Nashville, Tenn. – Neil Young stood talking about friends and pictures to a handful of reporters in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater yesterday. The oversized, black and white photographs were group portraits and individual shots of the International Harvesters, the country group with which he toured over 85 stops during 1984 and 1985. Some from that ensemble – like fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux and steel and slide guitarist Ben Keith, whom Young refered to multiple times as “my brother” – have passed. Others were actually in the room.
As the “Harvest” man -- dressed in a black t-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers -- made his way from photo to photo, he spoke less out of wistfulness, and more with a-matter-of-factness.
“This was the part of my life that was unmistakably the most satisfying, from a musician’s standpoint,” he said, “All these guys are so great. The moment we had together was so precious to me.”
That “moment” now has a name: Today (June 14), Reprise released the “A Treasure,” a new, live country album from Neil Young with the International Harvesters. The group was an intimidating and expert country collective of Thibodeaux, Keith, pianist Spooner Oldham, bassist Tim Drummond, Karl Himmel and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Crawford; pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins and bassist Joe Allen rounded it out in a second incarnation.
To the Rock And Roll Hall of Famer, each of those guys deserve their own spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame. “I think this record will explain why,” said Young, calling himself “definitely the weakest link” in the crew.
Of “A Treasure’s” 12 songs, five are previously unreleased, unknown tunes, including “Amber Jean,” a namesake after his daughter (video of the song below). It is also one of the few straight-ahead country albums from Young, who was embroiled in a few fights over his creative life in the early ‘80s.
“I had just been sued by my record company for playing this kind of music. And I had been sued by the IRS because they said I had too much artistic control in my contract, that I was selling music and not really working for the company. So I had to pay sales tax. And then I was told by my record company that they would never play Neil Young doing country music on the radio,” Young explained, calling his battles at the time “a distraction… It’s not really that negative. It was just a few things coming.”
In 1985, Young was ultimately able to get a country album out there, “Old Ways,” only after he made another rock album at the behest of Geffen in 1983, “Everybody’s Rockin’.” Young’s tour with The International Harvesters was his retort, in a way, striking out on his own after he was told he’d have no support from the label or country radio (particularly after he struck a nerve with songs like “Southern Man” and “Alabama).
“I was very happy… we were playing it for ourselves,” Young, 65, said, carrying on the same chin-lifted spirit to the album’s release this week. “These guys are country music. You can say what you want about me… This record is already a complete success, even if nobody buys it.”
As for the timing of its arrival, “A Treasure” was a project 15 or 20 years in the making. “There were 85 shows… and I’ve been doing a lot of things,” he said, heavy beneath the irony of understatement. He and his team pulled out the best of the best of each track from those shows. “And that takes a lot out of me, listening. Listening is one of the hardest things for me to do. Playing is much easier than listening to music.”
As for reforming a group around the effort, Young is not interested. “They’re not here. I mean, some of them are… but I would not want to recreate this. This was a moment in time,” he said, sort of bowing toward the photos. “I prefer to play those songs by myself and as they are in my head.”
Further qualifying the honor he holds for the International Harvesters, Young compared it to other bands in his history. “That [was] more like an orchestra, having it all at once… Crazy Horse is primitive and rocks like nothing else. Buffalo Springfield was great band and it was nice playing with [Crosby Stills & Nash], but this was a whole other thing. This is more like Dixieland… it transcended.”
And what is it to transcend? “When you leave your body and nothing matters. When the music just takes you to that other place. Some musicians know about that. You just get there. And when you’re there, you know. You have to be wide open, with the right people, everybody’s gotta be on the same page, and you have to be not thinking. Above all, not thinking,” Young said, laughingly catching himself in his own moment. “And may the force be with you. May the Lord be with you. Go your own way.”
As previously reported, the veteran rocker has reteamed with Buffalo Springfield, who helped headline Bonnaroo this past weekend. They are busily confirming fall tour dates. His last studio set was “Le Noise,” released last year. As for his archive and more future activity, Young was vague.
“I have a few things… musical things… Technological things. I’m worried about the future of music… we’re working on repossessing our sound, let’s put it that way.”