James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sang backup; they don't come in until the end of the song. The album was recorded in Nashville, and Taylor and Ronstadt were in town to appear on The Johnny Cash Show. When it was their turn to add harmonies, the task proved rather arduous. Ronstadt recalled to Mojo: "We were sat on the couch in the control room, but I had to get up on my knees to be on the same level as James because he's so tall. Then we sang all night, the highest notes I could sing. It was so hard, but nobody minded. It was dawn when we walked out of the studio."
Young wrote this in 1971 after he suffered a back injury that made it impossible for him to play the electric guitar. He recorded some mellow tracks with an acoustic guitar when he was in Nashville to appear on Cash's variety show, and used local session musicians for the other instruments. Amongst the musicians Young pulled into the studio - almost at random - for the recording session for "Heart of Gold" was one drummer Kenny Buttery, who was also part of Bob Dylan's band and had played on several records. Buttery took a dark view of the way Young arranged the songs, saying "He hires some of the best musicians in the world and has them play as stupid as they possibly can."
Neil Young handed guest star James Taylor a banjo to play on this song. Turns out, that was the first time Taylor had ever touched one!
By far, this was the biggest hit for Young as a solo artist. A very influential musician, he was never too concerned about making hit records.
Young used the guitar riff again on CSN&Y's "Slowpoke" in 1999.
In the liner notes to his Decade collection, Young said: "This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch."
In an interview with NME, however, he added: "I think Harvest is probably the finest record I've made."
This was the song that tweaked Bob Dylan; Young had made no secret that he idolized Dylan, but when Dylan heard "Heart of Gold" he thought this was going too far. As quoted in Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History
, Dylan complained, "I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to "Heart of Gold." I'd say, that's me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me."
Tori Amos covered this on her 2001 album Strange Little Girls
. She was trying to demonstrate how men and women hear different meaning in the same songs.
Young became the first Canadian to have a #1 album in the US when Harvest topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks in April 1972.
This song appears in the 1984 film Iceman, and on the soundtrack of the 2010 movie Eat Pray Love.
Lady Gaga references it in her song "You and I." The line goes, "On my birthday you sung me 'Heart of Gold,' with a guitar humming and no clothes."
In 2005, the CBC Radio One series 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version declared "Heart of Gold" to be the third best Canadian song of all time.
Stryper frontman Michael Sweet
covered this for his 2014 I'm Not Your Suicide
album. He also recorded a second duet version with country artist Electra Mustaine, who is the daughter of Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine.