I am not a fan of country music. Not in the least. But when Neil Young is doing country music, I love it. Maybe it's because even if it's veiled in country music tropes, like twangy guitars, fiddle players and a bouncy line-dance beat, it's still a Neil Young song at heart. American Stars N' Bars, while not entirely country (especially side two) has some of the best Neil Young country songs one can find. But there is more to this album then some country twang. It's less of an album and more of a compilation. The songs found on this record were all recorded at different times and were intended for albums like Homegrown and Chrome Dreams. Some of the songs were recorded as early as 1974. It gives the album a stranger vibe than most with the first half being country and the second half having a hodge-podge of all sorts of sounds. This vibe isn't necessarily bad, it's just much different than what had come before. It's a forgotten album of sorts as it's only really huge hit, and a huge one at that, comes at the very end in "Like A Hurricane." It still sold well, but you can tell that Young is running out of steam a tad. It would be interesting to see what would have happened if the two failed albums had come to fruition. But, we can only speculate. And luckily, American Stars N' Bars holds up even if it's a collection of songs. It happens to be one of my top 5 Neil Young records.
I nabbed this at Prex, as many will have been, and as usual it's in good condition. But less about Prex and more about this record. Side one, the country side, is Neil Young in top gear. "That Old Country Waltz" is a last call anthem if I ever heard one. The album art itself, created by Dean Stockwell, shows Neil Young flat on his face drunk. I can hear this song coming from the jukebox in the bar. That lone couple dancing the night to its end, that lonely drunk swilling from his glass, tipping his hat to the band before tossing his last quarter into the guitar case. It's a perfect album opener that sets the tone perfectly for the first half of the record. "Saddle Up the Palamino" is about as cliche country sounding as you can possibly get. Linda Ronstadt and Nicollette Larson deliver fantastic backing vocals, a fiddle whines over the guitars and it the lyrics are about heartbreak. It stands out, however, as Young doesn't change the tone of his guitar, leaving his classic grungy crunch on the riff. It's a wonderful track that shows how country under the helm of Neil Young works on a different plain of sonic goodness. "Hey Babe" is my least favorite track on the album. It's got some nice pedal steel guitar care of long time Young collaborator Ben Keith, but otherwise it kind of lacks the same flair that the first two tracks have. "Hold Back The Tears" changes that with a wonderful violin and a show stopping harmony with Linda Ronstadt. The pedal steel and fiddle offering on this track is superb adding to the angsty vibe of Young and Ronstadt's vocals. It's one of Young's best tracks and comes as a surprise to me that it was not a single. "Bite The Bullet" then comes in with the sound and fury we're used to from Young. It's still a country rocker, but the intensity of Young grunge tones elevates it. The solo is a prelude of what's to come at the close of the record, with it's visceral pops and tones of gain. As it strays a little more from the country ballads, it's the perfect bridge from side one to two.
"Star of Bethlehem" is the oldest of the tracks on this album. Whereas the first side was all recorded in '77, this track dates back to '74, around the time Young's "On The Beach" was recorded and released. This shows in the music, even if Ben Keith's dobro playing adds that country twinge that makes it fit in with these tracks. Emmylou Harris steps in to lend her voice here and it's a sweet song down to it's melody. "Will to Love," the first of the two epics, was recorded in '76, is Young all alone playing all instruments. A crackling fire burns in the back as the simple acoustic guitar melody flits and flies over a low end of xylophones and the occasional bass guitar. It's a very unique song in the Young catalog. It has psychedelic elements and imagery in the lyrics and the music bursts and pops with different sounds from here and there. A campfire story song with a psychedelic folk twist. Blasting forth from the sleepy song is Young's flagship guitar anthem, "Like A Hurricane." It's classic Crazy Horse with their heavy and strong backbone as Young wails his weary lyrics over a surging guitar part that explodes into one of the greatest guitar solos of all time. As far as picking favorites among a catalog like Neil Young's it's next to impossible, but every time I listen to "Like A Hurricane"--which is quite often-- I can't help but think that there is no better song. For some reason, it doesn't stick out on the record, either. There are no female harmony parts, twangy fiddles or pedal steel backup, but it fits the mold. Every time I sit through the guitar solo, I'm moved. It's a sloppy solo, but every note is perfect. The explosions of the notes are piercing to the ears but the only way to experience this is at full blast. "Homegrown", the title of the album that never was, closes the record with an equally loud guitar romp. This time in a short little tune that fits in well with the country side of this record, it's a perfect closer bringing all the sounds full circle.
As much as American Stars N' Bars is an album of songs that were all from different times in Neil Young's career, it still works. Without every reading more about this album until this time, I would have not ever known that. It's still a wonderful record, housing some of Neil Young's finest songs. This doesn't have the huge hits like Harvest or After The Gold Rush, but I'd say it has pound for pound more high quality Neil Young songs. It's a fantastic record, and one that I don't see too often when shopping for vinyl. That being the case, if you see it, get it. It's worth it.
Up Next: Philadelphia's finest -- The Hooters