How Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country” Went From Anti-War to Anti-Nashville

Once an artist releases a song into the wild, its original intent and meaning are liable (and, honestly, expected) to be changed by those who hear it—like Neil Young’s 1972 track “Are You Ready For The Country,” which transformed from an anti-war song to an anti-Nashville song four years later, when outlaw country star Waylon Jennings put his own spin on it.

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From “Southern Man” to “Rockin’ In The Free World,” the Canadian folk rocker is no stranger to writing songs that can simultaneously criticize and celebrate the country where he became an official citizen in 2020. While Young is famous for keeping the actual meanings of his songs close to his chest, he let one tidbit about the ‘Harvest’ track slip years after its release.

Neil Young Based “Are You Ready For The Country” On a Poster

At the time of its initial release, Neil Young’s “Are You Ready For The Country” almost seemed like a testament to the joys of rural life. Slippin’ and a slidin’ and playing dominoes, the song begins. Lefting and then righting, it’s not a crime, you know. One could argue that the opening lines celebrate simplicity, while others might say it’s one of Neil Young’s stream-of-consciousness couplets that fit the rhythm more than a concrete idea.

But as the song transitions into the chorus, Young reveals another layer of meaning: Are you ready for the country? Because it’s time to go, he sings. Suddenly, the country seems far larger than a plot of acreage outside city limits. By repeating the hook twice, Young offers a sense of urgency, seemingly coming from the nation itself, which he later addressed during a 1984 appearance on Nashville Now.

During the show’s interview segment, Young offered a rare glimpse into his songwriting process. He recalled staring up at a poster of Uncle Sam with its ubiquitous “I Want You for U.S. Army” messaging. Young said the poster made him think of Uncle Sam singing the words, Are you ready for the country? Because it’s time to go.

When Young first wrote “Are You Ready for the Country,” the “country” in question was deep in the throes of the Vietnam War. The draft was pulling millions of men from all that was familiar to them and into the jungles of South Asia. The cognitive dissonance, fear, and confusion of the draft seem to inform the second verse: I was talking to the preacher, said God was on my side. Then, I ran into the hangman; he said, “It’s time to die.”

Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Ready For The Country”

Four years after Neil Young released “Are You Ready for the Country” on ‘Harvest,’ Waylon Jennings used the song as the title track for his 1976 record. In Young’s version, the track starts with a bit of piano clatter and off-mic laughter, promising a loose, jangly delivery typical of Young. Jennings put his spin on the track, tightening the arrangement at a slightly quicker tempo, with extra horns and more electric guitar.

The most notable difference between Young and Jennings’ versions is that Jennings changed the lyrics slightly. Are you ready for the country, Jennings sings, are you ready for me? Better get ready for the country, better get ready for me. Unlike the urgent prodding of Young’s version, Jennings’ change made the chorus a confrontational challenge.

With just one line change, Jennings seemed to transform the meaning of the entire song. An outlaw country star forever at odds with the cookie-cutter establishment of popular Nashville country, Jennings’ “Are You Ready for the Country” seemed like an anti-Nashville song at heart, challenging the powers that be to suggest his country was somehow lesser than theirs because it didn’t fit their less raucous mold. In either version, Young and Jennings proved how flawlessly they could deliver a powerful message with a laidback, grooving beat.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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