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Graham Nash Visits Mahaiwe Riding Wave Of Productivity

Graham Nash is a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who has written some of our most beloved songs in a career that began with The Hollies, reached the top of the music world with CSN and sometimes Y, and continues at The Mahaiwe in Great Barrington on Saturday at 8.

We caught up with Nash at Levon Helm's barn in Woodstock on a recent Sunday during his summer tour, when he’s been performing old favorites and new songs about love and politics, two of his favorite subjects.

I know you were friends with Levon Helm. Is this your first time at the barn?

It is. I've never been here. You know, I was thinking about this the other day in terms of procrastination. You know, I've always wanted to play the Ramble, for instance, but it just never seemed to work out in terms of touring and scheduling and stuff. And now that Levon is gone. It's so sad to be able to come here. But having said that, I'm thoroughly gonna enjoy the show. And I think people that are going to, you know, attend the show and experience the show with me are going to find out.

When did you meet him? When did your friendship begin?

Throughout the 70s, and especially in 1974, when CSNY did that tour of stadiums, The Band were often were playing with us. And then in the late 80s, early 90s when CSN played Boston we would always want to play with The Band. And he also played drums on a song I wrote called “Fieldworker,” great drum track. He's a he was an enormous talent. It's sad to see him gone.

You wrote a song in his honor. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Shayne and I wrote this song when we heard that Levon was dying, called “Back home.” Because we really wanted to celebrate his life rather than you know, be sad, which we were of course, but as a musician, I wanted to celebrate his life in music. And so Shayne and I wrote this song, I'm gonna sing it tonight.

I love the opening line of "take a load off." It's a totally different spin on something familiar for people who love this music.

Yeah, yeah. The Band is one of my favorite bands. I mean, obviously, I mean, listen to them. I mean, I just recently for the first time actually saw :The Last Waltz,” you know and I was once again stunned by you know, Levon’s ability to play drums that consistently and that groovily, and be able to sing in a slightly different time signature. You know, because you know, you're always bending notes and you're always spending time as a vocalist, right? But not you can't do that as a drummer, really. You have to keep the heartbeat going. But Levon was amazing like that. I never understood how McCartney could do the same thing playing bass like that and singing like that. It doesn't quite click with me.

So you last I knew had never seen the Woodstock movie and just recently saw “The Last Waltz.” You don't you don't want to see these concert films, I guess?

I do. It's just you know, three hours of my time and what would I rather be doing with three hours of my time? I mean, eventually I will see Woodstock eventually. I mean, I have seen our participation and I've seen obviously Joe Cocker. I've seen Sebastian seen Richie Havens, but I've never sat down and experienced the entire movie for what it was.

I wanted to ask you about harmonies because The Band has a very distinctive sound. CSN has its own sound, you could tell the two apart just by ear. Do you learn anything about singing from listening to other people's approach to, you know, three-part, four-part?

I would say not. I would say that the blend that David and Stephen and I created was unique only in its blend because, you know, anyone can sing those notes. Anyone, right? But you can't sound like me and David and Stephen. So that that that blend that we created, which happened so quickly. I mean, it happened in the first minute of us ever singing together, that blend. That's how fast it was, you know, in Joni’s living room all those many years ago. I love being a harmony singer. And obviously The Byrds and the Springfield and The Hollies were decent harmony bands. And so yeah, I don't get influenced by other people singing two-part or three-part harmony, the exceptions being the Everly Brothers and The Music of Bulgaria album from 1954, in Paris, 55, I think.

I read that Paul Simon learned how to do harmony from that same album. Did that album get passed around all of you of that generation, who are our classic harmony singers now?

It was Paul Simon that gave me my copy.

There you go.

In 1966 of the Music of Bulgaria. Yeah, it's been a vocalist’s favorite record for many, many, many years.

This is a solo tour. Usually CSN time comes in the summer, why are you out solo this year?

Because I have a lot of songs that I need to sing, I have a lot of communication that I want to make. I want to I want people to have a good time. Their money is hard earned, you know, and the fact that they want to buy tickets to come and see me is very flattering. So I want I want them to leave completely satisfied. And beyond that.

When you play a CSN song and your solo show, do you hear David and Stephen, while you're singing? Are they there somewhere?

Of course, I can't not hear that sound.

What do you think about when you're singing the songs that have really become the fabric of a lot of people's lives? You have played them thousands and thousands of times. I'm thinking about “Our house.” Obviously, everyone knows that Joni Mitchell has not been well. Does it put you in a certain place when you perform that song?

Absolutely. And I talk about Joni every night before “Our House.” Let them know that she's out of the hospital and she's alert and speaking and getting better every single day. Yeah, I keep in contact with Joan. She's an ex-partner of mine, you know. And I care deeply about her. So yeah, and right before “Our House,” what a perfect time to let people know, you know that she's doing reasonably well.

You've been very generous to speak with me before your show. But I'm wondering right now on a normal night, if you're playing at 8, what would you be doing the hour before to get ready?

I'd be talking with Shayne, the guitar player, to see not only what are we going to do these songs, but which songs we're going to do. And, you know, me trying to figure out the chords of a certain song. ‘Shayne, remind me of what’s going on there.” That's what we do an hour before.

I understand you've been writing a bunch and you have a solo record in the works. Tell us about it.

It's going to be called “Now Then.” I'm always saying that: ‘Now then, let's get it done.’ You know, now then, come on. Come on. Here we go.’ So and the juxtaposition of the words now and then appealed to me personally right now. Yeah, Shayne and I wrote 20 songs in a month, recorded the 20 songs in eight days at the end of last year. And it will be out at the beginning of the year. I didn't bring it out this summer, because our year had been booked already with the solo stuff. And with Crosby, Stills, and Nash is, you know, early a tour of America and the Far East. And now you know, after the solo tour, we're going to go on the Queen Mary to London and start our European tour. So there wasn't a lot of time to be able to promote it the way I would like to promote it, the way it deserves to be promoted. So I'm bringing it out in spring and I cleared all the dates around it.

That's your first solo record since 2002 I think, right?

Yeah. Yes.

Is it something different for you to do a solo record because you've been a collaborator, your whole career and certainly you can go out solo and you have songs that everyone wants to hear. But what does it mean for you as an artist to be able to do a solo record and do a solo tour?

I'm very grateful that I still have my hands on the tools that it takes to make music. Crosby and I many years ago decided that we would never be victims that we would always be victors in this game. And part of what should happen is that you never lose the ability to utilize the tools of your trade. So my point being that, you know, I can pick up the phone and call engineers and get studios booked and musicians booked and tape and you know, all digital machines, you know, all of that. And, and I'm incredibly grateful to be able to do that. I mean, this has been a long time to keep my hands on the tools.

Have you been following the 2016 election yet?

Of course.

Any early favorites?

I wish Bernie Sanders was more presidential. I wish that he hadn't been labeled with the word socialist. I love his ideas. I think he talks complete sense. I think he totally understands, you know, how this portion of the world works. Hillary I think is a very good woman and very smart woman. I think in terms of the Republicans, you know, I'm scared of democracy being a joke, and us electing a clown. And I mean, Donald Trump, particularly, but I'll tell you this, if Donald Trump answers one of the questions on the debate with a very sensible, very interesting, serious answer, I think they're all going to start looking at him a little differently than this blowhard, ego -driven guy that he seems to appear.

Has he been making an appearance in that line in “Military Madness” on this tour?

He hasn't yet.

Maybe tonight.

Who knows, Ian?

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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