In the first scenes of Neil Young: Heart of Gold, the concert film by director Jonathan Demme, Young and his scattered cavalry of musicians are all en route to the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. And when the players reunite for an evening of new songs (from the album Prairie Wind), followed by the classics (such as “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”), the result is both intimate and extraordinary.
Young made international headlines this week with news of Living With War, his 10-song album criticizing President Bush’s foreign policy and featuring the song, “Let’s Impeach the President.” Recorded earlier this month, the album’s release date has not been set, but the project is yet another indication of the Canadian-born singer-songwriter’s unpredictable artistic journey.
Prior to the recent Nashville premiere of Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Young and Demme talked to CMT Insider about their early visits to Nashville, the family dynamic of cast and why both men consider the film a living dream. Along the way, Young recalls the time he and Stephen Stills performed onstage at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the legendary bar in downtown Nashville.
CMT: Neil, could you have imagined doing this film with anybody but Jonathan?
Young: I really couldn’t have. Jonathan is is the man to do this kind of a thing. He understands my music. When we told him about it, we said, “Come on down and check this out. Come on down and check out Nashville. I’ll introduce you to Emmylou [Harris]. She knows everybody. We’ll take you to the Ryman. We’ll show you Tootsie’s. We’ll show you Broadway. We’ll take you around and introduce you.” … He soaked it up.
[Guitarist] Grant Boatwright took him around town and soaked him up with all of our old stories about the place and everything that’s happened there and how much everybody cares about it. It’s not a normal thing. Other cities don’t have something like this in it. Other cities don’t have a place where music lives like that, a place that naturally sounds so good, where all our history has been. They just don’t have it. They have good theaters, and there are beautiful places in different parts of the country that are great on their own, but not like Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. That’s one in a million.
Did you even talk about filming it anywhere but the Ryman?
Demme: No, we never talked about doing it in another location. We talked about conceivably shooting a performance on a movie stage with a blue screen behind it and projecting on the blue screen all kinds of the evocative imagery that comes from the songs on Prairie Wind and some of these other songs. We were going to get archival footage of the trains going out across the prairies and the towns growing up on the prairies and wildlife and ecological change. But the more we talked about it, the more we realized that these songs provide those images all by themselves. What if we take these songs and put them in a beautiful setting? That brought us right back to the Ryman again.
I was amazed at the similarities between the music you made 30 years ago and the music on Prairie Wind.
Young: The second half [of the film] is really almost a retrospective of my work in Nashville, the music that I made with my friends here and and all of the good times we’ve had here and the great musicians that live here. My first really big record came out of Nashville. There’s a certain kind of song that I sing when I’m here that I don’t sing when I’m somewhere else. I’m geographically influenced wherever I go, and I love to come back to Nashville and feel this feeling because it’s a great part of my soul. And the people here just are so helpful. Everybody is so helpful in getting this down on tape. We still use tape. (laughs)
You’ve not only been in Tootsie’s, but you’ve played in Tootsie’s, right?
Young: Somewhere along the line, way back a long time ago, Stephen Stills and I came to Nashville in, like, 1967 on a Buffalo Springfield tour. We were out just like a couple of spring chickens walking down Broadway at 10 in the morning and we went into Tootsie’s. Of course, nobody was there, but it was open, and this guy started talking to us. He could see we were as green as you could be, so he said, “Well, what do you guys do?” We said, “We’re musicians.” He said, “Well, why don’t you play us something?” So, Stills and I broke out our guitars and played “Go and Say Goodbye,” which is kind of a country thing from our first Buffalo Springfield record. We just felt like this was great. So we played in Tootsie’s in 1966 or ’67, but there wasn’t anybody there but the bartender. (laughs)
But it still counts.
Young: It still counts. It counts big time.
Jonathan, this movie strikes me as something that you really wanted to do.
Demme: Well, I was born in the state of New York, and I’m of a generation that entered adulthood around the ’60s. That’s when I became acquainted for the first time with Neil Young’s music, first in Buffalo Springfield and then through solo albums and then as collaborations with Crazy Horse at the same time. I had a very wide range in taste. I loved American music. I started noticing that a lot of the albums that I loved very much were recorded in Nashville, and I started recognizing certain names, like [drummer] Kenny Buttrey, [steel guitarist] Pete Drake and [fiddler] Buddy Spicher. Different names would start appearing again and again.
Then there was an album came out called — and I was living in England by the way, so I needed that American music very much — but an album came out and it was called Area Code 615. These great session players whose names I had started to recognize had now formed a group and were putting out their own albums. Nashville became a big thing in my head then. I still didn’t realize the extent to which I was naïve, and I didn’t know that Hank Williams was Nashville. I loved Hank Williams from my childhood, but I didn’t get the totality. But I finally came down to Nashville in late ’70s because I was drawing from this Area Code 615 mentality. I went to Tootsie’s as a consumer and got excited to be in Nashville, which is the Mecca of a certain kind of American music. So, years later, to have the chance to collaborate with Neil Young on a film of a concert at the Ryman in Nashville, it’s just an extraordinary experience for me. I couldn’t be happier.
Neil, do you think younger fans that are just discovering your music are surprised to find that you have such an affinity for country and that some of your music is country music?
Young: Well, if they hadn’t been listening to me before — and they just discovered me on some Crazy Horse record that I did or some distortion record or electric guitar record that I did at some point — they may be surprised to see the other things I’ve done. But most of my audience understands that I’m really not in control of that. I go where the songs take me. If I write the songs — and I’ll write a bunch of these type of songs like on Prairie Wind — and then something happens to me. I want to go and do something else for a while, so I can come back and have it be fresh.
This is the beauty of being able to go back and forth. I believe in these music forms very much, and I believe that they are part of me. So it makes me feel good to go here and there and do things, because when I come back, I’m refreshed. It’s like I got a new shot. I love to play live, and I love to play with these musicians here and play live and sing live in the studio and perform the songs, see the pictures in my head, send the feelings out to the last row of whatever venue I may be in or in my mind or whatever. When I’m in the studio, I just like to send it out there and record that performance. Here in Nashville, the musicians are so great. My friends understand me, so we’re able to do that. We’re able to just sing the song in the old way, the way they did it a long time ago. It’s the same thing. We’ve got the multi-tracks and we’ve got everything, but we’re just playing all at once, and it’s generally just a one-shot deal.
What are you hoping that people take from the movie?
Demme: The more I talked to Neil about his relationship with the different players and singers on the record, the more I realized that whenever you gather these people together, it is a homecoming. They are a family. I knew the film would benefit from that in a couple of ways. I knew it would benefit in terms of the audience becoming more involved than usual with the musicians in the film, because these relationships were so evident. Also I knew that they were gonna play together so beautifully. I knew that they played on Prairie Wind so beautifully together. If they are gonna now rehearse for 10 days building up to the world premiere of this album — which had not come out yet — I knew that whole matrix of relationships was gonna really deliver both great music and great connections between the players and the audience. I was excited about that.
A lot of our focus was on this wish to make the film feel like a like a dream concert — Neil Young’s dream concert. If he was gonna dream up in his dreams his most lovely, beautiful concert, it would be at the Ryman. It would be with these musicians. It would be in Nashville. And it would sound like this. … Whatever helped us enhance the dreamlike flavor of the movie, we went for. You and I were talking a little bit about the the gigantic moon that we see over the Ryman early on. Well, that may or may not be larger than it was that night, but there’s a dreamlike quality to that. That’s part of a visual language that we use to create that state.
He mentioned your dream concert, and in your face, Neil, I saw a guy who was really enjoying himself.
Young: I’m having a great time out there, all the time. I love all the people out there. I’ve been playing with Ben Keith for 35 years and I’ve been playing with [keyboardist] Spooner Oldham for 25 and with the other guys for a long time, too. We’ve been together for such a long time. I’ve known Emmylou for years and years. Of course, my lovely wife is out there with me. We’re all playing music together. It’s just so great to be out there with all those great musicians and the beautiful instruments that they bring. We had five Stradivarius violins on the stage. We had the Fisk University Jubilee Singers out there. We had a lot of things we could draw on.
Everybody was just really inspired by being at the Ryman and playing this music. We spent a lot of time getting it together so we could do justice to the folks that have been there before us and to our heroes and to the great tradition. I remember saying to Jonathan at one point, “You know, I think it would really be nice if we could go to country music heaven. If we could just be there.” … I can’t hold a candle to some of these people that we’re paying tribute to. And I know that. Up there, wherever they are now, we just hope they’re hearing us and that we’re respecting what’s been done.
Terry Bumgarner is a producer for CMT Insider.