Neil Young Unearths His Country 'Treasure'

David Fricke's exclusive interview with the legend on his new International Harvesters live album

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty
Neil Young performing in 1985.
By |

During his 1984 and '85 tours with his stone-country band the International Harvesters, Neil Young taped 85 concerts – an Appalachian mountain's worth of music that, years later, he and pedal-steel guitarist and original Harvester Ben Keith whittled down from eight shows to twelve tracks on the new live album, A Treasure, released today (June 14th). When asked what he and Keith, who passed away last year, were looking for in that trove of twang and dirt-road idealism, Young is cheerfully forthright.

"We were looking for this," he says. "We were looking for a treasure. And we found it.

"I wanted to capture the spirit of this band playing together, the greatness of these musicians," Young continues, calling from Nashville two days after his Bonnaroo show with Buffalo Springfield. "I wanted to capture the interplay of real country music, being played by real country musicians.

The latest release in Young's Archive Series of previously unissued concert albums, A Treasure comes from the most contentious decade of Young's career, when he was careening through genres – including electronica and rockabilly – and was famously sued by his label at the time, Geffen, for not making classic-Young albums. Young recut parts of his 1985 country LP, Old Ways, made with the International Harvesters, after Geffen rejected the first version he handed in, deeming it uncommercial.

"I was told that no matter what I did, country radio would not play me," Young recalls, "mostly because of my songwriting. I'd put out things like 'Southern Man' and 'Alabama'" – Young's Seventies broadsides at reactionary Dixie conservatism – "so culturally, they drew the line.

"But while we were not accepted by country radio, we were accepted by country musicians," he adds with emphatic relish. "They all played 'Southern Man' with me. They didn't care. It wasn't about that."

The International Harvesters remain the most unique and misunderstood of his many touring bands: a large ensemble of studio and touring sidemen with top-shelf Nashville, Memphis and Cajun credentials, including R&B songwriter and pianist Spooner Oldham, the Grand Ol' Opry fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux and J.J. Cale drummer Karl Himmel. Bassist Tim Drummond, who was in the '84 lineup of the Harvesters, played with both James Brown and Conway Twitty before cutting his first sessions with Young for 1972's Harvest. And when Oldham wasn't available in '85, Young scored a rare coup, coaxing the prolific Nashville session pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins out of the studio and on tour. "He hadn't been on the road that much, but he loved it," Young insists, still delighted. "He wanted to go. They all did."
 
Are You Ready for the Country?
Actually, A Treasure opens with a warm welcome: Young's September, 1984 performance with the Harvesters on the TV show, Nashville Now, singing the bouncy "Amber Jean," a Harvesters-show regular that never made it to Old Ways. The Treasure version of  Old Ways' "Bound for Glory" was recorded a week and a half later at a honky tonk, Gilley's Rodeo Arena in Pasadena, California, run by the country singer Mickey Gilley. "I only played songs with the Harvesters that the band could do justice to," Young says of the set lists on those tours. "And a lot of those were pure country songs."

Some were custom-written for that venture. A Treasure includes two previously unissued tunes that Young left behind when he disbanded the Harvesters: "Let Your Fingers Do the Walking" and "Nothing is Perfect". But Young, a Canadian, grew up on the country radio beamed across the plains there, and he was already covering Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me" on 1970's After the Goldrush. He first cut "It Might Have Been" with Crazy Horse at that time (that version was finally issued on Archives Vol. 1), but Young claims the Harvesters' take on A Treasure "is pure country, as pure as you could ever have."

In fact, the Harvesters were a nimble and catholic band that adapted, with enthusiasm and well as professional flair, to the pop and hard rock in Young's canon. A Treasure has a spin on Young's Buffalo Springfield ballad "Flying on the Ground Is Wrong" that would have fit nicely on one of Richie Furay's Poco albums. There are country-railroad sprints through "Motor City" and "Southern Pacific" from Re-ac-tor, Young's 1981 crusty-fuzz platter with Crazy Horse. And Thibodeaux gets extra blazing solo time in "Soul of a Woman." a stomp Young later took to the Bluenotes.

"Country and blues is almost the same thing," Young declares. "It's just the way it's played – the musicians, the use of the instruments. To me, the songs all fit. I didn't care." There is a quick chuckle on the line. "I had limited success in both directions, so it didn't matter to me."

Young looks back on his confounding series of deep-genre studies – 1982's synthesized Trans; the '83 Fifties dance party, Everybody's Rockin'; Old Ways; and his late-Eighties R&B orchestra the Bluenotes –  with stubborn pride, defending the idiosyncratic purity of each  detour. "If you're going to do something, you should do it all the way," he contends. "You have to have the right musicians, and you don't want them playing another way. You want them to play with you in a way that is right for them."

He cites one exception from the Harvesters period, an early '85 tour of Australia and New Zealand: "I toured with half of that band and half of Crazy Horse. And it didn't work that well. I realized I'd lost some of the authenticity, in trying to do too many things at once – exactly what I'd been trying to avoid." When Young hit the road again in the U.S. in the fall of '85, he was back with a full band of Harvesters. "I'd ended up with something that was not as satisfying, so I stayed with the extremes. Whether people understood it or not was secondary."

Back to the Garage
But there is a strong hint, at the end of A Treasure, that Young was already moving on: the previously unreleased "Grey Riders," from a New York show I saw in 1985. The song starts as a cowboy-ballad two-step, glazed with Thibodeaux's swampy sawing, but is soon riven by Young's Live Rust-style thundercracks of guitar distortion and near-feedback shriek. I also remember a 20-minute assault on "Down by the River" at that concert. ("That's a great version," Young affirms, assuring that "it will be out eventually.") By the fall of '86, Young was back out with Crazy Horse, the giant mock-amps and road-eyes from Rust Never Sleeps and no fiddles.

"It's still to be decided," Young says, when asked if A Treasure will end up in a a future Archives box. "It's a Volume 3 product." But Young believes the CD – which also comes on vinyl and as a CD/Blu-Ray package with rare live footage, some of it in fan-shot Super 8 – is a stand-alone triumph and vital to understanding his creative impulses at one of the toughest junctures of his career.

"At that point in my life, the people in control of who played the music on the radio, how it got out, were sure that I shouldn't be doing what I was doing," Young says with a curt lingering irritation. "But it didn't matter to me. I kept on doing it anyway. When you hear this record, that's the reason. Maybe now, 25 years later, it might float.

"But the thing is," he adds, "it doesn't matter if it floats. Because it floats for me and the musicians, for everybody that was a part of it."

x