I imagine there will be a few raised eyebrows from the Neil Young aficionados out there at the choice of Neil album. Released in 1985 Old Ways was Neil going down the full on country route with fiddles, pedal steel guitars, banjos, upright bass, jew’s harp and country icon Waylon Jennings providing harmony vocals. I remember my brother had a load of Jennings albums but I never paid any attention to them, given his contribution to this album maybe I should have. Willie Nelson also pops up on one track. The odd thing is I’m not and have never ever been much of a country music fan but this album just sounds great.
Country music always reminds me of the scene in the Blues Brothers where they end up playing a gig at Bob’s Country Bunker and impersonating The Good Ol Boys’ the band that was meant to play. Before the band hit the stage though they ask Bob, the owner of Bob’s Country Bunker, what kind of music they play and he replies ’We play both son, country and western.’ They start out by playing some blues standards but the crowd are not impressed and start throwing beer bottles at them and the band are only protected by floor to ceiling chicken wire. Eventually the band start to play some country standards like Stand By Your Man which is one of the funniest things committed to film and the theme from Rawhide.
Anyway I was 20 when Old Ways came out and I was just starting to explore other music avenues. At this time the only Neil album I had was Decades which was a triple vinyl best of covering his career from 1966 to 1976 and is a great place to start if you are ever tempted to jump into the Neil back catalogue. Almost every song is a Neil classic from his acoustic moments like Heart of Gold to his heavier sound on Like a Hurricane. Few artists can switch between acoustic and electric as brilliantly as Neil does.
There is a bit of a back story to Old Ways. In 1982 Neil signed to Geffen records and his first release was Trans, an electronic album that was far removed from the sound of his previous albums. Looking back it should probably have been considered a ground breaking album and ahead of its time but this wasn’t the artist that David Geffen thought he’d signed. Neil then offered Geffen Old Ways but this was rejected as they wanted a more rock n roll album. Well in 83 they got a rockabilly album called Everybody’s Rockin from Young that led to him being sued by his record company on the grounds that the record and its predecessor were “not commercial”, and “musically uncharacteristic of his previous recordings.” Neil counter-sued alleging breach of contract since he had been promised no creative interference from the label. The lawsuit backfired spectacularly on Geffen as REM were about to sign with Geffen but seeing what had happened to Young they decided to sign with Warner Bros instead. Eventually Geffen backed down, apologised and settled out of court. Neil went on to release 3 more albums on Geffen before heading back to Reprise. One of which was a re-recorded Old Ways with backing band The International Harvesters who Neil had been on the road with for over a year.
The album opens with an old country standard The Wayward Wind and it sets the tone for the whole record. My favourites are Once An Angel some wonderful steel guitar all the way through. Misfits where Young tells a strange story of astronauts watching Muhammad Ali. It’s a weird and odd song but there is just something about it that makes sense. My Boy is written about his first son Zeke and has an extra resonance with me these days, it opens with lyrics ‘Why you growing up so fast?’ I guess it’s many a parents thought. Album closer ‘Where is the Highway Tonight’ is a song looking back at his younger days and wondering where ‘all the crazy days and crazy nights have gone’. I think The Waterboys would do a brilliant cover of this song.
Neil has recorded some great albums and he’s also recorded some real stinkers, his recent output has been particularly ropey but this one for me is up there with the best of his 50 odd releases.
Live, Uncle Neil is a good as anyone whether with Crazy Horse and making some very loud noise or on his own playing acoustic he is a unique talent. I’ve been lucky enough to see him eight times and will be heading to the Hydro in June for number nine. These are concerts to be savoured, Neil was 70 last year and as we have seen recently that whole generation is sadly entering a time where the next gig may very well be the last one.
Although I still can’t get my head round him going out with Daryl Hannah.
See you on week 4.