Neil Young Reunites With Harvesters

In the mid-1980s, Neil Young and a band filled with Nashville music greats toured with The Judds, appeared on Ralph Emery’s Nashville Now television show and tried briefly, mightily and unsuccessfully to break into the country mainstream. Looking back on that time, Young couldn’t be prouder. “This is a part of my life that is unmistakably the most satisfying from a musician’s standpoint,” Young said, standing in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater and reflecting on the live recordings from 1984 and ’85 that have just been released as A Treasure.  That statement might confuse longtime fans, most of whom prefer classic Young albums Harvest and Tonight’s the Night to his one album from this period, the oft-panned Old Ways.

But A Treasure reveals Young and International Harvesters band members Ben Keith, Anthony Crawford, Rufus Thibodeaux, Spooner Oldham, Tim Drummond, Karl Himmel, Pig Robbins and Joe Allen delivering country music both adventurous and well-rooted, with tremendous instrumental flights and palpable joy. When co-producer Keith heard the quarter-century-old recordings (culled from 85 shows: The Harvesters never made a studio album), he pronounced them “a treasure,” and Young had his title.  “(In the Harvesters) it was a natural interplay, all the time,” Young said. “Great musicians, communicating on their own level, all the time. I’m so proud of it. It’s already a huge success as far as I’m concerned.”

Young reunited with most of the living Harvesters (steel guitar legend Keith died last year, and Cajun fiddle master Thibodeaux died in 2005) at a private gathering Sunday night at the Hall to hear the album and catch up. In the mid-’80s, Young’s life and career were in some turmoil. He was sued by Geffen Records for making experimental rock records that were a harder sell (the label described that music as “willfully uncharacteristic”), and he was dogged by the IRS. Yet the negatives of the time now fall away in favor of Young’s nearly giddy recollection of the music that was made.  “There were some bittersweet moments, but the music is so good and so happy, and it felt good to bring everybody together and celebrate,” he said.  Young grew up listening to country music in Canada, and he had long been fascinated by Music City. He came here to appear on Johnny Cash’s television show in the early 1970s, and he recorded his biggest radio hit, “Heart of Gold,” at Quad Studios along Music Row.

He came back in 1978 to record the album Comes a Time, which featured several players who would eventually join the International Harvesters. But he’d never ventured so deeply into country until 1984, when he signed with Nashville booking agency Buddy Lee attractions, appeared on Emery’s program to sing and to engage in some good-natured verbal jousting with Faron Young, and set about proving that his record label chief was wrong when he told Young that he’d never be accepted on country radio.  Turns out the label guy was right but that Young found a musical kinship with the Harvesters that was as satisfying as any radio hit. Monday at the Hall, he spoke about each band member, praising Keith’s steel tone as “pure silk and gold” and calling Thibodeaux “probably the greatest Cajun fiddler that ever lived.” Crawford was the eager youngster in a band of well-seasoned pros.

“I don’t really understand how it happened,” Crawford said. “I think I sang on a Tanya Tucker record and (Young’s producer) Elliot Mazer heard my voice and asked me to come down to (Music Row studio) the House of David. Within five minutes, I was singing in a vocal booth with Neil Young, one of my favorite people of all time. And we had a really good sound. Our vocals were like peas and carrots.”  There were two versions of the International Harvesters, as midway through the group’s run Robbins replaced Oldham on piano and Allen replaced Tim Drummond on the bass. Both ensembles are included on A Treasure, with Keith and Thibodeaux’s mind-bending interplay on “Southern Pacific” and Oldham’s relaxed and soulful piano on the album-opening “Amber Jean” standing as two major highlights.

Famously averse to staying in any one musical place, Young disbanded the International Harvesters in late 1985, and with 1986’s Life he was back residing in rock terrain. But he frequently collaborated with several Harvesters (working nearly constantly with Keith, whom he calls “my brother”), and he returned to Nashville to record 2005’s Prairie Wind album.  He mentioned Nashville and referenced Thibodeaux as “that old country fiddle” in 1992’s “One of These Days,” a song from the album Harvest Moon that found Young reminiscing on his own musical journey.

That song opened with the line, “One of these days, I’m gonna sit down and write a long letter to all the good friends I’ve known.” A Treasure feels a lot like that letter. “A friend of mine said that last night,” Young said. “He said, ‘My favorite song of yours is ‘One of These Days,’ and it feels like tonight is one of these days.’ I gave him a big hug, ’cause that made me feel real good.”


~ by upbeatmag on June 17, 2011.

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