Are you ready for the country? Neil Young posed the question way back when, on Harvest; now, thirteen years later, he's restated it as a command: "Get Back to the Country," he urges on Old Ways, with Waylon Jennings seconding that emotion. Jennings provides legitimizing C&W ballast for Young on Old Ways, singing and/or playing on six of ten tracks. Willie Nelson adds his unmistakable nasal quaver on another tune, a lament with the barely believable title "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?"
Lord knows Young could use the credibility, at least with the country audience, which is probably at least mildly wary of this latest incarnation of his. Still the proof is in the hearing, and this turns out to be his most carefully crafted album since Comes a Time. On some levels, it's even arguably conceptual, although Young's deeper musings will be missed if you listen only to the polished surface of this ostensibly purist C&W exercise. "Get Back to the Country," for instance, is more than just a rabble-rousing bluegrass breakdown; in it, Young asserts that a return to roots after his quixotic rock & roll fame was inevitable. Now he sings with an audible smirk that he's "back in the barn again" as a jew's-harp boings away idiotically. One is left wondering how seriously to take him. Not very, I'd guess. Young opens the album with "The Wayward Wind," a Number One pop-schlock hit from 1956, dressing it up in slick Nashville duds, right down to the swooping strings and corny duet vocals. But if this is a put-on, why do so many lines ring true? What is Neil Young if not "a restless wind that's born to wander"?
Both songs make references to "younger days" and being "a younger man," and in "My Boy" he addresses the subject of his son's vanishing youth, in his tenderest vocal, with an almost despondent incredulity. Could it be that he's feeling his age and that country music, with its solid grounding in the sort of adult values and verities that outlast the fires of youth, has given him a forum in which to chew on these matters? Looked at this way, "California Sunset" isn't just another drippy, fiddle-happy ode to Young's home state but a potent image of a native son whose days of roaming are behind him. And "Where Is the Highway Tonight?," with understated ensemble playing and an enticing wisp of a Fifties pop melody in the vocal, finds Young looking back and wondering, "Where are those old days and crazy nights?"
But just when you think he's ready for the old rocker's rest home, he throws in a few curves. In the title track, with Young picking slow and hard at his acoustic over bluesy accompaniment, he allows that "old ways can be a ball and chain." Come to think of it, Willie Nelson doesn't sound entirely comfortable on "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" — which might be more tongue in cheek than it appears. "Bound for Glory," a story about a hitchhiker-truck-driver romance, sends up "Me and Bobby McGee." And "Misfits" is as strange as a meteor falling on the farm. It's kind of a space-age parable, retold as Indian lore to the rumble of a double bass and the tribal thump of a single drum, with the occasional apocalyptic wail of a woman's voice. So disarming is "Misfits" that you don't notice the violins. Or Waylon Jennings. Pretty amazing.