Like many 70s filmmakers struggling to survive in the 80s, Neil Young attempted to make records that fit into, rather than challenge, genre classifications. Trans (1982) had sci-fi lyrics set to new-wave backing tracks. Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983) was rockabilly rooted in the 50s. Old Ways (1985) went all-in on country.
Young had a long reputation of being iconoclastic. After his commercial breakthrough, Harvest (1972), he made three noisy, abrasive records, Time Fades Away (1973), On the Beach (1974), and Tonight’s the Night (1975), all of which were a deliberate thumbing of his nose at fans who expected to hear the mellow California folk of Harvest (the weirder songs on the record must’ve been conveniently ignored), and enthralled those who preferred music that was definitely out there. By the time he made Rust Never Sleeps (1979), the public had caught up with him, and it was another huge success, helping to define the so-called classic rock now heard on the radio.
In his mind, deciding to make genre-specific records in the 80s was a change of direction. Except that it was a direction no one appreciated, much less liked.
While there are some people who admire Trans for its quirky retro-futurism, it would be hard to find anyone who would speak nicely of Everybody’s Rockin’. To say this record is absolutely pointless is almost not harsh enough: imagining a bad ventriloquist on a particularly off night gives some idea of the experience that awaits an unfortunate listener. Everybody’s Rockin’ was so lackluster that it was one of the major reasons why his record company, Geffen, sued him for making records that deliberately didn’t sound like Neil Young.
Originally rejected by Geffen when Young submitted it in 1982, the revamped version of Old Ways did him no favors with an audience he had completely alienated.
Young, however, couldn’t have cared less. While a settlement was being reached with Geffen, he was playing with the International Harvesters, a country band made up of top Nashville studio musicians who could add color and nuance to even the most assembly-line musical fare.
In 1985, Young co-organized, with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid, a charity concert for family farmers facing the threat of being taken over by big agricultural business. Nelson repaid the favor, singing on Old Ways, along with his fellow outlaw-country singer-songwriter, Waylon Jennings.
Old Ways takes its time getting out of the gate. The first two songs have the same kind of ventriloquism problems Young had when he went rockabilly. They simply don’t sound enough like him.
But the next song, “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?”, has a slow, steady beat and sly wit, both characteristic of Young, that, with Willie’s help, makes fun of the 80s urban cowboy trend. You start to feel Young getting more relaxed, putting his dusty boots up on the coffee table and deciding to set for a spell.
A few minutes later comes the song any hardcore Young fan (of which I consider myself one) is waiting for, “Misfits,” a surrealistic account of astronauts in space watching a Muhammad Ali boxing match on TV, with a chorus lifted into the stratosphere by Waylon’s backing vocals. This song is the pure essence of Young, finding new ways to express an artistic vision that, on the whole, defies common logic.
It could be argued, at this point, that making Old Ways was not at all a bad idea, especially given that Young had the support of Willie and Waylon and top Nashville musicians. Although Young gave the impression that he had embraced the political conservatism of the country scene, his vocal support of Reagan, that nuke-riding cowboy, was less heartfelt than his belief in the populist ideals of Farm Aid.
And Young was simpatico with the animating spirit of country music, that tension between the desire to settle down and yearning for the open road, which filled the songs of Willie and Waylon. “My Boy,” a heartbreaking ballad about a father’s watching his son grow up, is sung in Young’s most tender voice, with a plangent steel guitar line played by Ben Keith, a musical comrade since the recording of Harvest. It also features a rare Young guitar solo on the record, and rather than the raging, chaotic energy that categorizes his usual approach, the tone is cleaner, the picking statelier.
Taking place on the trans-Canada highway, the travelogue of “Bound For Glory” is a song in three chords, a country-music trademark. Waylon is in fine form. So is Hargus “Pig” Robbins, the blind pianist who can be heard on almost any great song recorded in Nashville in the 60s and 70s.
Pig was so famous in those days that Robert Altman, the director of Nashville (1975), played comic tribute to him when in the film he had an obnoxious bandleader stop a studio session, firing the long-haired, shades-wearing piano player named Frog, and refuse to continue until they could get Pig.
The last song, “Where Is The Highway Tonight?”, marks the farewell of the musical triumvirate of Young, Waylon, and Pig. Opening with a melancholy piano figure, the song is about trying to find a way back to a lost love. Young reminds us that the highway is as much a dream as anything else.
Young wouldn’t find his way back until four years later, when Freedom (1989) caught the emerging wave of grunge.
Old Ways, overall, does not fully deliver on its promise. It has a running time of less than 40 minutes, which means the unimpressive songs stand out more than on a record where you could point to more than half of the songs as being favorites. In particular, the title track has Young fatuously declaring that he’s going to lead a clean life from now on and give up smoking pot. Willie must’ve have had a few laughs when he heard that one.
But combining new and old band members and mixing tear-in-your-beer songwriting with Young’s “old man” persona yields a few treasures. And Old Ways doesn’t suffer from overproduction which makes any number of 80s records a difficult listen. Even Bob Dylan, who mockingly stated he was not surprised when he was told that Young was making a country album, stumbled when he stuffed Empire Burlesque (1985) full of 80s studio clichés.
Old Ways is only dated for its being one of Young’s less memorable journeys that was his response to the 80s curse which threatened to transform 70s rock stars into dinosaurs. Young turned to what he thought would stand the test of time, the music of Willie and Waylon. It’s hard to say he wasn’t right.