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Neil Young Spotlight: Old Man with a Heart of Gold

There are many who answer the call of being a musician in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll. But only a few can personify their legacy through the ages. In the case of Neil Young, every songwriter can trace their influences back to him as one of the most prolific artists of his time. An enigma whose career spans more than 50 years, Young is celebrated for his musical compositions and eclectic voice. Originally an immigrant suffering from polio, Young found his cure and solace through music. In his refuge the artist would nourish his craft and become the unpredictable icon that he’s known as today.

Through small beginnings in Toronto, Canada the ailing Young discovered his fiery passion for music during his teenage years. The obsession over Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash caused the teen to drop out of school to pursue a musical career. Young’s early success in Canada allowed him to perform alongside other native superstars such as: Joni Mitchell, The Guess Who and Ken Koblun. His Bob Dylan inspired folk song “Sugar Mountain” would catch the attention of Rick James and provided the songwriter an opportunity to join his band. However, this union would soon be dissolved with James being arrested and leaving the band with no front man. Young would pursue the formation of his own band with the help from California based musicians Stephen Stills and Rich Furay. The psychedelic rock group Buffalo Springfield was born and made a splash with their hit single “For What It’s Worth.” But internal conflict and management hardships caused the group to split leaving Young by himself again.

Young continued his career as a solo act and released his debut album, Neil Young, in 1969. But soon after he would reunite with Stills and join his Grammy award winning band Crosby, Stills & Nash. Their reunion brought a positive reception to Young’s career and the group later performed at the famous Woodstock Festival. The group would become the centerpiece of the counterculture movement with the release of their album Déjà vu. Their 1970 single Ohio, written by Young, was written in reaction to the Kent State Massacre and represented the era’s student protests. The single would be heralded by The Guardian as “the greatest protest record” and accoladed into the Grammy Hall of Fame. But inner turmoil would once again cause friction between Young and Stills and led to the group’s breakup. Each member later had successful solo careers, however, Young would transcend them all.

Following his band’s breakup. Young shifted his style and broke out into the folk country scene with the release of After the Gold Rush. The record is praised in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and Time magazine as one of the greatest records of all time. The Village Voice lauded Young describing him as “A real rarity: pleasant and hard at the same time.” The rock influenced track “Southern Man” would inspire the creation of the most prolific southern rock song ever written. Ronnie Van Zant, of Lynyrd Skynyrd, heard the track and influenced the songwriter to make “Sweet Home Alabama”. Young was appreciative knowing he influenced one of his contemporaries as he said, “I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs.” But Young would follow through with his own groundbreaking response to all of his peers.

Young’s ever-changing sound culminated in the symphonic-like record Harvest. A breakthrough work of art that became the best-selling record in the U.S. at the time of its release. The chart-topping singles of Old Man and Heart of Gold broke barriers worldwide. The soft acoustic vibe that segued into the hard edge lyrics which established Young on par with Bob Dylan’s writing. Both tracks have been covered extensively by other established artists such as: Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves and even the late Johnny Cash. To this day, Harvest is listed as the greatest album released from a Canadian in numerous top publications with over 5 million copies sold.

A dual member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a soloist and with Buffalo Springfield, Young continues to inspire other generations of songwriters. Young is even credited with heavily inspiring the artists of the grunge era during the 1990s. His “true to himself” style and soul-searching writing encapsulate what astounded millions of others across the world. Currently, Young still writes and record music despite numerous hiatuses and even a brush with death. An artist who, despite shortcomings with illness and group conflict, has shown that his heart of gold can shine through the years to come.

Written by Trenton Luber

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