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.”
In 1984, Young returned to Nashville (more accurately, Franklin, Tennessee, south of Music City) to record Old Ways, his 13th LP. An homage to country music and the Nashville Sound, the album featured guest appearances from Jennings and Nelson and was released in August 1985.
During one of his Nashville trips, Young, whose TV appearances were few and far between, joined Jennings as a guest on the popular TNN talk show, Nashville Now, hosted by Ralph Emery. For their appearance on the show, captured in the interview and performance clip above, Jennings and Young were joined by Faron Young and Little Jimmy Dickens, with Waylon telling stories about his early career as a disc jockey and detailing his recent friendship with Neil Young, which also included several tour dates for the pair. Leaving the guest couch, Young would play “Amber Jean,” (edited out of this clip) a song about his young daughter that he would later include on the 2011 LP, A Treasure. Jennings continued with a story about Nashville’s Sue Brewer, who befriended many young songwriters and during her lifetime gave them a place to congregate on Music Row, explaining that he was among the artists doing a television special in tribute to Brewer, who died in 1981.
At around the 5:57 mark, Jennings and Young take the Nashville Now stage for an exuberant performance of “Are You Ready for the Country,” which (although they’re pretty tough to make out) features Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Tim Drummond on bass, Ben Keith on steel guitar, Anthony Crawford on guitar, Karl T. Himmel on drums, and a superb fiddle break from Rufus Thibodeaux.