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Throughout his career, Young has shown great loyalty to those around him, so many of those who were familiar with his thought processes expected him to rebuff Warner’s advances, considering that Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker and just about everyone else he’d dealt with at the ski lodge in Burbank had been eliminated through forced-retirement packages.
YOUNG AT HEART
With a Just-Signed Record Deal, a Memorable Album and a Clean Bill of Health, Neil Young Is Firing on All Cylinders, Accelerating to 60
By Bud Scoppa

When Neil Young took the stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on the night of Aug. 18 to perform his latest album, Prairie Wind, the ink was barely dry on the contract he’d signed with Warner Bros. Records. The new deal keeps him on Reprise, the label where he’s spent practically his entire solo career, with the exception of a mutually regrettable stint at Geffen in the ’80s, and it gives the new regime a link to the label’s storied history as a haven for brilliant iconoclasts. The renowned and beloved artist had kept WB and at least two other labels that were pursuing him in a state of prolonged suspense for nearly two years, after Warner, in the midst of yet another major transition, allowed Young’s existing contract to lapse.

Throughout his career, Young has shown great loyalty to those around him, so many of those who were familiar with his thought processes expected him to rebuff Warner’s advances, considering that Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker and just about everyone else he’d dealt with at the ski lodge in Burbank had been eliminated through forced-retirement packages, with veteran publicist Bill Bentley perhaps the only recognizable face remaining from WB’s glory days.

On the other side of the ledger, Young was finally making headway with his massive Archives series documenting his prodigious body of work in unprecedented detail (the first volume, an eight-disc box set covering the years 1963-73, is expected to be released early next year), and re-upping with the label for which he’d recorded the bulk of his music certainly made the process more convenient for all concerned.

Early this year, while he was pondering his future, Young began work on Prairie Wind, and, as his fans well know, it was one of those moments when he has always risen to the occasion over the decades. He hadn’t had a significant commercial success since Harvest Moon in 1992, and his last well-reviewed album was the 1995 Pearl Jam collaboration Mirror Ball, so he was due for a Major Statement. Skeptics had already written him off, and the aneurysm he suffered in March, just after he’d started the album sessions in Nashville, caused some to conclude that the veteran artist, who’ll turn 60 in November, was at the end of the line. But once again, Young proved to be the most inspired with his back against the wall, channeling personal anguish into his singular brand of artistry.

When WB Records head Tom Whalley heard the just-completed album, he redoubled his efforts to get the deal done, making a couple of trips to Young’s Northern California ranch and spending time with the artist. The fact that Whalley’s enthusiasm was genuine, combined with his ability to speak intelligently with artists about their music and those essential assurances of continued creative autonomy, most likely factored into Young’s decision in early August  to sign a new deal.    

At the Ryman, Young—dressed up like a country gentleman in a gray linen suit and flat-brimmed hat—carefully explained what each of the 10 new songs was about before playing it. These anecdotes proved to be as captivating as the songs themselves, which comprise what is by far his strongest piece of work in more than a decade. Introducing “Far From Home,” a tender and literal recollection of his rearing in Canada, Young said, “I started cryin’ right in the middle of writin’ it—family thing.” He spoke of his father, Scott Young, who died in June, referring to him, as he does in several songs, as “Daddy.” Before singing “Here for You,” a poignant pledge of paternal protectiveness to his 21-year-old daughter, he pointed out that “There was a time I wrote these kinda songs for girls my own age.” He called it “an empty-nester song. Might even be a new kinda genre.” Of “My Old Guitar,” written and performed that evening on an old Martin once owned by Hank Williams,” Young theorized, “Maybe the guitar wrote it.” And the timely, timeless “No Wonder,” he said, was “about things that are happening today and things that may never happen again.”  

The second half of the show, made up of eight songs from earlier acoustic-based albums beginning with 1972’s Harvest and running through Harvest Moon, resonated beautifully and poignantly with the first—“Old Man,” “Comes a Time” and “Harvest Moon” (with percussion supplied by the sweeping of a broom) in particular. The evening was punctuated by numerous standing ovations from the generation-spanning invited crowd—people love Neil even when he heads for the ditch (as he once put it); they adore him when he gives them something truly special.

Surrounding Young was a deftly calibrated ensemble of players and singers that included longtime cohorts Ben Keith on pedal steel and dobro, Spooner Oldham on the Hammond B-3 and Emmylou Harris on vocals and acoustic guitar, as well as a three-piece horn section led by Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns, a nine-piece string section and a gospel choir. His wife Pegi was one of the backing vocalists. At times there were more than 30 people onstage, everyone dressed to the nines in period costumes, making the show a visual spectacle as well as a musical marvel.

The two performances, on successive nights, were filmed by director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Stop Making Sense, Philadelphia) for release as a theatrical feature, the organic result of Demme calling his old friend a few months back and asking Young what he was working on. When Demme heard the just-completed Prairie Wind, he knew immediately that this was an opportunity to capture a rock’n’roll elder statesman whose gifts as a writer, singer and musician are undiminished and who has responded to a series of experiences not uncommon to people of a certain age—the loss of parents and friends, serious medical issues—with a career landmark of unprecedented clarity and relatability, a compelling premise indeed.

Exhilarated by the memorable performances and clearly feeling happy to be alive and ticking, Young acknowledged that only rarely in his career has he gone to such lengths to set up a new album. Whenever he has done so over the years, “It’s because there’s something that has the potential to appeal to a lot of people, so you want to go the extra 10 miles," he told me. "And the other 90 percent of my stuff is just, if people want it and they can find it, great. But it’s really too personal to try to jam it down people’s throats.”

Prairie Wind, it turns out, fits both categories. The album will be released Sept. 27; here's hoping he decided to slap that familiar orange label with the riverboat on the disc.

Bud Scoppa’s in-depth interview with Neil Young will appear in the December issue of Uncut magazine.

 

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