When the clouds had parted and the drizzly U.K. rain had subsided, young Graham Nash could listen to American Top-40 radio on Sunday nights in his bedroom. He was about 13 years old and had already enjoyed work as an aspiring photographer when he began to take notice. Nash had started taking his first images around 11. But through Radio Luxembourg, Nash could hear the songs of Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino fill his room. This, of course, spurred the desire to play the guitar. Now, seven decades later, Nash is still wielding a six-string and still writing music. He’s created his own hits throughout the years in various bands like the Hollies and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And Nash is celebrating many of the best tunes on his new live album, Graham Nash: Live, which is set to release on Friday (May 6).
“I realized that if you could pick up a guitar and play two-to-three chords—first of all, you were one of the popular members of the party that was going on,” the 80-year-old Blackpool, England-born Nash tells American Songwriter. “That’s how I got into it. I picked up a guitar and learned three chords and tried to imitate Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers.”
Nash’s new live record spans 20 tracks and was recorded over the course of four shows he’d booked prior to the 2020 pandemic shutting everything down. And upon combing through the songs for the finished album, Nash’s suspicions were validated: many, if not all of his songs, are just as significant and worthy today as they were when they’d been written some 50 years ago.
“I realized over the years just how relevant some of my songs are,” he says, before rattling off names like “Military Madness,” “Oh! Camil” and “Prison Song.” “I realize that we have made a lot of really good music.”
On the new live album, Nash demonstrates that his voice is as strong as ever (he’d even received a compliment about as much from legendary mastering engineer Bob Ludwig). He also was very pleased with his backing band, praising their preparedness for the performances. But for someone who has been in indelible groups for decades—indeed, Nash has been twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—his priority is not backward facing. Instead, it’s all about the craft and practice and exercise of music daily, looking ahead.
“I just get on with my life,” Nash says. “Life happens in front of me. I hear a line from someone, something someone said, or see something that makes me want to write and I write. That’s what I do with my life—that’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”
In the early 1960s, Nash formed the formative band, the Hollies, with his friend Allan Clarke. The two had remarkable chemistry and seemingly wrote hit after hit. As Nash puts it, he began to realize that the two were able to write a song that a listener couldn’t forget if he’d heard it two or three times. Towards the end of the decade, though, Nash formed another popular group, Crosby, Stills & Nash. This transition, he says, improved his game. He saw that if he challenged himself on the lyrics, he could write even better songs. Tunes that went beyond pop hits and treaded in the timeless.
“That’s what started to change me as a writer,” says Nash.
Together, the trio was unique. Nobody could match their harmonies when Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Graham Nash blended their three voices into one. That’s what he remembers most, and the sunshine of the time, the delightful vibes from Laurel Canyon, and the sun-kissed California. Later, though, when the idea came to bring in acclaimed songwriter Neil Young into the group, Nash at first expressed some hesitation. To this day, Nash says, Crosby, Stills & Nash is a completely different group than that with Young. He brought an edge, a darkness to their otherwise shining style.
“A lot of people don’t realize that Stephen Stills played most of the instruments on the first Crosby, Stills and Nash record,” Nash says. “So now we get to the end of the record and we realize we made a pretty good record and it will probably be a hit. So, then what do we do? We have to go on the road.”
That reality led to the group needing more players. Stills had played rhythm guitar, bass, lead guitar, B3 organ, piano, and percussion on the band’s first album. But he couldn’t do that on the road. So, they needed to recruit more. Cut to a dinner in New York City when one of the band’s business partners suggested Young. But Nash was hesitant at first. He didn’t know Young well, if at all. He wasn’t sure if a friendship or a trust could be created. So, he says, he scheduled a breakfast with Young to chat.
“I asked him, ‘Give me one reason why you should be in this band?’” Nash says. “And he looked at me with those Neil Young eyes and said, ‘Have you ever heard me and Stephen play guitar together?’”
Nash knew that was it. Young was brought in and the rest is history. Today, of course, it’s impossible to talk about Young without considering his recent ultimatum to the streaming platform Spotify. Young told Spotify to choose between him or podcaster Joe Rogan, who many perceived was giving misinformation to his millions of listeners about the COVID-19 pandemic, masks, and vaccinations. But complaints against Spotify didn’t begin with Young. Crosby has also been rallying against the platform for how little it pays artists.
“When Neil wanted to take his music off of there,” Nash says, “we began to realize that’s exactly what we should do, too.”
Nash says he and the band have lost money as a result of the choice, though not as much as Young likely has, he says. But no matter, the members have always said what they believed, either in protest or in song—or when those two align in a protest song. And those truth-telling moments will continue into the future, to be sure. To wit, of late, Nash has been beginning his shows with songs that highlight the atrocities in Ukraine. Opportunities to address the realities of the world are what make Nash grateful that he’s a musician to this day—and his audience is sticking with him, both through the decades and through the paused shows now starting again post-pandemic.
“I love seeing people react to the music,” Nash says “I love to see people smile. I love to see people think. I love to see people shaking their ass at shows. I’m loving what I do and my audience is loving it, too.”
Photo courtesy Sacks & Co.