NEIL YOUNG
A Treasure
(Reprise)

 

Yet another amazing CD collection from Neil Young, A Treasure collects the best of live music from the 1984-85 period that featured the International Harvesters band with Neil and his pedal steel guitar ace Ben “Long Grain” Keith. The sound, however countrified during that 1985 Old Ways period, is awesome sounding and lush in this setting. A dignified cover here of Young’s long lost Buffalo Springfield rarity, “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” captures the essence of Young’s incredible ‘60s sound perfectly, complete with some just retro-fying pedal steel work by Ben that will send shivers up your spine. Overall, A Treasure is a fitting tribute to Ben Keith, who tragically passed away in 2010 and it looks like this was Ben’s parting shot at rock greatness, co-producing and naming this volume nine in Young’s archive series and the sixth to be released. Ironically, the title was conceived by Ben, who after finding the tapes after 25 years said ‘this is a treasure.’ www.NeilYoung.com

{The late 2005 CD release of Prairie Wind by Neil Young seemed to eclipse a seminal moment in time. The ghostly vibe of several songs, I later discovered, turned out in part to be about the loss of Neil’s father and the high lonesome sound also kind of coincided with Neil’s own brush with death in 2005. After the numerous tragedies that befell too many in 2005, the winter of 2006 seemed like part two, a new beginning in a decade that would take no prisoners. During the frosty winter snows of 2006, I spoke with Ben Keith about working with Neil Young and his amazing history in Nashville. Sadly Ben passed away in 2010, yet his amazing guitar sound lives on thanks to his timeless sound. - editor August, 2011}

Steelin’ Time
an interview with BEN KEITH
by Robert Silverstein


The first three Neil Young albums were great and they also served as the setup for what has remained Young’s most popular album, Harvest. That cosmic country vibe that so suited Young’s Springfield inspired melodies were greatly enhanced by the pedal steel guitar sounds of Ben Keith. A legend of the Nashville session scene for years, the 69 year old Keith has remained a close musical cohort with Young and last year they recorded what some call Young’s best solo album since Harvest, a CD /DVD set called Prairie Wind. Currently working with Young on the new solo album from Young’s wife, Peggy Young, Ben Keith took time out for an interview with 20th Century Guitar / MWE3 reviews editor Robert Silverstein on February 18, 2006. Topics ranged from current work with Neil and Peggy Young and fond memories of his early mentors Jerry Byrd and Chet Atkins.

mwe3: I want to ask about working with Neil Young on making Prairie Wind? The production is great...

BK: Thank you so much.

mwe3: I was depressed the CD didn’t win a Grammy...

BK: Me too. Well we just ran over the songs and kind of picked the musicians, kind of the same ones we use all the time, except the string players and the Fisk University singers. The background singers were different. He came up with the songs. He didn’t have anything written when he came to town. He had like half one song written. That night he went in and finished that song, and then we did it. And the next night he went back to the hotel, wrote another one and it continued on for like ten days. Every night he’d write a different song. It was really amazing the way he did that. It was really different from what he had done before.

mwe3: Which guitars did you use on Prairie Wind?

BK: It’s the same one I’ve used for years. It’s an Emmons single neck ten string. I’ve had it for years and years, since the ‘60s.

mwe3: How would you describe the guitar chemistry between you and Neil. I hear he’s somewhat of a guitar aficionado.

BK: He used Hank Williams’ old guitar. The old Martin. And he used that on almost every cut, I think. He really likes that guitar. It’s an amazing guitar. It just sounded wonderful.

mwe3: That was actually one of Hank’s guitars?

BK: Yeah, it’s one of Hank Williams’ guitars.

mwe3: I know you played on Neil’s Harvest album back in 1972. How did you get introduced to Neil?

BK: Tim Drummond, he was just kind of walking by the studio and Neil was doing the Johnny Cash show at the time and they called Tim in and asked Tim if he knew a steel guitar player, ‘cause Neil wanted a steel guitar player on the songs and I lived about four or five blocks away at the time. And Tim called me on the phone and said, ‘come on down, we’re doing some sessions with Neil Young and I didn’t know who Neil Young was. I’d heard of Crosby Stills Nash & Young but I didn’t know that’s who it was. And when I got there they had already started the sessions and I kind of set up as quiet as I could, walked out and kind of set up and started playing. And he did like five songs in a row and they were the five songs that were on the record...“Harvest” and “Old Man” and the five songs that were recorded before I even said hello. And I noticed the guy beside me was really a great guitar player and I thought, ‘who’s that?’ it really sounds great. And I found out, it was James Taylor. And we had cut five songs before I even met Neil, said hello or anything. (laughter)

mwe3: James Taylor sang background on Harvest.

BK: Him and Linda Ronstadt sung the back-ups in the control room. They just setup microphones about twelve feet away and they all sat on the couch and did back-up vocals.

mwe3: Can you say something about the new Heart Of Gold movie?

BK: Yeah, we were all on it. It was really nice. As a matter of fact, they’re going to premier it here in Nashville, the ninth of March. And I’ve seen it a couple of times. It’s really a wonderful documentary film. He does the whole Prairie Wind album and then he does different segment on the last half of all his old tunes. So it’s really nice and we had all the string players and the Fisk University singers and there was like forty five people on stage at one time there. I’ll tell you who else is one it...the Memphis Horns with Wayne Jackson and also Emmylou Harris and it was just a wonderful thing. It’s going to be released nationwide, the 19th I think.

mwe3: Did you play the Emmons on the Heart Of Gold movie?

BK: Yeah, yeah. That’s all I play.

mwe3: What is it about that steel guitar that you like so much?

BK: Well, they made it specially for me and they wrapped the pickups the way I like. It’s got the big full sound and the big fat notes and I just love it.

mwe3: How did you get started on steel.

BK: Well I bought this old guitar when I was in high school from my friend for like seven dollars. And the strings were so high off the neck, I loved it and I played it so much that I got a bone filling on my index finger, the one that I make the chords with. It just turned black. A bone filling is where you bruise your bone. And my finger just turned black, it hurt like hell. So I got my sister’s lipstick tube and started tuning it up in an open E and started playing it like that. And anyway, that’s how I started. (laughter)

mwe3: Which steel guitar players influenced you the most?

BK: Jerry Byrd. He was my idol. And he just died like last year.

mwe3: He was in Hawaii for a long time...

BK: Oh, yeah he moved to Hawaii in the ‘60s. When I started playing I copied all of his tunes. I mean, every one of them I had down pat. As a matter of fact, I saw Hawkshaw Hawkins on TV one time. And I lived in Bowling Green Kentucky. And that was when everything was live. And I called Hawkshaw up and I said, ‘can I come and audition for you, I noticed you didn’t have a steel guitar player.’ He said, ‘sure, come on down.’ So, (laughter) I came down and I had that old home made guitar. And that was when Jerry Byrd and Chet Atkins had their program on every afternoon. And so the audition was set after Jerry Byrd and Chet Atkins were going to be gone. So I came up to the studio and I noticed Jerry’s guitar in there. And I know I used the same tuning he did. It was sitting there and I asked Hawkshaw, I said ‘I wondered, if instead of me going down and getting my old homemade guitar, that I could play his.’ And Hawkshaw said, ‘sure, I’m sure it’d be okay.’ So we went in and I sat down and he said, ‘okay play me something.’ So I played one of Jerry’s songs, that’s all I knew. And he said, ‘okay play me something else.’ I played about five Jerry Byrd songs. And he said ‘okay give me your number and I’ll call you.’ And I said, ‘oh, shit.’ (laughter) And so I turned around and Jerry Byrd was standing right behind me. And I almost fell through six or seven floors of of WSM. And any way, I felt, ‘what the hell am I doing here, get me back to my farm and my plow.’ (laughter) So I went out and pressed the elevator button and Jerry Byrd walked up to me and put his arm around me and said, ‘don’t give it up son, you really got a good touch.’ And that’s the only reason I ever kept playing guitar, is because of Jerry Byrd. And that was amazing. I couldn’t hardly swallow for like three days. My heart was in my mouth.

mwe3: So that was with Hawkshaw Hawkins?

BK: Yeah, and then a year later I moved to Nashville and I went to work for him. And he didn’t even remember me being at the audition. He didn’t remember anything about it. (laughter) So I played for him for three years and then I went to work for Faron Young and worked for him for like seven years. And then I started recording and in the ‘70s is when Neil came along. The first record I ever did, when I first stated playing with Faron, was Patsy Cline's “I Fall To Pieces.” That’s the first record I ever did, when I was 19 years old.

mwe3: I was always amazed how big the pedal steel was in country music, especially in Nashville. Was there some player who really helped make it that big?

BK: I think Jerry Byrd had a lot to do with it. And Don Helms and Jerry Byrd and all the old timers that were here. I can’t think of all of them, but just about every record that came out of Nashville had a steel guitar on it back in those days. Webb Pierce, I did a lot of records with Webb. Ray Price and all the old timers.

mwe3: Chet Atkins had big influence on your production work, how did you hook up with Chet?

BK: Well, when I was working in the publishing company in the late ‘60s, after I quit Faron, and our publishing company was right upstairs from Chet’s office. And I would sit and listen to Chet play, like the same lick, all day long. And me and him got to be kinda buddies. And he told me one time, he said ‘the best way to produce a record is to hire the best musicians that you can find, and then shut up! (laughter) And I have ideas on the string arrangements and all that stuff, but I kind of let the musicians have their head. And whoever I’m producing, like when I did Jewel, I kind of let her go ahead and do whatever she wanted to do. And all the rest of the producers that she was trying to get to do her first record, they were trying to change her and do this and that and all that. And I just said, ‘no, you go ahead and do what you want to do,’ and it turned out eleven million records sold.

mwe3: How many albums did you produce for Jewel?

BK: I did one, that first one, and then I did one last year and the record company didn’t like it and had her do it over again with some pop musicians. (laughter) I can’t wait for that thing to come out and flop like the rest of her stuff did.

mwe3: Yeah, that first one Pieces Of You, I think...

BK: Yeah, that’s it. That’s the one I did. I thought it was just another hippie record and then all of a sudden...but she works her butt off. I mean, she’s in the clubs, somewhere every night and she’s just a trooper. She really is something else. And that’s one of the big reasons that record hit, is because she’s out there, all the time.

mwe3: You’ve also made some solo albums. What was the last solo album you did?

BK: Yeah, the last one I did was a Christmas album called Seven Gates, and Neil wants to release that on his label Vapor Records this next year so we’re going to do it over and probably rename it. He wants to rename it and do one or two new songs with him and Peggy. That’s going to be next year.

mwe3: Going back in time, you were a member of The Great Speckled Bird at one time?

BK: Oh, yeah. We were up in Canada. We were like the number one band. We were hot. They brought different artists up and we’d back all the rest of the artists. It was cool. We had a big time. We’d go up one week a month and do four shows, and that went on for a couple years.

mwe3: So what’s next on the horizon for you?

BK: Well, were doing a record with Pegi Young and we’ve been doing it for like eight months I guess. And we have one more session to do. We’re going out to the ranch on the tenth of March to do the last session. I’m helping her with it and playing on it and I think Eliot Mazer is producing it and that will be out on Vapor Records at some point.

mwe3: Are you planning any upcoming albums of your own?

BK: I’m doing a thing with Dualtone Records here in Nashville called An Ode To Joe Maphis. He plowed the first row. I think just about every guitar player knows who Joe Maphis is. And he died. But we’re doing an Ode To Joe it’s called. Different guitars playing on it. Charlie Daniels is playing on it. Keith Urban and Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart and the Scruggs. Jody Maphis, his son. And Dwight Yoakum and Mother Maybelle, we did one of Mother Maybelle’s songs. And we’re in the process now of getting it together. And Joe Walsh and different guitar players that really respect him. And just about every guitar player in the world knows who Joe Maphis is.

Thanks to Ben Keith, Bill Bentley @ Reprise Records and Larry Cragg @ www.vintageinstrumentrental.com

 

 
   
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