Undoubtedly one of the most moving tunes in his lengthy discography, Neil Young’s ‘Old Man’ has touched generations of fans. His cut-to-the-chase style of lyricism mixes with vulnerability to create an unbelievably honest portrait of loneliness. And through the isolated vocal audio, his tenderness shines through more prominently than ever before.
In 1970, a 25-year-old Young, coasting by on financial success of his career in Buffalo Springfield, his flourishing solo career, and new supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, found himself to be quite wealthy. While most celebrities were buying extravagant homes in the Hollywood Hills, Young, an unassuming country boy at heart, bought a ranch instead.
With his “hippie rich” money, as he would call it, he purchased Northern California’s Broken Saddle Ranch for $350,000. The ranch would not only act as a homestead for Young but become a keen part of his identity too. It also provided Young with the basis of one of his greatest songs of all time.
When explaining a bit of backstory for ‘Old Man’ in a February 23, 1971 performance broadcast by the BBC, he mentioned buying the property from “two lawyers.” But later, a more detailed account of events was revealed. In the film Heart of Gold, Young tells the story of the day he was introduced to the cattle ranch’s caretaker, who would soon inspire the song.
“There was a couple living on it that were the caretakers, an old gentleman named Louis Avila and his wife, Clara. And there was this old blue Jeep there, and Louis took me for a ride in this blue Jeep,” shares Young. “He gets me up there on the top side of the place, and there’s this lake up there that fed all the pastures, and he says, ‘Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?’ And I said, ‘Well, just lucky, Louis, just real lucky.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s the darnedest thing I ever heard.’ And I wrote this song for him.”
The recording session for ‘Old Man’ was organised on a whim when Young was visiting Nashville, TN to make an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show. At the show’s after-party held at Quadrafonic Studios, Young asked studio owner Elliot Mazer if he could record there the next day and Mazer agreed, quickly gathering a group of Music City studio veterans to be the backing musicians. James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who were also in town appearing on The Johnny Cash Show, contributed to background vocals, and Taylor even played a six-string banjo on the track.
There’s a good reason why it became an instant classic and remains, to this day, one of Young’s most notable releases, especially with raw lyrics such as, “Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you. I need someone to love me the whole day through. Ah, one look in my eyes, and you can tell that’s true.” With his signature imperfect falsetto, Young yields an impressive vocal performance. Mix that with the moody, self-reflective lyrics, and you’ve got a recipe for a masterpiece.
Listen to Neil Young’s isolated vocals for ‘Old Man’ below.