Get In The Groove

Ben KeithBen Keith

From classic recordings by country's brightest golden-era stars to righthand man status with one of rock's most enduring icons, even to the leading edge of the current pop/rock wave, Ben Keith's role in American music continues to grow after more than four decades. As a steel guitarist and a member of Nashville's "A Team" of session musicians in the late fifties and early sixties, he recorded with a host of the day's top stars; that's Keith on Patsy Cline's megahit, "I Fall To Pieces." By the late sixties he was producing country and blues acts and recording with the likes of Ringo Starr and Mother Earth. In 1972 Neil Young, in Nashville to tape an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, heard Ben and called him to play steel on his next album. The session would result in Harvest, seen by many as one of Young's definitive works. Keith's tenure with the singer/songwriter, which continues to this day, includes touring and serving as co-producer on 1993's Harvest Moon (which received a Grammy nomination for Record Of The Year), as well as Comes A Time, American Stars And Bars and Old Ways.

Working with Young opened many doors for Ben; he became one of the rock world's premier backing musicians, with recording credits that include Todd Rundgren, Lonnie Mack, The Band, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Paul Butterfield, J.J. Cale, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, Ian and Sylvia (Great Speckled Bird), Hungry Chuck and others. Still, he never turned his back on his country roots—you can hear his deft touch on Emmylou Harris' Pieces Of the Sky and albums by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Ann Murray and many more. But Keith may have made his greatest impact to date as producer of Jewel's 1995 Atlantic Records debut, Pieces Of You. The album's phenomenal success—sixteen weeks on Billboard Magazine's top 10 and more than 5,000,000 in sale—and critical acclaim lavished on the young singer have made her one of today's most influential artists. For Ben, it marks the latest chapter in a career filled with creative contribution and sparkling highlights.

"I knew when I first heard Jewel that she was plowing new ground," says the Kansas native, who grew up in Kentucky. "Her songs and her singing really moved me—it was new, really fresh. I was one of five producers considered for the project. She came to Neil's ranch and cut about twenty songs—each of us just kind of checking things out. It's funny, she reminded me of Patsy Cline, in a way. Her openness, her devil-may-care attitude. I guess you could say they're both 'Jewels.' Anyway, during that initial session, I felt like the best thing I could do was to let her have her hand—not try and direct her so much, just make sure she was recorded well and felt comfortable. We both loved working with each other, so she came back about a month later and we started the album."

Over the years, a good many of Keith's workdays have resulted in landmark recordings, but not all have begun with such gradual introductions. For the Harvest sessions, his first with Young, Ben had to hit the ground running. "I'd heard of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, of course," Keith remembers, "but I had no idea that Neil recorded solo. I arrived for the session after he'd already started playing, so I set up real quietly, and I could tell that this was not just another session, that this guy had some real magic happening. We cut half the album before he stopped to introduce himself! After that it got pretty exciting."

Things would stay pretty exciting in subsequent years, as Keith toured and continued to record with Young. Having lived in Nashville since 1956, Ben found life on the road with a rock act far different from the world country artists knew. "It really was 'sex, drugs and rock & roll'," he laughs. "Kind of crazy, I guess. I'm just glad I lived through it." Inevitably, Keith would turn his attention toward recording his own albums. The first, 1984's To A Wild Rose (En Pointe), featured his steel along with the guitar of J.J. Cale and Paul Butterfield's harmonica (it would be the legendary bluesman's last recording). In 1994, Ben released Seven Gates: A Christmas Album By Ben Keith And Friends. The project's beautiful renditions of Christmas classics include performances by Cale, Johnny Cash, Nicolette Larson, Neil & Pegi Young, among others. With work on Seven Gates completed, Keith resumed balancing work with Neil with production projects.

"As a producer, I hope what I bring to an artist is sensitivity," says Keith. "And maybe a sense of overview. I've always loved a lot of different kinds of music, and I've seen and heard a lot—I listened to a good bit of R&B in the early days, and I'm sure that influenced me in a big way. And growing up in Kentucky, so close to Nashville, that gave me some country roots. I was also really lucky to get to work with some great producers—Chet Atkins, for example. That's given me a lot to go on, and I don't believe the producer's role has changed all that much over the years. The technology, now that's a different story—that's changed tenfold. Sometimes the most exciting moments come out of the biggest challenges, like on the live tracks on Jewel's album. The place was very small, and it was hard to get a good sound with all the crowd noise and everything. For one song, Jewel came into the studio and overdubbed her last guitar chord, and we blended it in with the live track. Finding the little sweetening touches like that is really satisfying."

Keith began work in 1997 on another instrumental CD. A proud grandfather, he spent much of the spring and summer of 1997 cruising the Bahamas on a 44-foot sailboat with his "Admiral," Elizabeth. He is blessed, he says, with good health, a loving family and a rewarding career, and looks forward to several projects that lie on the horizon. He again recorded with Neil Young on Silver and Gold. In today's frenzied music world, where stylistic roots can become tangled and substance often gives way to instant marketability, Ben Keith's involvement promises a depth earned as part of America's musical heritage and a proven ear for the best of the next generation's creative talent.

Ben played in Neil Young's touring band on his 2007-'09 world tour and last performed with him at the Bridge School Benefit October 2009. He played guitar as part of Neil's wife Pegi's band on a short California club tour opening up for Bert Jansch. The world suffered a great loss when Ben died in July 2010. May his spirit shine on forever.

On the Ian Tyson Show, Toronto, 1972
The Ian Tyson Show, CTV Toronto, 1972. L - R: Jeff Gutcheon, piano; Ben Keith, steel; David Wilcox, guitar; Jim Colegrove, bass; N.D. Smart II, drums; Ian Tyson, acoustic guitar.

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