R.I.P. Ben Keith

Learned this morning of the passing of Ben Keith, legendary pedal steel guitarist and longtime sideman for Neil Young. He was 73.

You may be most familiar with Keith’s  steel playing on Young’s 1972 country rock masterpiece Harvest. Neil first met Keith in Nashville, where they laid down the seminal country-rock tracks “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”, among others. Then Young brought the session players out to his ranch in northern California, where they recorded the rockers “Alabama”, “Words”, and “Are You Ready for the Country?” Although not an instrument normally used in a hard rock setting, Keith’s crying pedal steel was right in there on those tracks, melding with the drums, bass, and Neil’s signature electric guitar to create a hugely influential roots-rock sound.

Following the release of Harvest, Neil took the studio band, whom he dubbed The Stray Gators, on the road. The tour is notable for how, despite the fact Harvest was earning him lots of money (it would become the best-selling album of 1972), Neil showed little regard for the record onstage, and instead chose to use Keith and the rest of the Gators to play hard-edged new songs that reflected an increasingly druggy, jaded point of view.

Thus began Neil’s infamous “Gutter Trilogy”, a trio of albums which, set beside the acoustic  pop of Harvest, sound pretty much like shit: 1973’s Time Fades Away (a live album of new songs recorded during the Harvest tour that has yet to be released on CD!), 1974’s On the Beach, and 1975’s Tonight’s the Night.

I could write for ages about this period in Neil Young’s career, but for now, let’s just remember Ben Keith’s contributions to these fascinating albums. Listen to the emotive counterpoint Keith’s steel provides to Neil’s desperate soul-searching in “Albuquerque” from Tonight’s the Night.** Then, check out Keith’s vocal chops — as well as his dobro skills — as he harmonizes with Neil on everybody’s favorite nonsensical tribute to a minor league baseball team, “For the Turnstiles”, off of On the Beach.

** Sorry, couldn’t find this one on youtube!



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