The Wayward Wind / Get Back to the Country / Are There Any More Real Cowboys? / Once an Angel / Misfits / California Sunset / Old Ways / My Boy / Bound for Glory / Where Is the Highway Tonight?
by Steve Peck
You can take Neil Young out of the country (like when he tours Europe or elsewhere), but you can't take the country out of Neil Young. After several less definitive forays into country-and-western music (such as album sides on American Stars 'n' Bars and Hawks and Doves), Young finally strapped on the country harness for real on Old Ways. Backed by a full band, the International Harvesters, replete with fiddles, pedal steel, and banjos, Neil managed to make a very solid country record. While it may not be one of his very best, Old Ways turns out to be an important work nonetheless. On Old Ways, Neil Young has grown up; he is no longer a young man finger pointing at the establishment. There is a new found sense of responsibility showing up in his songs. He attempts to do his part in standing up for the small guy who's dreams are being dashed, and who is trying to maintain his / her lifestyle, built on the basic human values of family, love, and hard work. Neil speaks of these things from the perspective of a man who has learned these lessons. It is a transformation for Young, and actually is easy to miss when listening to this laid-back sounding album. This new sensibility is also found in most of his subsequent work. The main thematic highlights of the album are in "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?," a song that chronicles the plight of the modern cowboy / farmer, and "Bound For Glory," a tale of a lonely pickup-truck driver, a hitchhiking girl, and her dog. The title cut, "Old Ways," has the author swearing off his evil ways, although he cannot stay straight. Other memorable moments are "California Sunset," an ode to his state of residence, "Once An Angel," a slow country ballad with a very traditional setting, and "My Boy," a touching song for his son. "Misfits" is one of those really weird Neil Young numbers where you wonder what the hell he is talking about and what possessed him to write it.
The International Harvesters were a swinging band that added a lot to the quality of the record, and this is Neil's most realized country effort to date. One enjoyable aspect of the album is his use of Waylon Jennings for vocal harmonies. Waylon and Neil's voices blend well together, and Jennings is one of the best harmonizers around. Willie Nelson shows up to duet on "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?," adding further to the record's country credentials. This period of Neil's career is even more significant if you look past the Old Ways album, and take into account the subsequent International Harvesters tour, with its performances of several exceptional, unreleased songs, "Interstate" and "Grey Riders." Two other songs that further defined Neil's sympathy for the modern farmer, "This Old House" (later recorded by CSNY) and "Nothing Is Perfect" (still unreleased), fit right into the themes of Old Ways. The Harvesters proved to be a spectacular live band, and really shined when given the opportunity to stretch out and jam. Notable highlights from the tour were smokin' renditions of "Southern Pacific" (with great fiddling), and an epic version of "Down By the River" where Neil strapped on the old electric guitar and wailed. Although this record is generally viewed as one of Young's weird genre pieces from the eighties, it is actually a pretty traditional album for him, as Neil's music always had a country edge, even when blasting away with Crazy Horse. Old Ways breaks new ground in terms of personal expression for Mr. Young, with his acceptance of his role as a responsible adult. It is also a nice album to listen to when you are sitting on your porch, doing nothing.