Young wrote this about the caretaker of the ranch he bought in 1970. The song compares a young man's life to an old man's and shows that the old man was once like this young man.
The caretaker of the that cattle ranch? His name was Louis Avila. The ranch was the Broken Arrow Ranch, purchased for $350,000 in 1970 (just think about those real estate prices compared to now!). Reportedly, Avila was giving Young a tour of the place and asked him how a young man like him could afford a place like this. Young, aged 25, replied "Just lucky, Louie, just real lucky." Avila was quite bemused.
James Taylor is credited with playing "guitar-banjo" on this song. Taylor, who along with Linda Ronstadt was in the studio recording vocals for Young's song "Heart of Gold
," saw the banjo and started playing it. The instrument belonged to Young; it was a called a "guitar-banjo" because it was a banjo tuned like a guitar.
This was the first song recorded for the Harvest album. Neil Young arranged the session the previous night when he was at a party held at Quadrafonic Studios in Nashville (he was in town to record a segment for Johnny Cash's TV show). The studio owner Elliot Mazer was also a producer who had worked with a band Young admired called Area Code 615. Young asked if he could record there the next day, and Mazer complied, supplying not just the studio, but also the musicians.
The session took place on Saturday, February 6, 1971 with a group of Music City studio pros: Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar, Tim Drummond on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums.
There was some conflict over a hi-hat when Young recorded this song. When drummer Kenny Buttrey played it, Young told him not only to refrain from the hi-hat, but to only play with his left hand, which Buttrey thought was ridiculous. The drummer complied, however, literally sitting on his right hand to resist temptation. Buttrey later quipped: "He hires some of the best musicians in the world and has them play as stupid as they possibly can."
It was immediately after the success of "Old Man" and the Harvest album that Danny Whitten, central to Young's band Crazy Horse, passed away. Young invited Whitten to audition for his backing band the Stray Gators on the condition that he cleaned up his substance abuse. Young gave him a trial, but it looked to be the same old story with Whitten, so he fired him. Whitten promptly went home and overdosed, found dead with Valium and alcohol in his system.
Young got the call that night, and was devastated. Whitten's death was part of the darkening of Neil Young's act during the time following "Old Man;" it wasn't just the success or being "headed for the ditch."
At the memorial service for actor Heath Ledger, "Old Man" was chosen as the song to play over a slideshow showing his various roles and life.
Bob Dylan frequently covered this song on his 2002 tour.
This song has appeared in various films over the years, including Due Date, Lords of Dogtown, and Wonder Boys.