Forgotten series: Neil Young – Austin City Limits (1984)

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One of the coolest things about writing a book on a guy like Neil Young is the unexpected gifts you get from even more unexpected places.

One such unexpected surprise arrived in my mailbox earlier this week. It was a long-since forgotten video of Neil during his country period with the International Harvesters on the PBS concert showcase Austin City Limits from 1984 — sent to me as a gift from the ACL folks.

These days, Austin City Limits features artists covering a wide variety of genres — you are just as likely to find folks like Arcade Fire and Wilco performing on the show, as you are someone like Willie Nelson. But what people forget is that in its infancy, ACL started out mainly as a showcase for country and roots performers. So having them feature someone like Neil Young back in 1984, during his short lived — and some would say, misguided — attempt at crossing over from rock to country, was in fact a pretty big deal.

Like most of his various genre experiments during the so-called “lost ’80s,” Neil Young’s country fling on the album Old Ways was by and large a commercial flop. At the time it was seen — and in retrospect, perhaps somewhat rightfully — as simply the latest in a long line of weird vanity projects, including dalliances in rockabilly and New Wave-influenced synth-pop, that left everyone from the critics to the fans scratching their heads in collective bewilderment.

In the case of Neil’s rockabilly album with the Shocking Pinks, the howls of discontent from Neil Young’s fanbase were mostly deserved too. Everybody’s Rockin’ was a particularly wretched album, and it hasn’t grown any more listenable with the passage of time (unlike the synthetic electro-pop of Trans, which has spawned a much more apologetic critical reassessment in recent years).

But of all of Neil Young’s 1980s genre experiments, his country period is perhaps the most misunderstood of them all.

For one thing, Neil had a hell of a band back then in the International Harvesters. This band of Nashville cats may not have blown down arena doors with the same ferocity as Crazy Horse or, for that matter, Pearl Jam. But as this 1984 ACL concert proves, they could more than hold their own with Neil Young on an extended version of “Down By The River.” In fact, a very young at the time Anthony Crawford’s guitar interplay with Neil here, very nearly pulls off the enviable trick of summoning up the ghost of the late Danny Whitten himself.

For further evidence that these guys could rock, one only need to listen to the barnstorming “Grey Riders” from 2011’s concert recording A Treasure, originally recorded during the same period. Sadly, the ACL performance does not include this amazing track, a lost treasure in and of itself.

But what you do see here is a surprisingly relaxed Neil Young, playing his new country tunes before a surprisingly receptive audience — and one which had every right not to trust the former hippie rock star (remember, this was the very polarized Reagan 1980s era). Neil’s country songs are serviceable and decent, if not particularly memorable here — although his love song to newly born daughter “Amber Jean” comes across as genuinely heartfelt.

Mostly though, they are saved by the International Harvesters, a great band who, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, may have been one of Neil Young’s best ever. The late, great Ben Keith is particularly amazing (although he looks pretty funny sitting behind the pedal steel in his hippie headband and vest). Spooner Oldham’s piano is likewise pure honky-tonk heaven.

But the guy who really tears the house down is fiddle player Rufus Thibodeaux, bringing otherwise paint-by-numbers country tunes like “Are You Ready For The Country?” roaring to shit-kicking life.

One other thing that should be noted about this performance though, is the way that the International Harvesters positively nail the studio sheen of songs from Neil Young’s Harvest period, particularly on a letter perfect “Heart Of Gold.” It seems there was much more to this band than Neil Young’s brief flirtation with country music after all. Much like the album of the same name, this lost 1984 performance from Austin City Limits is a real treasure.

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Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd

The Something Else! Reviews webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, is syndicated through Bing News, Topix and The site has been featured in The New York Times,'s A Blog Supreme, the Americana site, and JazzTimes, while our writers have also been published by USA Today,,, Blues Revue Magazine and, among others. Contact Something Else! at
Glen Boyd
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