Are you ready for country... rock?
Harvest is the most commercially successful album of Neil Young's career, as it was the best-selling album in the USA in 1972, and the one that made him take a turn in his trajectory, to avoid stagnation. But it was not a sought-after success, but a happy accident that included some of the best songs of his career, such as Heart Of Gold and Old Man, as well as being one of the absolute benchmarks of country rock.
Despite it being his third solo album, After The Gold Rush had been his first great success as a solo artist, thanks in part to his inclusion in the supergroup of the moment, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But egos and jealousy had killed the quartet and Young was now on his own. In addition, a back injury prevented him from playing much on his feet, which meant that he used his acoustic, the Martin D-45 that Stephen Stills had given him, much more than his electric. But Young was in the most creative period of his career and the songs came pouring out, gems like those that make up Harvest, but also others like Journey through the Past, See The Sky About To Rain and Dance, Dance, Dance; many of them composed while touring the USA in acoustic and solo format.
At the start of the tour, his set list represented a journey through his entire career, with songs from his time in Buffalo Springfield and C,S,N&Y, but little by little he began to focus on new compositions. So much so that when Johnny Cash invited him on his TV show, Young performed a song that he had not yet recorded, The Needle and the Damage Done, but which had become the highlight of his live performances (so much so that Harvest would include his live version at UCLA on 30 January 1971). Once in Nashville to record Cash's show, he was approached by Elliot Mazer who had a recording studio there, Quadrafonic Sound Studios, and invited him to stop by. Young didn't hesitate and went over there and told the producer that all he needed were musicians. Mazer went out on the town and came back with drummer Kenny Buttrey, bassist Tim Drummond and pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith.
From those impromptu sessions came the two key songs on the album, Old Man and Heart Of Gold, on which he also had help from James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who were also guests on Cash's show, and recorded backing vocals; and Taylor's wonderful banjo playing blended perfectly with Keith's pedal steel and Young's Martin on Old Man. Even more perfect was Heart Of Gold, a beautiful piece of soft rock that sounded like Laurel Canyon all over and whose harmonica sounded like something out of a Bob Dylan song. It was the biggest hit of his career, reaching number one in the US charts, and propelling the album to the top of the charts as well.
The rest were recorded in other sessions, A Man Needs a Maid and There's a World were recorded in London with the London Symphony Orchestra and lavish arrangements by long-time collaborator Jack Nitzsche. In April '71 Young returned to Nashville to record Out on the Weekend, Harvest and Journey Through the Past, the last one would not be released on this album, with the same country rock sound as the first two. While the last recording sessions were in the summer, in a barn owned by Young, they included Are You Ready for the Country, with some magnificent lap steel work by Nitzsche; Alabama, the song that, along with Southern Man, would lead Lynyrd Skynyrd to attack him on Sweet Home Alabama; and Words, the only song on the album where he was at ease with his Gretsch White Falcon. It was the perfect closer; one in which he showed that the road he was heading towards was a tortuous one.
The huge success of Harvest caught Young completely off guard and he reacted against it, "Harvest made me an acceptable artist to the general public. Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A tougher trip but I saw more interesting people there". The gentle breezes of Laurel Canyon were to give way to electric storm clouds - and the portent he evoked in The Needle and the Damage Done about heroin abuse among his acquaintances was to be fulfilled, sadly, with the deaths of his friends Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry.
Neil Young's music would become more aggressive, although he would continue to flirt with country rock throughout his career; but it is Harvest that shows his more cosy, homely side in all its splendour.