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.
It was never the metric on which he wanted to be judged, but "Old Man" was the second-biggest hit for Neil Young as a solo artist, reaching #31 on the Hot 100. His biggest hit, by far, was his previous single, the Harvest track "Heart of Gold," which went to #1.
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."
Young told Jimmy McDonough that the line "Does it mean that much to me, to mean that much to you?" is meant to be directed towards the audience.
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.
2015 The Voice champion Sawyer Fredericks covered the song during the show's finale. The following week his version reached #63 on the Hot 100.
In 2018, a 72-years Young said during a concert in Chicago: "It's hard to do 'Old Man' now. It's like, 'Old man take a look at my life, I'm a lot like I am."
Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn April 23rd 1972, "Old Man" by Neil Young entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #77; and on May 28th it peaked at #31 (for 2 weeks) and spent 9 weeks on the Top 100... It was track 1 of side 2 on his fourth studio album, 'Harvest', and on March 5th, 1972 the album reached #1 (for 2 weeks) on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart... One other track from the album also made the Top 100 chart, "Heart of Gold", it peaked at #1 (for 1 week) on March 12th, 1972... Mr. Young will celebrate his 69th birthday this coming November 12th.
Anne from Leamington Spa, United KingdomI just love this song, it makes me feel happy even though the tone of the singing gives a sad feel to it. How wonderful that Neil wrote it for the ranch caretaker. It would be great if someone so talented wrote a song for me. There was footage of Neil playing this on BBC4 from 1971 the other week and not only did Neil look handsome but he sang with real feeling. How I yearn for the old days when a song sounded exactly as it should sound, no added production but just of a man with his guitar. Neil is a genius.
Tim from West, CaLarry Markegard was the ranch hand, but spelling was just slightly incorrect. His son Erik was the one in Greendale, and the house on the ranch they lived in was the one filmed in Greendale, with the old men on the porch, and the funky paintings. I grew up going up to the ranch with Erik, and loved spending time there, especially when Neil was playing in his outdoor bandshell. He plays sporadically down in Princeton at Scott's, trying out new music, which is a real treat!
Paul from Nyc, NyI sing this song now. I'm in the middle of old age and looking back at the young man i was. This song haunts me because i sometimes feel i'm singing it to the boy I was (or wish I could sing it to the old man I've become.) I would never have thought that this would have been my life. It's a weird, reflective thing that I think.
Marc from Montreal, Qcold man wow WELL its ..the first songs my dad tought me on guitar when i was five. It was the first thing he gave me that didint get loss.It brings in me feelings that i cant describe .Wisdom, reflexion ,a real bond ,love, ,my dad his dad their oncles and everithing they have tought us and now it does mean that much to me to mean that much to you.
Thom from New Orleans, Laone of neil's very best songs, and he wrote and recorded many great songs. god bless you, neil.
John from Tracy, CaTo clear up who the "Old Man" in the song was. His name was Louie. He was my great Uncle. He and my Aunt lived on the ranch when Neil Young purchased it. He and then girlfriend Carrie Snodgress, lived there in the 1970's. Louie stayed on as a ranch hand until his retirement.
Danny from Fairmont, WvThis song almost perfectly describes me and my father because i'm just like he was once so one my favorites.
David from Youngstown, OhJames Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sing the background vocals on this song and on Heart of Gold. The confusion some have with Carly Simon is she was married to JT and was an extremely popular female singer during the time Ronstadt was huge. I'm amazed that only Robert from Herkimer knows this among the numerous people who commented on this song.
Darren from Liverpool, United KingdomWhat a song! It is used in both Dogtown and the Z-Boys and Lords of Dogtown movies, over the Jay Adams section. Hypnotic and equally reflective.
David from Huntington Beach, Ca"In the liner notes for his album Decade, Young states: 'This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.'"
Huh? He said that about Heart of Gold not Old Man...
Annabelle from Eugene, OrTo Robert in Herkimer, NY, if Carly Simon didn't sing background vocals on this song, then where in this old world did my Dad get the idea that she sang on this song?
P.a. from Paris, FranceJames Taylor alson sing back vocals on the chorus, but I admit I had to know that to spot him...
Liam from Dublin, Irelande also says its about a caretaker in "Live at Massey Hall 1971" Released March 17, 2007...
Robert from Herkimer, NyAccording to the incredible Neil Young biography "Shakey," by Jimmy McDonough, "Old Man" is indeed about the rancher at one of Neil's properties; not about his father. Also the background singers include Linda Ronstadt, not Carly Simon. Outstanding song.
Adam from Sydney, AustraliaOn the BBC "In Concert" performance Neil states it's written about the caretaker at his ranch. Nothing at all to do with his father. Fact, watch it yourselves folks.
Elie from Londoni love this song along with hurricane its to bad they dont have a song fact about that song its so great full of emotions and the guitar just wales and shouts and scream just like a hurricane plus i know a girle like that
Nick from Oc, CaGood song. It was used in Shawn Watson's first segment in Liquid Forces' "Relentless" video.
Annabelle from Eugene, OrZak in Chicago, IL, here's something interesting I heard about this song. My Dad says that not only did James Taylor play the banjo, but he and Carly Simon both sang back up vocals, harmonies to be exact, on this song. Is this true? Or is it just another one of my Father's Tall Tales?
Judi from Lutherville, Md"Old Man" - 3:22, Neil Young, February 6, 1971
Neil's father, Scott Young, died on June 12, 2005 in Kingston, Ont.
Judi, Lutherville, MD
Fyodor from Denver, Codavid, you must have seen the Heart Of Gold movie, too!!
David from Oakville, CanadaThe Song was about the caretaker. When Neil Young bought the ranch, the caretaker asked Neil Young how does someone so young have the money to buy the ranch. And Neil Responded im just lucky i guess. The Caretaker took neil around the property in a blue jeep
Cam from Winnipeg, United StatesOh it is definately "The Needle and the Damage DONE"!
Johnny from Los Angeles, CaWas the song you mentioned, Cam, the Needle and the Damage Done, or Damage Dove. My computer says damage "dove" but i coulda sworn it was done. Post back
Johnny from Los Angeles, CaAwesome Neil Young Song! Banjo part rocks, possibly best banjo part I've ever heard. Dustin, hilarious! Why? Becuase Neil Young (Country grunge mix) is so unlike Pink Floyd (Pyschadellic Rock), Led Zeppelin (Acid Blues) and Black Sabbath (Metal)
Gary C from Lahonda, CtI lived on Neils managers ranch (Elliot Roberts). Old Man to the best of my knowledge was written about his ranch manager in Lahonda CA. I beleive his name was Larry Markygaurd. The last name may be a SP! He compared his life to his.
Brian from Melfort, Sask, CanadaThe songs compares a young man's life to an old man's and shows that the old man was once like this young man.
Zak from Chicago, IlYes, it's true. Plus he sang backing vocals as well.
Randy from Boston, MaIs that true that James Taylor plays the banjo on "Old Man"? Very interesting...
Zak from Chicago, IlJames Taylor plays the banjo on this tune.
Dennis from Chicagoland Burrows, IlThis song is played in the movie "Wonder Boys" when Grady sends young James off with his grandparents from the Howard Johnsons
Danice from Nor CalThe suggestion of Old Man being about his father is way off, his dad died this year 2005, there are several songs on Praire Wind that were written for his father, or reference his father.
Cam from WinnipegJust in addition, I'm fairly certain that this is not written for Neil Young's father. In the biography Neil and Me, written by Scott Young, Neil is quoted as saying that it is about a care taker on his ranch, much to his fathers dismay. His father was definatley alive when this song was written.
Cam from WinnipegOld Man is a beautiful Neil Young song. Perhaps his best. I love the instrumentation of it, steel guitar, banjo, acoustic guitar, it works together amazingly. Lyrics are solid as well. I wish it was longer, however. This is, of course, off the album Harvest, which is to me the best Neil Young album (that I've heard - only own 5 thus far) Everyone should own this album, songs like Harvest, Heart of Gold, Needle and the Damage Done, and Old Man make this a pure classic.
Pete from Oak Park, IlI'm a Neil young fan because of "be the rain" its an awesome song and should definitely be added to the database. As for old man, it was one of the first Neil Young songs I heard and I always loved the banjo on this song.
Greg from Oakville, CanadaJust to tell everyone here, i hav a Niel Young biography and all of his CD's. He actually wrote this song after his father died. He says in one part, "love lost, such a cost, give me things that don't get lost..." which reffers to his father. He also reffers to how much he needed his father when he says, "I need someone to love me the whole way through..."
Ollie from Adelaide, BosniaOld Man just reminds me of my old man, how he used to listen to this song at my age, how I'm growing up like he did, how my life is becoming a mirror image of his. Truly awesome.
Jimmy from Santee, CaThis first time I heard this song was a trip I took with a friend in the mountains. We ate magic mushrooms and just listened to this song on his palm pilot and my portable speakers, it was quite an adventure.
Stefanie Magura from Rock Hill, ScThis song is the reason why i'm a Neil Young fan! I love it!
Dustin from My Home, Inwhen i was growing up my mom would plat this song for me in the car and when i got older i got more into 70's style music like led zeppelin pink floyd and black sabbath so one day when goin thru all of her old cd's i found it and recognized it jus thought id share a story with evry one
Jesse from Orillia, CanadaThe song Old Man is actually about a care taker of a ranch Neil Young was living at when he was 24. Neil wrote the song because the care taker had a very similar life to his own.
Eric from Whitby, CanadaI actually thought that I read this song was written for his father who was a sportswriter in a major Canadian newspaper.
Andrew from Springfield, MoI just heard this song for the first time and its awesome.