I just think, again, that I do hear some things that sound like they’re very organized — sometimes you hear the same chorus twice, and I just don’t think that’s country. I think people should sing the whole song. But, aside from that, you know, that’s just, rebel in the studio against your producer. That’s all that is.
Musicians should stand up for themselves, and stand up for the tones, stand up for the technology that they want to be presented in, make sure that they get the best, and that it can always be up-sampled in the future to higher technologies as they come out.
The old great country music was performed, and recorded, and those old songs today still ring true cause you can bump them up to the highest digital [quality] and keep going, [to] make them great forever. That’s what I think people should do — they should care about their technology, and they should care about their presentation. I hear a lot of it that way, and I hear some of it that isn’t [that way].
Below are some of Young's statements to the greater group assembled Monday.
On playing with The International Harvesters:
It [was] truly a great part of my life … even though all of those things were happening to us at the time, and (on) country radio — apparently, my record company, [Geffen], was telling me country radio would never play me because of the songs that I had written, you know “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” and all of those, that there was a line drawn that couldn’t ever be crossed, but [these] musicians didn’t apparently recognize the line at all and kept asking me to play those songs with them. … I’m just really glad that I got a chance to make this record with them, so I appreciate you all being here at the Country Music Hall of Fame and I think that’s where these people belong to spend the rest of their days
On releasing A Treasure:
I’m here because I want to honor these guys, because these guys are our country music. You know, you can say what you may about me, but these guys are the real deal, and I was so lucky to play with them, and I’m so lucky to know them, and to know their families, and to share the times we had together. So this is more than a record, this record’s already a complete success if nobody buys it, it doesn’t really matter.
On Anthony Crawford:
He’s a great instrumentalist and a great singer — he sings harmony with me on all of the songs on A Treasure and he’s a really, really great all around musician. [He] plays many different instruments really well — banjo, mandolin, the guitar, and writes songs, and sings songs. He was with us for a long time and when you hear a high harmony on these records, it's generally Anthony.
On Spooner Oldham:
[He's] a great songwriter and keyboardist. … His history of making music really speaks for itself, and he’s one of the greatest.
On Ben Keith:
[He was] an excellent musician that has touched this town and a lot of the players in it very deeply. He’s referred to by a lot of steel players, and a lot of producers trying to get a particular sound saying, "Can you do what Ben Keith would do please on this?"
On Rufus Thibodeaux:
He’s just an amazing musician. [He's] probably the greatest Cajun fiddler that ever lived, and it was my pleasure to play with him for a long time. He passed away here in Nashville a few years ago — truly, truly a great player … I spent many great evenings playing music with him. And he pulled notes out of places not on this Earth, continuously, and just kept on coming up with them, and dancing around the stage, and moving around laughing, and just having a great time — that was a great moment for me just being with him.
On Tim Drummond:
[He] was the one who really introduced me to a lot of the players when I first came to Nashville and I did my first record here, which was Harvest. [He] introduced me to Ben Keith and Kenny Buttrey and John Harris … without Jim there wouldn’t be a lot of the things that have happened with me in the past. … [He's] the architect, the man who put everything together. What a great bass player, just a masterful musician.
On Hargus "Pig" Robbins:
He played with the Harvesters [during] the second half of the group’s history, over about a year and a half. Hargus joined us, and in the middle I went off the Australia with some of the guys in the band and some of the guys in Crazy Horse, and we played down there, and as usually happens when I try to mix genres, we tried to do two kinds of music at the same time — it didn't work that well, so that was a short lived experiment. And when I came back, we had Hargus playing with us since Spooner was doing something else at the time, so Hargus took over on keyboards.
Here's a 1984 clip of Neil Young and the International Harvesters performing "Amber Jean" on Nashville Now: