Flashback: Waylon Jennings, Neil Young Sing ‘Country’ Duet
Fifty years ago today (March 22nd, 1966), 20-year-old Canadian Neil Young and five friends piled into a hearse and set out for Los Angeles, arriving ten days later. Young, who had been traveling throughout his native land as a solo musician, had also briefly joined a Toronto-based band called the Mynah Birds, fronted by future R&B legend Rick James. When James was arrested for deserting the US Navy, the group, then signed to Detroit’s Motown Records, was dropped by the label.
In California, Young and Mynah Birds bass player Bruce Palmer would soon meet the other members of what would become one of the earliest country-rock supergroups, Buffalo Springfield, whose other members included Jim Messina, Richie Furay and Stephen Stills. Stills and Young would, of course, go on to even greater success as members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Young would eventually launch a hugely successful solo career which was influenced by an early love of country music and would, in turn, influence two generations of country artists to come.
“I’m trying to make records of the quality of the records that were made in the late Fifties and the Sixties, like Everly Brothers records and Roy Orbison records and things like that,” Young told Rolling Stone in 1970. “They were all done with a sort of quality to them. They were done at once. They were done in Nashville. . . It doesn’t matter where you do it. Nashville, it happened to be done there. Could be done anywhere. It’s just a quality about them, the singer is into the song and the musicians were playing with the singer and it was an entity.”
Young was in Nashville in 1971, appearing as a guest (with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor) on ABC’s Johnny Cash Show, and during that visit was joined in a Music City Recording studio by Ronstadt and Taylor recording harmony vocals on his “Heart of Gold,” which would go on to become a Number One pop hit. In 1975, Young had a Top Five country hit as the writer of “Love Is a Rose,” cut by Linda Ronstadt.
In a rather ironic twist, exactly 10 years after the day Young took off for L.A., Nashville-based country superstar Waylon Jennings was in a Hollywood studio recording his version of Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country.” The song had been featured on Young’s Harvest LP, yet, unlike Heart of Gold, it was not recorded in Nashville but on Young’s California ranch. Still, the recording did feature Music City-based players Ben Keith (on pedal steel) and iconic drummer Kenny Buttrey, along with bass player Tim Drummond and Jack Nitzche on piano. Young would go on to work with this group of musicians, dubbed the Stray Gators, on several subsequent recordings and tours.
Waylon Jennings’ version, which featured Ralph Mooney on steel guitar and an overdubbed horn section, took several days to record but would become the title cut of the first LP Jennings would release after the compilation Wanted: The Outlaws, which also featured his wife Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser, and went on to be the first country album certified platinum for sales in excess of one million copies. Are You Ready for the Country topped the country album chart and was certified gold, with the title cut reaching Number Seven. The LP also featured “Can’t You See,” recorded by the Marshall Tucker Band and a “revisited” version of the Jimmy Webb classic, “MacArthur Park.”
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