Neil Young stood on stage at the mother church of country music and wondered aloud what Hank Williams might think if he were to walk outside and see the gleaming new sports arena across the street.
Such thoughts about change and the passage of time are central to Young’s latest project, a rootsy, country-tinged record called “Prairie Wind” and a related concert film shot here this month over two nights at the storied Ryman Auditorium.
The performances were the 59-year-old singer-songwriter’s first full-length shows since undergoing surgery for a brain aneurysm last spring and the first since the June death of his father, Canadian sportswriter and author Scott Young.
Footage from the concerts will anchor the film, which is directed by Young’s friend Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia”) and scheduled for release in February. The album is due out Sept. 27.
Looking like a gentleman farmer in an antique gray Western suit and white broad-brim hat, Young was backed by a shifting cast of Nashville musicians that included a string section, gospel choir, horn players and guest vocalist Emmylou Harris. At times, more than two dozen people were on stage with him at the 113-year-old Ryman, a former gospel tabernacle and home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to ’74.
Young performed “Prairie Wind” in its entirety against a homespun painted backdrop depicting wheat fields and other pastoral images. After a break, he returned for a set of familiar acoustic songs, “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man” and “Harvest Moon.”
‘A way to pay our respects’More than once, Young gazed over the Ryman’s wooden pews and stained glass windows in reverence, calling it a church and comparing it to being inside a big guitar. He strummed an instrument with a worn spot near the sound hole — a guitar that once belonged to Williams — and began “This Old Guitar” with the words, “This old guitar ain’t mine to keep / I’m takin’ care of it now.”
“It was a way to pay our respects to the roots of country music and to the ground we’re able to stand on today because of what people did 40 or 50 years ago,” Young says during an interview.
Demme, who directed the Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film “Stop Making Sense,” was the catalyst for the project.
“Jonathan had nothing to do for a year,” says Young, who wrote the closing-credits song for Demme’s 1993 movie “Philadelphia.” “He called us up and said, ‘I’ve got a year off — you guys got anything?”’
Young sent him a copy of “Prairie Wind” and suggested he visit Nashville, where Young has recorded periodically over his nearly 40-year career, including his 1972 country-rock masterpiece, “Harvest.”
“He studied the Grand Ole Opry and studied all the old pictures and looked at books. He really did his homework to try to figure out what it was, and then he said we should just do a show at the Ryman and build things around it,” Young says.
Rocker turns to countryYoung — a former member of the seminal rock groups Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — seems an unlikely documentarian of country music.
He’s one of rock’s most influential figures — and one of its most erratic, shifting from tender folk ballads to feedback-drenched grunge, electronica, rockabilly, blues and full-blown country. His timing can be as puzzling as his music, following some of his most successful albums with his least accessible.
“I have no idea who’s steering, and I don’t really care,” says Young. “I just keep going whatever the inclination is. But there are threads that are continuous and that hold everything together, and a major thread is this kind of music (country). It’s also been my most successful communication with a lot of people.
“My songs speak for themselves,” he says. “The musicians who play on them and the way they sound and where they were recorded and the way they were recorded is the old Nashville way. And the longer those songs are around the more they seem to fit into that type of music. ‘Old Man,’ ‘Heart of Gold,’ ‘Comes a Time’ — they sound as country or more country than a lot of things that are on country radio.”
Dolly Parton, a country star who recorded Young’s plaintive “After the Goldrush” with Harris and Linda Ronstadt, says Young’s compositions are timeless.
“I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time,” Parton says. “Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams. All of them are different styles, but those are the songs that make the times. They’re the songs that last through time.”
With “Prairie Wind,” Young ponders family, home, nature, God, and his childhood on the Canadian plains (four of the 10 songs contain the word “prairie”), but he remains rooted in the present. The title track, for instance, begins with a reference to his late father’s dementia: “Tryin’ to remember what my daddy said / Before too much time took away his head.”
Working while illAt the Ryman, Young introduced the touching “Here for You” as a love song to his three grown children — he’s recently become an empty nester, he told the audience — and sang, “When the winter comes to your new home / With the snowflakes fallin’ down / Then you can come back and be with me.”
He composed the songs on “Prairie Wind” quickly, some in just 15 or 20 minutes, and sequenced them in the order they were written. He alternated recording sessions in Nashville with treatment for the brain aneurysm in New York.
“They’re all there,” Young says when asked how his health problems affected his music. “When you have health issues, they give you a sense of your own frailty.”
He sought treatment in March after experiencing blurred vision at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, where he performed with the Pretenders for their induction.
“I was just really lucky,” he says. “They found it by accident. It wasn’t what they were looking for and it had nothing to do with the symptoms they were trying to solve. It was just a complete fluke — ‘Hey, look at this thing.’ If you have one of these things and you don’t find out, it will kill you.”
Today, Young feels very much alive.