The Story Behind Neil Young’s “Old Man”
Neil Young live in 2009 - DrSalvadoctopus / Youtube
Neil Young, a revered singer-songwriter, has gifted the world with an array of classic songs throughout his illustrious career. Among his most poignant compositions is “Old Man,” featured on his 1972 album Harvest. The song holds a special significance as it was inspired by Louis Avila, the caretaker of the Californian ranch that Young purchased in the early ’70s. With contributions from James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, “Old Man” transcends its origins and stands as one of Young’s finest creations.
A Serendipitous Encounter
During the process of acquiring Broken Arrow Ranch, Neil Young was accompanied by Louis Avila, who provided a tour of the property. Impressed by Young’s ability to purchase the ranch at such a young age, Avila asked how he managed to afford it. In response, the 25-year-old Young humbly replied, “Just lucky, Louis, just real lucky.”
The Birth of a Song
In the 2006 film Heart of Gold, Neil Young shared the origins of “Old Man.” He recounted how Louis Avila and his wife, Clara, were the caretakers of the ranch. During a ride in Avila’s old blue Jeep, they reached a picturesque lake that supplied water to the pastures. Avila, curious about Young’s financial ability to acquire such a property, posed the question. Young’s response, “Just lucky, Louis, just real lucky,” left an indelible mark on the musician. Inspired by this encounter, Young penned the heartfelt song as a tribute to Avila.
Studio Collaboration and Musical Brilliance
While “Old Man” possessed its inherent brilliance, the addition of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt in the studio elevated the song to new heights. Taylor, a masterful musician, contributed banjo to the track, enhancing the emotive quality of Young’s chords and stirring vocal melody. The three artists came together to record “Old Man” and its Harvest companion, “Heart of Gold,” following an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show in Nashville.
Taylor and Ronstadt Reflec
In a 2018 interview on The Howard Stern Show, James Taylor fondly recalled his collaboration with Neil Young on “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” He recognized the beauty of the songs from their early stages and reminisced about playing a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar for “Old Man.” Taylor expressed his certainty about the songs’ greatness, despite the uncertain nature of their potential as commercial hits.
“You know, ‘hit,’ that’s very difficult to tell. Whether or not the record company will get behind it and release it as a single or… but I knew it was a great song, that both of these songs were beautiful.”
Linda Ronstadt, sharing Taylor’s sentiment, also reflected on the session and the captivating allure of the songs.
“I can’t remember why Neil wanted me to sing with him – I guess he just figured I was there and could do it – but we went in there and they were doing ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’ and I thought they were such beautiful songs. I loved them.” Ronstadt further described the recording experience, saying, “We were sat on the couch in the control room, but I had to get up on my knees to be on the same level as James because he’s so tall. Then we sang all night, the highest notes I could sing. It was so hard, but nobody minded. It was dawn when we walked out of the studio.”