Behind The Song: Stephen Stills, “Treetop Flyer”

Stephen Stills is a great electric guitar soloist, a formidable multi-instrumentalist, and an instantly-recognizable singer who was lucky enough to run into a couple of guys named Crosby and Nash back in the ‘60s. But those in the know are also aware of what an outstanding writer and acoustic guitarist he is as well.

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“Treetop Flyer” is the excellent classic track from his 1991 Stills Alone album, a recording of nearly all unaccompanied mostly-original acoustic songs. The album got mixed reviews, many from people who (understandably) took issue with the processed sound of Stills’ Martin guitar. But a great song is a great song, and “Treetop Flyer” is one of Stills’ finest. It’s the story of a Vietnam vet who came home from the war with a marketable new skill: the ability to fly under the radar. When these pilots returned from combat to a public that often shunned them, and wouldn’t give them a job or help them deal with what they’d been through, they found a way to make money with this skill in running drugs, guns, and whatever other contraband someone would pay them to deliver.

Stills sings in the first person for this song’s six verses – no chorus, no bridge – and really sounds like he is the “Treetop Flyer,” or as if he definitely knows someone who was. This song has conflict, greed, danger, and a romantic relationship – all the pieces that make a song important and memorable. At least one troubadour of the current generation was so influenced by this song that he decided to make music his career. Ray LaMontagne credits Stills’ song with prompting him to make the decision that his life would be music and nothing else. “It was ‘Treetop Flyer’ off a solo record that Stills had done, which really knocked me out,” LaMontagne told National Public Radio’s Scott Simon in 2006.

Stills Alone is out of print, and it’ll cost you a pretty penny to find a copy. And don’t look for it on Spotify either – for some reason probably related to licensing issues, it’s not there. You can hear the original version of “Treetop Flyer” on YouTube, though. And you can find Just Roll Tape, an album of Stills demos that contains an early version of the song, on Spotify. On Just Roll Tape, Stills sings, “I’ll fly whiskey for you, I’ll fly guns” in the second verse, but he later changed that line to “I’ll fly any cargo that you can pay to run” in what would become the definitive version. In a catalog filled with songs that defined the sound of a generation, “Treetop Flyer” stands out as one of Stills’ best pieces of work. He still sometimes performs this song live with his band The Rides, with guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

A word of caution if you decide you want to learn how to play this song. Before you drive yourself nuts trying to figure it out: Stills’ guitar is tuned to the DADGAD tuning, sometimes known as Celtic tuning or Bensusan (as in Pierre Bensusan) tuning. And beware of lyric sites that say the words in the fifth verse are “I get the shit down, I tie it fast” – Stills is really singing “ship,” not “shit.”

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