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STILL WALKING THE 'PATH': Legendary folk-rocker Graham Nash sees socio-political parallels between then and now

By Steve Wildsmith

During the height of fame for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the folk-rock supergroup that came to represent the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the four men whose names it bears were on the front lines of social and political issues.

The trial of the Chicago 7 inspired the song “Chicago.” The shootings of students at Kent State University by members of the Ohio National Guard led to the visceral urgency of “Ohio,” which called out then-President Nixon by name. In recent years, they released a song in support of WikiLeaks source and imprisoned former Army soldier Chelsea Manning, and both Graham Nash and David Crosby performed at and showed solidarity for Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Needless to say, the men — individually and as a group — have seen history and been a part of it. They know full well the role music plays in both the influence and documentation of political events. They’ve faced down authority figures, campaigns and causes they find offensive and historical trends that threaten to derail humanity’s evolution toward peace and harmony. They’re qualified, in other words, to offer commentary on the current socio-political landscape. So when Nash, who performs Sunday at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville, is asked about his assessment of the current administration and the controversy surrounding one of the most tumultuous candidates of the modern era, he doesn’t hold back.

“Back then, we were so very much against the Vietnam War, obviously, and so in favor of African-American rights and women’s right and civil rights,” Nash told The Daily Times recently. “Is there a similarity to what’s happening today? No, and I’ll tell you why: Nixon, as divisive as he was, at least had a brain. The person in charge of this country right now is a disgrace of a man, and personally, I feel like there’s a greater sense of danger. I mean, look at what’s going on with North Korea — we have two ... madmen with their hands on the nuclear button. Holy (crap), we deserve better.”

Originally coming together as a trio, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash brought with them years of experience in other projects — Nash with The Hollies, Crosby with The Byrds and Stills with Buffalo Springfield. Releasing a debut album in 1969, the trio was already a bonafide supergroup, and that first record included the hits “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and Nash’s “Marrakesh Express,” inspired by a train journey he took in North Africa in 1966. It spent 107 weeks on the Billboard album chart and helped propel the three men to superstardom; when Neil Young — a solo artist who knew Stills through their work in Buffalo Springfield — came on board, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young became one of the most creatively and commercially successful bands of the neo-folk movement of the 1970s. As a trio, CS&N sold 13 million records; with Young, the quartet sold 20 million. The band was beset by interpersonal turmoil almost from the beginning, however, and that acrimony continues to act as a stumbling block for any potential reunion, Nash said.

“As far as me and David and Stephen and Neil are concerned, the (impact of the music) is much greater than the teenage stuff keeping us apart, but that’s the way it is,” he said. “When David said that awful stuff about Daryl Hannah (the actress romantically linked to Young; in a 2014 interview, Crosby described her as a “poisonous predator” before later apologizing), that was an insult to the love of his life. You think Neil is just gonna let that go and forget about it? But there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re not talking, and that’s the way it is, and if we never play another note of music, look at the catalog.”

Indeed — eight albums, including the 1970 septuple-platinum “Déja Vu,” credited to all four men and featuring the iconic hits “Teach Your Children” and “Woodstock” ... 1977’s “CSN” ... 1982’s “Daylight Again,” which includes the “Wasted on the Way” and “Southern Cross.” Throughout their history, the individual members have continued to record and release solo albums; Nash’s first, “Songs for Beginners,” was unveiled in 1971. Last year, he released “This Path Tonight,” his first since 2002’s “Songs for Survivors.”

“It sounds like I’ve been sitting on my ass for 14 years, but I actually did 16 CDs in that time,” he said with a chuckle. “We did a boxed set; Crosby’s boxed set; Stephen’s boxed set; and my boxed set. I’ve been a busy boy in 14 years.”

“This Path Tonight” was produced by Nash’s guitarist, Shane Fontayne, who also contributed to the writing of 20 new songs for the project. Nash constantly writes new material, he said, but finding the perfect album opener is always the challenge.

“When I’m making records, I want the first track to be so fabulous that you can’t take the needle off the record,” he said. “That’s what I always want. I knew we had the opening track when my girlfriend of three years, the very first photograph she ever took of me was the cover of the record. I needed a record, I had the track and the picture, and there it was. It all happened pretty organically.”

With “This Path Tonight,” Nash proves two things: That he’s as capable and creative as his equally famous peers in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and that his writing, his playing and his voice haven’t been tarnished by the cruel hands of time. The album opener, in fact, is a declaration of perseverance set to ominous electric guitar, keyboards and drums, and the rest of the record holds firm with a through-the-past-softly musical revisitation of the sounds that have influenced him for so long: the acoustic folk of “Myself at Last,” the ’70s-tinged musings of “Beneath the Waves,” with harmonies reminiscent of his collaborative works; and “Golden Days,” a fond recollection of his days with The Hollies.

“It’s just my emotional journey of how I felt right then, and I think Shane produced a brilliant record,” he said. “And it seems to resonate. Many times in my career, with songs like ‘Ohio’ or ‘Teach Your Children,’ I understand people getting to their feet and clapping. But when you can provoke that kind of reaction in an audience for a song they’ve only heard once, now you’re talking.”

His songwriting, however, has dried up of late — instead, he said, he’s turned to painting, and since Nov. 9 of last year, he’s produced “16 curious, chaotic, crazily disturbed paintings,” all of them born from an effort to analyze and make sense of a political landscape he feels is poisonous, he added.

“You can’t normalize this presidency; this is a completely different animal than we’ve ever experienced in the political world, and it’s torn away the curtain between the crazy people and the sane people,” he said. “To me, it’s a very simple choice between good and evil, and I choose to be on the side of good. I don’t think this administration is anywhere close to being good. When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young toured in 2006 behind Neil’s ‘Living With War’ album, we knew we were singing such songs as ‘Let’s Impeach the President’ for lying. We tried to impeach Bush for lying — once!

“And where are we now? A thousand untruths said in seven months? He’s given permission for white nationalists and crazy KKK people to feel like the president of the United States has their backs; his comments are atrocious; his retelling of what he said about Charlottesville (Va.) was a complete and utter lie. We’re in deep (stuff), and something has to happen. But I also think it’s important to remember the rules of physics.

“Let’s look at the pendulum: It’s swung so far to the right that physics demands that the pendulum swing back,” he added. “Let’s hope it does, and hope it does soon.”

Nash pulls no punches; he’s too old to worry about flattering stories in the tabloids, and he’s done too much to alter the trajectory of his legacy now. In fact, he’s done more than even he remembers, he added with a laugh.

“When I wrote my autobiography, ‘Wild Tales,’ and got the first copy, I was sitting in my home in L.A., and I got to the end of it and said, ‘Holy (crap) — I wish I was him!’” he said. “I don’t care what happened in the past, because there’s bloody nothing you can do about it. I’m always more thrilled with the song I’m writing now or the show I’m going to do tomorrow. I’ve always been a forward-looking person, and reading ‘Wild Tales’ (released in 2013), I began to realize how really lucky I am.”