August 18 & 19, 2005
The past two nights I have spent joyfully reliving many memories with friends. The Memory Fest was sparked by the arrival of Neil Young in Nashville to make a movie, directed by no less than Jonathan Demme. He’s most famous for his Silence of the Lambs but my favorite of his projects was Philadelphia. So now I know why Neil Young was chosen to write and sing the theme song of that movie – I wasn’t aware that Jonathan and he were friends. My friends (the reason I got in to the concert filming), Gary and Carol Pigg, didn’t know who the director was, they just knew he was “Jonathan”. He was so unassuming and humble and quiet, they would never guess he had such an impressive filmography, or status in the movie industry.
Pegi Young, Anthony Crawford, Jonathan Demme, Gary Pigg, Diana DeWittGary Pigg and I met in 1976, when we were both called for a session at the Goldmine. That was the studio owned by Chris Christian, and we were working for his jingle company, Home Sweet Home Productions. It was my first paid session. My first time singing in the studio had happened the year before, when I did background vocals for free on the song “You Can’t Get to Heaven by Living Like Hell” for that wild man producer, Gary S. Paxton. (He sang on “The Monster Mash” and was the multi-tracked voice of the Hollywood Argyles, singing “Alley Oop”.)
Gary and I continued singing on more jingles and then backgrounds for several albums, along with Marty McCall. Finally, the three of us were invited by Word Records to become a group which was intended to fill the void left by the 2nd Chapter of Acts on their artist roster. 2nd Chapter had moved to Sparrow Records and they needed a “replacement group”. Kind of a silly idea, since no one could hope to replace the brother and sisters trio which revolutionized contemporary Christian music with their rock ‘n roll voices, unique harmonies and intimate lyrics.
Gary and I left the group, Fireworks, after not very long, but Marty continued it for several more years. Gary and I both did jingle and background vocal work for some years, but meanwhile he had married my dear friend Carol Ann Jackson Thomas and taken on her boys, David and Jason, to raise. He had a burden of responsibility I did not have, as well as greater drive and ambition, and he made quite a career for himself in the Nashville and Chicago recording industries. After about ten years singing, I became an administrative assistant for a number of musicians, companies and institutions over the years.
Earlier this year, Gary was recommended by our mutual acquaintance, Diana DeWitt, to accompany her and Pegi Young, Neil’s wife, on background vocals for Neil Young’s new album, Prairie Wind. He couldn’t have been happier about the job, since he had never aspired to be a jingle singer in the first place – his dream had always been to be a rock star. Neil had a longevity and legitimacy to his musical career that was more than a level above what often happens in Nashville sessions, and Gary took a lot of pleasure in working with someone at that level of creativity, not to mention historical significance.
Then the decision was made to record the new album as a movie concert, after the example of The Last Waltz by The Band and other such archival footage. Gary was hired! So he spent the previous two weeks in rehearsal, and Carol called and asked if I would like to attend the concert/filming. Would I!?! Certainly would. So I wandered down to the Ryman Auditorium Thursday night, August 18, 2005, to join a fascinating crowd waiting to get in to see one of our heroes, Neil Young.
It was an incredibly hot and muggy evening in Nashville, which made waiting outside for Carol to show up with the tickets a very drippy half hour. As I waited, I was able to observe such interesting people and relationships, some folks making contact after years of separation. I heard one lady who looked to be a suburban, Republican grandmother – the epitome of unhip – talking about working with Neil in L.A. in 1969. Ah, the foolishness of judging a book by its cover.
There was more long hair on the men than the women. Someone commented that they hadn’t seen that many VW buses in years. The crowd was mostly over forty, and everyone was glancing at everyone, trying to figure out who was who and whether any notables might be spotted. I recognized no one Thursday night, but then I don’t know the Nashville film community. I went back Friday night for the second concert and that night Meryl Streep showed up with a young man someone said was her son. We tried hard to politely glance and not stare.
I also got to spend some time with Gus Laux, who caught me waiting in line the second night. He used to road manage Don Gibson, got me in one night to Harlan Howard’s Birthday Bash, and has been around the Nashville music scene even since I left it. What a delight he is. He says he’s currently splitting his time between producing sessions and doing fine wood working on remodels for very patient friends, which sounds to me like a lovely creative balance. But I digress. Back to the man of the hour, Neil Young.
When I was just getting into music as a collector might, learning music history, making connections between various artists and groups, seeking out new writers and artists to love, there was a group calling the Buffalo Springfield. It was after the Watts Riots, it was during Viet Nam, I was in Southern California, it was the hippie generation, but it was pre-Woodstock. A song came on the radio called “For What It’s Worth.”
“There’s something happ’nin’ in here…what it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there tellin’ me I got to beware.
I think it’s time we stopped, children — What’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s goin’ down.”
That song, written by Stephen Stills, became the anthem of an era. Matt Young was my best friends’ older brother and my musical guide. He had more money and more freedom than I did, being five years older, and he spent more time in record stores, although he did take me along occasionally. He played Buffalo Springfield albums (there were eventually three) and I fell in love with the articulate, searching, yearning, politically aware, romantic hearts of these guys.
Even then, Neil Young stood out. “I Am a Child” appeared on the third album, and there was also “On The Way Home,” the meaning of which to this day I don’t fully comprehend but nevertheless I’ve always loved. The version I love most, though, came four years later, when the album Four Way Street was released, and Neil did a much slower, more ethereal version of it. That was my theme song in Heidelberg in the summer of 1972.
But I’m jumping ahead. Back in L.A., I would sit in the Youngs’ bedroom where the big speakers were, or lie on the floor between them, and soak up the music. Musical groups and couplings in the ‘Sixties were relatively short lived, though very fruitful, and you always watched to see what the various artists who had split up would do next. What they did next was awesome. Woodstock happened, and one of the groups that played over those few days was Crosby, Stills & Nash. Neil Young joined them at Woodstock, though he was not on their first album. It was their second gig. (Their first appearance had been rather less dramatic, at a hall in Chicago.) Neil Young had not made any business commitments to these guys yet, but they were friends, so when they did their third gig, opening for Joni Mitchell at the Greek Theater in L.A., Neil sat in with them for the second half of the performance.
That summer night in 1968 started with David, Stephen and Graham standing together before one mike, with Stills the only guitar, and singing those incredible three-part harmonies which had originally brought them together. (Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas was responsible for introducing them.) Graham Nash was later to remark on the magic that seemed to happen the first time he and David sang together, and then when Stephen Stills joined in, the powerful musical connection couldn’t be denied. So there the three of them were, in front of a curtain on the stage of the Greek Theater, and making this gorgeous but very gentle acoustic music. Their fans were wondering whatever happened to the electricity. Graham had been part of the Hollies, and Stills, with Neil Young, was in the Buffalo Springfield. David Crosby had been a member of the Byrds. All the bands had made big noise, with electric guitars and amps and effects and etc.
After the first part of their set, the curtains opened to reveal banks of equipment…and Neil Young. And the rocking began. The crowd went wild. This was what they had been waiting for! This was what they came to hear. When the boys were finished thrilling us, they humbly thanked Joni Mitchell for allowing them to open for her. “This is our third gig, man,” David Crosby announced. What a night.
The funny thing about that concert was the audience. We were sitting in a steep natural outdoor amphitheater, surrounded by trees. This was the late ‘Sixties, and there were a lot of young people who loved this music but couldn’t or wouldn’t pay to hear it. They hiked up the Hollywood hills and climbed the trees. The only problem was, some of them were too loaded to hang onto the branches, and occasionally we would hear a crashing of bushes and ivy as someone fell out of a tree and rolled down the hill.
I was still in high school, living at home but spending as much time as possible with the Youngs, my second family. Matt kept me moving along the musical highway. Déjà Vu, the second album, after the introductory Crosby, Stills and Nash, had added “and Young” to the group. When the time came to record a third album, things got rocky. I didn’t hear this story until many years later, but it seems that at one of the sessions for that album, Neil became discontent with the way things were going, or the way he was feeling about it, and he simply left town. No warning, no “I’m not going to be there at the session tomorrow.” He just split. And thus ended Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
What was left for the record company but to put out an album featuring the individual strengths of each of the four players, all their diverse directions and leanings. It was clear, listening to Four Way Street, that theirs had been an explosive coming together, but not a lasting merging of talent. They were all solo artists…except Graham Nash, the one who preferred relationships to individual acclaim. The other three were the egos and he was the peacemaker, the oil that eased the scraping and banging of these Titans of rock music.
Out of Buffalo Springfield came another group, Poco, with Richie Furay, George Grantham, Rusty Young, and Jim Messina, which we also loved. (See the Endnote for more about Poco. Isn’t the internet wonderful?[i]) Their music reflected the happier side of the Springfield. It’s been said and written many times that the Southern California music scene was incestuous during those years. Cross-pollination was happening everywhere. People were hanging out together in Topanga Canyon, visiting each others’ homes and playing in a lot of the same venues, like Doug Weston’s Troubador.
When Woodstock happened, Crosby, Stills and Nash were able to make it to their second gig, but Joni Mitchell didn’t get in. Roads were jammed for miles around, and she wasn’t even able to get to a place where a helicopter could have lifted her in. So she was stuck in a New York hotel room, witnessing only what little could be seen by everyone else on TV. That didn’t stop her finding an incredibly moving way to comment on the event. She composed the song “Woodstock” and sang it with her own quiet melancholy, and then gave it to “the boys” to interpret, who of course rocked it in their muscular, more powerful way.
David Geffen and Elliott Roberts were managing many of these artists at the time. (Elliott has apparently continued with Neil until today, in 2005. He’s listed on all the albums as “Direction”. Gary also tells me that he learned Elliott managed Bob Dylan for twelve years.) The Eagles were in the same management stable with Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Still & Nash, and Don Henley and Glenn Frey have said that this represented quite a challenge to them in terms of sharpening their song writing.
James Taylor and Joni were involved for awhile – her Blue album was all about that. Graham Nash and Joni were in love for awhile, and her Ladies of the Canyon paints a few pictures on that theme. Joni even drew a sketch of David Geffen in “Free Man in Paris,” on Court and Spark, though she says this made him uncomfortable for awhile. James was singing the songs of Carole King, who was making the transition from being a bopper in New York’s Tin Pan Alley to becoming an earth mother in the mountains of Colorado.
Meanwhile, Neil Young was pretty rich at a mere twenty-four years old, and he bought himself a ranch. It’s in Northern California, but he doesn’t choose to say that. He tells the story that a man named Louie Avilla and his wife Clara lived on that ranch as caretakers, and Louie asked Neil how it came to be that such a young man was able to purchase such a lot of property. “Just lucky, man, very lucky,” Neil responded. Louie couldn’t get over it. Neil said he wrote “Old Man” for Louie.
“Old man, look at my life – twenty-four and there’s so much more
Live alone in a paradise that makes me think of two.
I’ve been first and last. Look at how the time goes past,
and I’m all alone at last, rolling home to you.
(and that incredible banjo makes its statement…and then the pedal steel…)
“Old man, take a look at my life – I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me the whole day through
By one look in my eyes, you can tell that’s true.”
(and then back to that ever so recognizable chord…)
When Neil did that song last night, the audience recognized it on the very first chord. I was sitting next to Carol Pigg and she was amazed by that. I whispered, “Nobody else ever started a song with that particular chord!” While all of us single hippies and wanna-be cowboys were listening to Neil and Joni and James and the Eagles and such, Carol Pigg had been Carol Ann Jackson Thomas, a married woman raising two little boys, and she hadn’t paid all that much attention to music. Funny that her life has been immersed in music ever since, yet left her relatively unaddicted. She never quite caught the bug. She worked for Jerry Reed, she managed Sound Stage recording studio, she worked for Chris Christian, she managed the office for Hummingbird Productions (where I worked with her and then took over for her) and then moved to Blanton & Harrell where Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith were changing the face of contemporary Christian music once again.
Then she married Gary, whose life has been music. Landon, their son and a mere twenty-one years of age, earlier this year was signed as an artist with RCA New York. Landon shared tales with me about private hours spent with Clive Davis. (Along with Ahmet Ertegun and Quincy Jones, Clive has been a primary mover and shaker in the music industry for most of my life, so this was quite something to me.) Yet for all this, Carol’s primary roles have been mother, wife and friend, throughout the decades.
Another friend from the ‘Seventies was also in attendance both nights for this 2005 Nashville concert event. Chris Harris was friends with Gary Pigg back in college at Abilene, Texas, and they both moved to Nashville in the mid ‘Seventies. Chris drove his baby blue Texas truck into town and almost immediately became the bass player for that group that Gary, Marty and I had started, Fireworks.
Lanny Avery, our drummer, lives in Florida, so I never get to see him, and Marty and his wife moved to the D.C. area a couple of years ago, but I’m grateful to still touch lives with Chris and Gary on occasion. With Chris, though, it’s been too seldom, he stays so busy as a record producer. Last night was a treasure, because he and I and Landon and his friend Costa went out after the concert and us two oldies reminisced for the boys at length. More about that later.
Finally, we got to escape the heat and get into the building. A ticket! That’s all we needed to gain entrance, and more than usual, those tickets were hard to come by. There we finally were, in the Ryman Auditorium, infiltrated by scurrying men in black, and cameras both fixed and roving. A large timing device mounted to the left above the stage was clicking away the hundredths of seconds as the evening progressed, flashing the red digital numbers as if to underline the speedy passage of time.
Neil commented on the incredible sound of the Ryman, like playing inside of a guitar. He was dressed in a light gray, loose fitting suit that could have belonged to a farmer or tradesman in the ‘Thirties, with a broad-brimmed light-colored hat that he regularly hid under, spending the majority of his time looking down, and only occasionally peeking upwards to make eye contact with an audience member.
The moves that reconfigured the stage between each song were as multiple and shifting as a kaleidoscope. Those moves had been rehearsed for two weeks, and with only a couple of exceptions appeared to go flawlessly the first night. I say the first night, because the second night felt looser. I suspect that once they had the first night in the can, the crew all felt a bit freer and not quite so rigidly tied to the marks they had rehearsed. Stage hands moved tables, chairs, mikes, instruments, between each song. Musicians and singers rearranged themselves. Neil paced the stage, in his lanky, loose limbed, laid back way. Guitar techs traded guitars with him for each new song.
A humorous moment for me was each time that this one stage hand came out to remove the little table that held a glass of water with Neil’s harmonica in it – as if that table’s presence would distract from the presentation of the next song. Someone was paying incredible attention to detail, and from what Gary reported, it was primarily Neil. Gary said Neil was amazingly aware of everything that was happening at all times, and would deal with anything he might find faulty or distracting on the spot.
The musicians were many of the same guys that had been with him ever since his first work in Nashville which produced the Harvest album in 1972. How did this rock ‘n roller from Canada end up finding musical expression in the South? It was an easier fit than I would have guessed. His roots were in the Canadian prairie, and the agrarian, rural background of Southern musicians may be the closest thing available to his familiar sounds and feel.
I didn’t know until last night that Neil was a chicken farmer as a boy. He told the story of the first instrument he ever owned, a plastic Arthur Godfrey ukelele that his daddy bought for him, probably at his request, though Neil doesn’t remember that for sure. He said he had never heard his daddy sing or play before, and also never seen the goofy smile on his father’s face which appeared as he sang and played “Bury Me on the Wide Prairie” for Neil that day. Neil said his dad and his uncle both ended up playing along with him and the whole family developed a tradition of making music together.
So when Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, had a TV show in the late ‘Sixties, and invited these young California whippersnappers to appear on it, Neil visited Nashville for the first time, along with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.[ii] Johnny was a visionary. Though he was deeply Southern, and solidly a country music star, he loved all kinds of music and used his success as an entrée for these younger musicians. Just one example of his musical sophistication? Witness his use of mariachi trumpets on his hit, “Ring of Fire”. Who else would have thought of that?
Last night, I told Carol, who grew up in Nashville in the middle of country music, “See, we had never heard a banjo or a pedal steel used like this before.” We (my friends and I in California) were prejudiced against country music, which we ignorantly associated with all those spangles and twangs we saw on TV, and dismissed as “plastic.” I hated the TV show “Hee Haw”, which my Nashville cousins found delightful. Why, I was so ignorant of country music that I didn’t know Buck Owens lived not far north of me in Bakersfield, California! So when Neil Young was singing and a banjo enhanced his hippie aesthetic, like in “Old Man”, or a pedal steel reflected back the melody on “Heart of Gold”, it was a revelation to my ears.
From top left: Clinton Gregory, Chad Cromwell (Memphis Horn player); Rick Rosas, Larry Cragg, Pegi Young, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Karl Himmel, Anthony Crawford, Grant Boatwright; (front) Gary PiggNeil continued to work in Nashville and remained faithful and loyal to these friends he had made here, so this week in 2005 there were men on the stage with him who had played on his 1972 album, Harvest. One friend, Grant Boatwright, had long white hair and wore a black cowboy coat to his knees, and postured a bit that first night. (He behaved more circumspectly the second night, and I wondered if he had been chastened by a correction from Neil.)
Grant was featured in one of Neil’s longer tales during the show, about the guitar he played on “This Old Guitar,” a duet with Emmylou Harris. Apparently Grant had found this guitar for him 35 years before, which Neil was able to buy from Tuck Taylor. He quietly and respectfully informed us, “It was Hank’s.” The audience duly drew in its breath when that hallowed name was mentioned, then clapped long and hard for the rightness of Hank Williams’ guitar being reunited with the Ryman stage, where it had been played back in 1951, the year Hank got fired from the Grand Old Opry.
Neil Young has always been slow, deliberate, close to tedious in making his dry-witted remarks. My favorite song introduction was enshrined on an album called Four Way Street, when he said, “This next tune’s guaranteed to bring you right down. It’s called ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” (I love the pause, where one guy in the audience “gets it” a bit late, and cackles all by himself at the irony of the remark, and the rest of the audience laughs at his enjoyment.) Neil goes on, “It sort of starts out real slow…and then it peters out altogether.”
Well, his delivery hasn’t changed a bit in 35 years. He told a quite involved tale of his favorite hound dog, Elvis, which he embellished each night with different details, and nearly every sentence was followed by a pause, pregnant with the audience’s anticipation of what on earth he would choose to say next. Elvis entered the story in a cardboard box under the Christmas tree, and he ends it reappearing after having been lost. The main humor in the story was how bad Elvis stunk after he got his natural and much-prized doggy smell covered up by some wretched perfume at the “Foo-Foo Parlor.”
The punch line was the fact that Elvis, who had run off and been left behind on a road trip, was recovered and delivered back to Neil by a guy in a yellow pick-up truck, at a concert about a hundred and fifty miles down the road in Eureka, California. The truck guy got free tickets to the concert as a reward for returning Elvis. Not too stirring a tale, although there was some dramatic tension in the fact that Neil thought for a few hours that his dog was gone, and came to realize how attached he was to the “blue tick” Tennessee hound. Just to confuse things Neil had intended to simplify, in the song Elvis is called “King”.
It’s that old country story-telling tradition that James Taylor honored in his concerts where he told the story of his pet pig, Baby. I declare, some years back in one of James’s concerts he spent a full thirty minutes on that story, and it had no dramatic tension and no punch line. There’s something so pleasant, though, about being told a story by one of these musicians with whom you’ve shared so many private hours. It’s a living room feeling, like he or she is talking just to you, and there’s something intimate about the fact that the story has no actual significance, except that it happened to them and they have chosen to take the time to share it with you.
Let me back up a bit and tell you about the stage setting. When the curtain opened, we were introduced to the title of the album (and the concert), Prairie Wind, which was written in a rope-style font on a backdrop which filled the back of the stage. A local artist was called three weeks prior to the show and commissioned to create three different backdrops, which he did all by himself, one week each. They were pretty great. The first one, along with the words, was a simple depiction of a brown prairie. A few songs into the concert, a second backdrop was drawn across the first, and this one, again all in browns, was the inside of a log cabin, with a river rock fireplace, an open door on the left, and a little kitten walking in. The final backdrop was saved for the one silly song, “The Last Time I Saw Elvis” (This time we’re talking about Mr. Presley, “Thank you very much,” not the hound.) and it was a fantasy of guitars and piano keyboards in pastels.
Neil used his musicians and singers judiciously, changing them up for every song. I never realized quite so clearly before how much like painting song arrangement can be. Each voice, each instrument, was like a color on Neil’s palette. He had my friends Gary and Diana DeWitt available to sing background vocals, and as I already mentioned, Emmylou Harris as well. Also singing along on many of the songs, and playing guitar on a couple, was his “lovely wife” Pegi. Carol had mentioned how much she and Pegi looked alike, but for the concert they had given Pegi blond hair extensions so she could have long hair like Emmylou and Diana.
Another background singer that Neil used occasionally was also a guitar player, Anthony Crawford, who looked so much like Gary and Carol’s sons, Landon and Gabe, that it freaked us out. Then there was Grant Boatwright (in the long black cowboy coat) on rhythm guitar, and Spooner Oldham looking frail, on the Hammond B-3 organ and piano. (Chris told me that Spooner Oldham was the composer of “I’m Your Puppet”!) Neil mentioned that Ben Keith, his dear friend and the steel player, had been his producer ever since Harvest. Ben was a white-haired guy who seemed even more laid back than Neil.
I know I recognized Rick (the bass player) Rosas, an Native American-looking picker, but he wasn’t in Crazy Horse (the band on Neil’s first solo album) and he wasn’t on the album Comes A Time (one of my favorites, from 1978), so I don’t know where I have seen him before. Larry Cragg, who did play on that album, stepped forward to do the banjo solo on “Old Man” (done by James Taylor on the recording of Harvest, James’ first and last attempt at playing banjo), providing an aural thrill to everybody gathered.
Then there were the strings, eleven of them. I didn’t recognize Kris Wilkinson, a lady I had worked for as a personal assistant, but my friend Chris insisted she was the viola in the middle of the front row, and Gary said another old boss of mine, David Davidson, was playing violin too. So even though the Nashville String Machine got the credit, the A-Strings were well represented too. The string players had the only stage direction I disagreed with. They came on during a song, because they were only playing in the bridge of it, and then walked off during that song, and I found all that movement too distracting. Then there were the horns, Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns and two of his buddies, all in Blues Brothers suits and black hats. Karl Himmel, who was on the 1978 record, was still the drummer for this concert, along with Chad Cromwell on percussion and drums.
Another “color in the palette” was the use of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers on several songs, a small chorale of about a dozen. I must say, had I been one of those singers, I would have felt terribly bored and underused, since their background parts were so simple and so sparse, but they trouped on like professionals and offered their best smiles and lots of energy.
Gary tells me that the famous country music couturier, Manuel Cuevas, was hired to dress the band and singers and Neil himself. The ladies looked great in shirtwaist dresses, pastels for the first half and a darker blue for the second half. Neil changed out of his pale suit into a burgundy suit for the second half. The band didn’t really look “dressed”, but I guess they may have been. I’ll give Manuel credit for amazing restraint. He’s normally known for flash, sparkle, sequins and beads, but this whole stage dressing was very subdued.
The first half of the concert was the new album, so I hadn’t heard any of that material before Thursday night. I liked a lot of it on first hearing, but by Friday night I had already become tentative friends with some of the songs. I especially loved the line, “If you follow all your dreams, you could get…lost.” Then after a brief intermission, the curtain opened again and Neil stood there by himself singing “I Am a Child,” a tune from his Buffalo Springfield days. It was so sweet to hear that same gentle choirboy voice, practically unchanged, singing those tender lyrics from another time and place.
Then the band and singers rejoined him for a stroll down Memory Lane. As each old favorite began, the audience paused for a heartbeat to be sure they recognized it, and then burst into applause. The second night, they were rowdier than the first, perhaps picking up on the slightly more relaxed mood of the folks onstage. But they were also more passionate, giving a standing ovation to “The Damage Done”, which Neil performed all alone in a spotlight.
Two of my personal-favorite songs got special treatment. Neil briefly noted the recent passing of Rufus Thibodeaux, who had played fiddle on Comes A Time, and just in the last week, Vassar Clements, and in their memory he called upon every free singer and band member to line up along the front of the stage with guitars and play first “Comes A Time” and then “Four Strong Winds,” a song I had loved ever since Ian Tyson had written it in the early ‘Sixties.
On “Four Strong Winds” he put Diana DeWitt on autoharp, which I hadn’t realized had been the special sound on that record. It wouldn’t have sounded right without it. (That way, Gary got to play the guitar and join the lineup across the stage. Apparently there weren’t enough guitars to go around until Diana moved to autoharp.) Neil told us that as a kid of sixteen in Canada, he had spent a lot of time at a local diner which had a jukebox, and spent all his money listening to Ian and Sylvia’s record of “Four Strong Winds” over and over again.
Neil mentioned Nicolette Larson, who was featured on Comes A Time, as if she was no longer with us, but never made that quite clear. He said he felt her there in spirit.[iii] I must admit that Pegi sounded nearly as good when doing that duet with him. Then he explained that he had been full of love songs for the young ladies in his past, but that recently he had written a new kind of love song. He supposed you could call it an “Empty Nester” tune, and he had written it for his daughter, twenty-one and in her senior year of college. “I guess you could say, I’m there for you,” was the final line.
Talk about there for you – I had heard that he and Pegi had founded a school for kids afflicted with cerebral palsy, called The Bridge, because Graham Nash had mentioned doing a fundraiser for it with Crosby and Stills. But I didn’t know it was because they had a son with cerebral palsy. He attended the concert both nights in his wheelchair. I was touched that they would go to the trouble not only to bring their son with them on this Nashville trip, but even transport him to the concert, not just one but both of the nights.
My friend Chris told me that Neil has the most enormous Lionel train set. It’s housed in a separate building on his property. He has invented special controls that his son can use to run the trains. Chris also reported that Neil then decided to just buy Lionel Trains, the manufacturer. Why not, if you love them that much?
The next song was “Harvest Moon” which I had heard a bit, from the Harvest Moon album Neil made in Nashville in 1992. For me, it’s not the kind of song you crave to hear, but it was so soothing and mesmerizing that you didn’t want it to stop. One mighty cute thing about that song was the percussion. Karl Himmel came on stage carrying a broom, and a roadie laid down a rubber floor mat in front of him. Throughout the song, the “brushes” sound that is usually associated with jazz was being produced by Karl sweeping that mat. A fun bit of knowledge, like my enjoyment in knowing that one of the percussion instruments on Delaney & Bonnie’s Motel Shot was someone banging on an empty briefcase.
The concert ended with “One of These Days,” promising that someday Neil planned to write everyone a letter, telling all the people he had loved how much they meant to him. It was a great goodbye song, and when they were finished with the show, they really meant it. None of that coy waiting in the wings until the audience proves they want you back. No amount of stomping, pounding the backs of the pews, hollering or clapping could convince them to do an encore, though we tried. They just did a final curtain call, all arms linked around waists and bowing together, and the merciless curtain closed again.
Then came the leaving. We didn’t really want to. Gary called Carol on her cell and asked her to keep everybody there till he could get down to us. Gabe and Landon were there, and Jason and Cari-Ann and her husband Curt Redding, along with Gary’s mother Lorene, his sister Brenda, her daughter and boyfriend. Chris and I waited with them until Gary finally made it out of the building, appearing to have showered and changed. I envied his freshness, drippy and hot as I was, waiting outside in the still oppressive night air.
Gabe, Gary, Carol Pigg; Chris Harris, Curt & Cari-Ann Redding, Gwen Moore, Landon Pigg, Jason Thomas
Gary was thrilled we all had shared the evening with him, but soon he was off to the afterparty at the Hermitage Hotel. He told Landon to wait awhile until he scoped out the mood of the party, and if it was loose enough, he would call Landon and he could show up and be further introduced around. Landon had already met Elliott Roberts earlier in the week and had a good conversation with him, and had made friends with one of the camera guys. So Landon needed to hang somewhere else for awhile, and he and a friend, Costa, and Chris Harris and I went to the Sunset Grill to decompress and debrief.
What fun. I got to tell some of my favorite stories, including the Christmas Card debacle at Hummingbird. I talked about the ease of simply handing producer Brown Bannister the cassette of “Say Once More” and getting it on Amy’s third album with that little effort. I told about the fun of knowing most of the studio musicians in Nashville because I booked them for sessions. I told Chris about my favorite early vocal session, of getting to sing with Little Jimmy Gilmer, one of the first voices I could remember in my pop music listening career as a mere ten year old. Jimmy was the singer on “Sugar Shack.”
The way that session unfolded really astonished me. Alan Moore had produced it at the Goldmine, before he moved to Chicago, and I sang with Jimmy and Hank Martin. Alan simply talked for a couple of minutes about what he wanted the jingle to sound like, and the Nashville pickers just played it. There were no charts, no arrangements, no notes written down of any kind. It was what they called a “head session”. The producer simply communicated an idea, and the musicians grabbed it and ran with it, creating as they went.
I told them my favorite vindication story. I will omit the names for the sake of love, but it was so amazing to have Peter York (President of Sparrow Records) hand a famous producer my Healing Heart album, saying, “Make your next album sound like this.” I dearly loved that producer, but I had been hurt when I was not chosen to sing on an artist’s recording sessions after there had been some success. In my own mind at least, my status as a legitimate musician was more than restored in this moment with Peter. And God chose to make it happen more dramatically and to a greater degree than I would ever have wished for.
Peter York is a whole nother story. He used to play guitar for the 2nd Chapter of Acts, that group that our band Fireworks was supposed to “replace” at Word Records. After I quit the band, I sang in a wedding of mutual friends with Peter, so we’ve known each other since the ‘Seventies when we were both starving artists. Who would have predicted he would end up as president of Sparrow Records?
Chris got to tell about the first jingle account he won. His demo for Crisco beat everybody else’s and he got to produce the legendary Loretta Lynn singing it. He told about the time he showed Stevie Ray Vaughn how to play a demo he had written for some other jingle client. And how Stevie excitedly showed Chris the scriptures he had written into his AA 12-Step book, and how very well prepared Stevie was to go, when his plane crashed six months later.
We talked about Chris’s four months (Seemed a lot longer than that to me!) of parking cars for the Spence Manor, when it was the only locked, 24-hour service private hotel in Nashville and all the stars stayed there, and how he had met everybody who was anybody, including Cheech & Chong and Wayne Newton and lots of celebrities between those extremes. Chris said it was Carol Pigg’s idea that he apply for the job.
The boys asked us whether Mike Blanton was a genius, and was that was why Amy Grant had succeeded in such a massive way? Chris and I agreed, “No, we love Mike, but he’s no genius. He didn’t make anything happen. It was a God thing.” Chris told a story I was not aware of, that some Nashville guy had moved to New York, made contact with some wealthy Jewish backer, and had arranged for Amy to play a huge stadium there. When she sold out, with eighteen thousand people filling the stadium, that was when Blanton & Harrell could start booking her on that much grander scale. So Landon commented, “Mike’s genius was in not saying no, then.”
Landon Pigg, the question man, asked, “So what do you think made Neil Young so popular?” Chris said a few words, but he didn’t cover any of my reasons, so then I jumped in. “First,” I said, “Neil Young isn’t the greatest singer, and he isn’t the greatest guitar player, and he stands there so humble and unassuming and thankful and generous that the audience relates to him as a normal guy. Second, he’s used a lot of the same people in his band for years and years, some of them as far back as 1970. That’s loyalty, and that’s friendship. He makes relationships the center, instead of money or fame. He just loves the music.
“See,” I explained, “many producers are not all that confident about their own choices, so they are constantly looking to see who other people are using, and who played on this or that hit, and they use those pickers, thinking it will make the same magic for their project. They’re more superstitious than baseball players.” I asked for confirmation from Chris, and he agreed.
I didn’t say this to the guys, but for the reader’s benefit, I will add that those kinds of producers don’t realize something basic. The magic doesn’t come with the “hit-maker” picker like a package deal. The magic comes from the right players, with the right amount of direction, playing the right kind of music, in the right atmosphere. Casting is as important in a recording session as it is in a movie or a play, and so is the amount of direction offered from whoever’s in charge. If you pick the right player for the song, he or she will naturally know what to do to make it feel the best it can, so a wise producer will leave them alone to do their job unless they really need direction.I had many experiences where a producer would hire me (the Queen of Mellow) and two other mellow singers, and then tell us to make the song “exciting”. When I finally got just too fed up with that kind of thing, I asked one producer right from the vocal booth, “Why did you hire Mr. and Misses Mellow, if you want excitement?” He did not appreciate that comment, and as you may imagine, I did not work for him again. I had other experiences where the producer would absolutely love my performance – in one case, saying he had never produced a perfect solo, but that this one came close – and then be talked out of using it later on by someone else’s opinion. I slowly, painfully learned that insecurity runs rampant in the producer world.
It was getting very late, and I didn’t get to offer my third reason. Neil Young has done the impossible, by constantly reinventing himself and trying all kinds of musical configurations, and yet always seeming to be a constant, someone you can depend on to always deliver his heart in everything he does. I didn’t get to say that, but I was definitely thinking it, or something like it. Then Gary called, saying that Landon should come on over to the party at the Hermitage, and the evening ended for us. Costa remarked, as we got up from the table, “I hope someday I have stories like these to tell.”
I’ll say, in closing, that Sunset Grill sure beats the Vanderbilt area International House of Pancakes, which used to be the only place you could go to eat and drink in Nashville after midnight. So Thursday and Friday, August 18 and 19, 2005, gave me a great forty-eight hours. I was as excited as a child to get to participate, and incredibly grateful for the rich experience I had with my friends and one of my earliest musical heroes.
August 20, 2005
Neil Young’s Greatest Hits reprised just for me on August 18 & 19, 2005:
I Am a Child (1968, Last Time Around, Buffalo Springfield)
Harvest Moon; Old King; One of These Days (1992, Harvest Moon)
[i] Poco was a country rock band started by Richie Furay (vocals and rhythm guitar) and Jim Messina (lead guitar and vocals) following the demise of Buffalo Springfield in 1968. Other initial members were Rusty Young (pedal steel and dobro), George Grantham (drums and vocals) and Randy Meisner (bass and vocals). The first album Pickin' Up the Pieces was significantly delayed - so that Meisner had joined Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band and later was a founding member of The Eagles. Timothy B. Schmit - bass and vocals - subsequently joined the band. Poco (1971) and Deliverin' (1972) followed. Messina then left the band - being replaced by Paul Cotton. Messina experienced considerable subsequent success with Kenny Loggins as Loggins & Messina. After two Poco more albums: A Good Feelin' to Know and Crazy Eyes, Furay also left the band - forming the Souther Hillman Furay Band.
[ii] As host of The Johnny Cash Show on ABC-TV (1969-1971), he served up 60 hours of prime-time TV, which featured performers like Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles, Neil Young, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Kenny Rogers, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams Jr., Dennis Hopper, Judy Collins, Charley Pride, the Oak Ridge Boys, Patti Page and Merle Haggard, most rarely seen on TV back then. Chris Harris comments: “I remember it was the Johnny Cash show that got em all here!!!! Wow...and John Darnall was the music director for that show.” John is a guy we’ve all worked for, and I’ve booked as a guitar player. His then-wife Beverly booked background vocals for the majority of sessions in Nashville for the past twenty-five years.
[iii] Thanks to the internet, I learned that Nicolette died in 1997, at the age of 45, of a cerebral hemorrhage.