David Crosby: A True Music Man

As a founding member of the legendary group The Byrds, and then the equally revered Crosby, Stills & Nash, David Crosby has long been respected as one of the most successful and influential folk-rock musicians. For the past 50 years, he’s also been a well-regarded solo artist, with his latest album, For Free, coming out on July 23 via BMG. It is his fifth full-length studio album release in the past seven years. 

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Crosby says that he has deliberately been this prolific lately. “It’s a very strange thing for us singer-songwriter guys,” he says, calling from California. “It’s what we leave behind. It’s the mark that we will make with our life, so it really is crucial to us. At the same time, we are kind of lighthearted about it.” 

He is confident that the songs on For Free stand up to anything else he has released during his storied career. “I treasure songs more than anything, and these are good songs,” he says. To decide whether certain songs are worthy enough to record, “they have to actually say something. They have to be about something, for me. And they have to be skillfully done so they make you feel something. A song is a little voyage, and if you do it right, it takes you on that voyage. I like to take you on that little voyage and help you feel some strong, emotional stuff.” 

Crosby’s long songwriting career has been largely collaborative. “I co-write with a lot of different people, and that extends my useful life as a writer,” he says. He is comfortable with his role in this type of arrangement. “I’m a fairly strong personality so I affect the process quite naturally, but I don’t feel any identity crisis about it. I just love the song. And if I can contribute five percent to it, I’m happy. If I can contribute 95 percent to it, I’m happy. I just want it to take place because the world needs more songs. That’s the truth,” he says. 

For this latest album, Crosby co-wrote a track (the sophisticated “Rodriguez for a Night”) with Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen. He also worked with Michael McDonald (who wrote a verse on the uplifting opening track, “River Rise,” as well as contributing backing vocals on it.) 

Clearly, though, Crosby is especially pleased about working on For Free with his son, multi-instrumentalist James Raymond, who produced this album and contributed on the songwriting front. “My son is a very evolved, much more mature human being than I am. It’s a weird relationship!” Crosby says with a laugh. “He’s the adult, and I’m the kid. He’s always the designated driver guy in our relationship. He’s the smart one, and I’m the goofball. It’s funnier than hell, but it’s a working relationship—it works really well. He’s the best songwriting partner I’ve ever had. He’s a better musician than I am, by far.” 

Raymond, on his own, wrote “I Won’t Stay for Long,” For Free’s poignant closing track. “Oh my God, it’s a beautiful song,” Crosby says. Given that Crosby will be 80 years old in August, this song’s lyrics, which ponder the realities of aging, seem especially meaningful. 

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When it comes to figuring out who his songwriting partners should be, Crosby has a simple method: “I listen to songs and when I hear one that absolutely thrills me, I try to write with that person,” he says. “So the process is to be very, very picky and very open at the same time.” 

Crosby also includes a cover song on For Free: the title track, penned by famed singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. He points out that this is actually the third time he has recorded this particular track, which is why he decided to name this album after it. “She was my old lady for about a year,” he says of Mitchell. Despite that personal connection, he says it’s no problem covering her songs (or anyone else’s). “You interpret them, but you also try to stay loyal to what they intended,” he says. “It’s okay to cover other people’s songs, but you have to really understand what they were trying to say, and then you have to do your level best to stay true to that.” 

Crosby first learned how to interpret songs when he was growing up in Southern California. “My brother turned me on to jazz, and [we] used to sing while we were washing the dishes,” he says. At the same time, he was absorbing all the classical and folk music that his parents favored. Crosby says he realized early on that he wanted to become a musician, like the ones he admired. “I like singing and I like music, so to create it is just the most natural thing in the world for me,” he says. “I never even considered being anything else.” 

It took Crosby a little while to find his footing, though. “When I started out, I didn’t know about songwriters. I was just doing folk music, singing songs that have been around for a hundred years,” he says. As a result, he didn’t attempt to write his own music until he was in his late teens. “The first song I wrote was called ‘Cross the Plains,’ and it was stupid,” he says, laughing. “It was a fairly dumb song. Sincere, but dumb.” (Even so, singer-songwriter Travis Edmonson recorded the song for his 1962 album, Travis on His Own.) 

A turning point came when Crosby found out about Bob Dylan. “Bob opened the world up for all of us,” Crosby says. “He’s a superb poet, an unbelievably good poet. He’s not a good musician and he’s a terrible singer, but he’s a brilliant poet. I snuck into [famed music venue] Gerdes Folk City in New York City to hear him because everybody was talking about him. And I go, ‘Shit, I can sing better than that.’ Then I listened to the words—and I was just about ready to quit. He was a real inspiration to me, as far as words. Always has been and always will be, I’m sure. 

“And then I encountered Joni [Mitchell], and that’s a hell of an experience for a singer-songwriter,” Crosby continues. Their relationship had a crucial impact on his songwriting: “I’d write something and I’d say, ‘Here, darlin’, listen to this—isn’t this great?’ And she’d sing me three better songs that she wrote in the last fifteen minutes. So it shriveled me up a little bit, but it also inspired me, totally.” 

Crosby took all of these influences and soon came up with a unique hybrid style that was all his own. “I wrote some songs that were pretty good early on, and that encouraged me,” he says, “and then I wrote things like ‘Wooden Ships’ or ‘Guinnevere.’ I felt they were right up to spec, so I felt confident. I felt that I had a place in the pantheon of singer-songwriters. I don’t think I’m the best. I never did think that. But I’m probably in the top hundred of them in the world, and that’s plenty enough for me.” 

In 1964, Crosby was a founding member of the band The Byrds, whose jangling guitars and soaring vocal harmonies would make them one of the most influential bands in rock music. In 1966, Crosby had a hand in writing one of their biggest hits, “Eight Miles High.” Paying homage to Crosby’s lyric-writing idol, the band released a cover of Bob Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man” as their debut single in 1965. 

After leaving The Byrds in 1967, Crosby teamed up the next year with Stephen Stills (ex-Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (ex-The Hollies) to form the band Crosby, Stills & Nash (which later expanded into Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young when Neil Young became a member.) This band was also famed for beautiful vocal harmonies, though their music was often pointedly political. They played the famed 1969 Woodstock Festival. That same year, they won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. They went on to release eight studio albums. 

For his work with both of those bands, Crosby has been twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2009, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  

As he looks back on his career, Crosby expresses gratitude. “I think I’m hugely lucky. Look at the people I got to work with.” He points to one of his Crosby, Stills & Nash bandmates as a prime example: “Look at Stephen Stills,” he says. “I mean, what a talented guy, holy shit. He was the best one in the band. Best singer, best writer, best guitar player. I admire him tremendously. That’s the kind of people I’ve been lucky enough to work with—I’ve been enormously fortunate.” 

Crosby chuckles at the suggestion that his success can probably also be attributed to a lot of hard work. “Well, not too hard,” he says amiably. “I’m a stoner, and I like to be high and happy. But I do love making music. It’s my calling in life.” 

Crosby speculates on what might happen next with his music, now that For Free is finished: “It might be my last record, but I don’t think so. I think I’ve got another one in me.” Making records, he adds, “is the only thing I can do. I can’t play live because we can’t have crowds [because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions]. And by the time we can, I’m going to be 80 years old and too old to do it. So I think records are all I got—and I’m going to keep doing them until I can’t do them anymore.” 

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