Following the artistic cul-de-sac of Everybody's Rockin', Young continued his playacting ways, this time in a style that suits him a bit better: country. But unlike side one of American Stars 'n Bars, on which Young mined country music's past on his own terms, 1985's Old Ways is pure minstrelsy. Once again, Young strives to create as authentic a product as possible and winds up draining his own voice from the music.
This time around he recorded the album in Tennessee (plus one track each in Austin and somewhere in California: near Bakersfield, perhaps?). The back cover (which is laid out just like a generic 80s country album) lists an absurdly comprehensive who's-who of Nashville talent in the credits: Spooner Oldham, Pig Robbins, Waylon Jennings, even Bela Fleck to name just a few. But whereas one might expect Young to creatively thrive this setting, he sounds out of place in a room full of slick session pros. Old Ways is closest in spirit to the back-to-Nashville experiments of postmodern tricksters like Will Oldham or Ween, and it doesn't seem to fit Young. Like Everybody's Rockin', it sounds just like the real thing on the surface, but lacks substance in the details.
After a decent albiet string-heavy cover of country chestnut "The Wayward Wind" to set the mood, Young immediately begins laying on the corn nice and thick. "Get Back to the COuntry" features a prominent fiddle ensemble between each verse interrupted by an occasional jew's harp. Hyuck, hyuck. Plus wildly predictable lyrics about rediscovering a simpler style (backed, of course, by one of the largest backing ensembles of his career, and certainly the most high-priced talent).
At one point Young seems to express doubts about the exercise: the chorus of the title track admits, "Old ways/Can be a ball and chain". This sentiment would go on to inform (and mar) his next couple of albums, but for now he keeps it straight country the whole way through. To his credit, at least he bothered writing a whole album in this style, rather than padding it out with older outtakes, but most of the songs aren't especially good.
Lucky Thirteen includes the heartbreaking ballad "Once an Angel", far and away the album's best song, as well as the forgettable closer "Where Is the Highway Tonight?" "Are There Anymore Real Cowboys?" is another eye-rollingly corny example of Young trying way to hard, but it includes a guest spot from Willie Nelson, who rules, so that earns it a nod for this post. "My Boy" is another fine ballad, this time sung from the perspective of a father watching his son grow up and wishing the experience could last forever. A bit maudlin, perhaps, but very touching nonetheless.
From my deck to you: Neil Young -
"Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" and "My Boy"