Neil Young – American stars ‘n bars (1977)

Once I thought I saw you

“American stars ‘n bars” is another album that’s probably better than I remembered. My problem with it has always been that is a mix and match of different recordings from sessions between 1974 and 1977, and that it maybe lacked a consistent feeling throughout. I was very curious what the record would give me this time.

The first side was recorded in April 1977 by Neil with Crazy Hose and The Bullets. They are Frank, Billy and Ralph from Crazy Horse and The Bullets would be Ben Keith on steel guitar, Carole Mayedo on the violin as well as the duo of country royalty; Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson. Bad ass.

It’s a strange mix of Crazy Horse and steel guitar country with a lot of Nashville influences. The ladies make these recordings very interesting. Actually, backing vocals, violin and steel guitar make the songs. They would have been even better with The Stray Gators as backing band, but that is not what we got.

“The old country waltz” is strangely underwhelming. But was that song not a cover? My favourite is “Hold back the tears”. “Hey babe” is a sweet little country stomper. “Bite the bullet” is a fun one, could it have made it onto “Hawks and doves” maybe? The sound quality of “Bite the bullet” is unfortunately not up to par, the ladies’ backing vocals are not clear, the sound is jumbled.

The record gets very interesting when we turn it over. Here we have the older tracks, from 1974 and 1975. And my o my, what a gold mine. “Star of Bethlehem” is a duet with Neil and Emmylou Harris, backed by Ben Keith, Tim Drummond and Karl Himmel. This is superb, five by five in my book. Those other days are gone.

The second song is also spectacular. Neil alone with a guitar in front of a burning fireplace, the “Will to love” is strong. It’s so strong. The added drums and guitar are spooky. Do you hear the popping wood? What a genius, I love it.

Now folks, now we have arrived. We are there. “Like a hurricane”. Majestical. Mythical. Hmmm, this is one of Neil’s most well know songs, and I am not a complete fan! Maybe it has been played too many times? Ok, there is some good, the lyrics are dreamy and they take me on a trip.

But if I am honest I am always a little bored when he plays it live. I have seen Neil live thirteen times and I would guess this song may very well be in the top three of the most played. On the shows, when they lower the organ with the bird on it, I always think that I would like to hear “Cowgirl” or “Down by the river” instead. I am conflicted. Here in its original studio version it really rocks. Maybe I feel fatigue of all those time-consuming solos? I love me a long song played live, but I would rather hear “Love to burn”, “Powderfinger” or “Country home”.

The last song is recorded in November 1975, just as “Hurricane”. Barebone Crazy Horse. No ladies on backing vocals, no Ben Keith, no viola. “Homegrown” is great, I have always loved it.

Homegrown is a good thing, plant that bell and let it ring.

Things start jumping up from the ground!

Uneven, needs more listens to break through. “Star of Bethlehem” and “ Homegrown” make up some ground at least.

My rating: 7/10

Side A:

  1. The old country waltz
  2. Saddle up the Palomino
  3. Hey babe
  4. Hold back the tears
  5. Bite the bullet

Side B:

  1. Star of Bethlehem
  2. Will to love
  3. Like a hurricane
  4. Homegrown

Best songs: “Star of Bethlehem”, “Homegrown”, “Will to love”, “Hey babe” and “Hold back the tears”

Released on May 27th, 1977

Media: Reissued remastered, 2016, Official Release Series 09

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