Legendary Singer-Songwriter and Activist David Crosby

The legendary singer-songwriter discusses his career and latest album Sky Trails.

In David Crosby’s unparalleled six-decade career, the native Californian has created songs that resonate as indelible cultural touchstones for more than three generations, not only as a solo artist, but as a founding member of The Byrds in the mid-60s, Crosby, Stills & Nash (recipients of the Grammy for best new artist in 1969), and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

The folk rock pioneer, who was inducted into the prestigious Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, has also served as our social conscience, not only eloquently writing about societal issues on such songs as “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Wooden Ships,” but continuously donating concert proceeds to like minded causes.

Crosby’s is set to release his new solo album Sky Trails – his third solo album in four years - on September 29th via BMG. The folk rock legend will support the release with a 25-date tour that starts October 30th in Chicago, IL.

Sky Trails continues Crosby’s unexpected late-period resurgence. In his eighth decade, Crosby is not only surviving but thriving personally and creatively. The album takes Crosby in a new musical direction as the set tilts toward a full band sound and deep, soulful grooves.

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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with folk rock legend, David Crosby. He joins us to discuss his latest solo project, “Sky Trails”. The album includes a full band and features his son, James Raymond, who also produced the project.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with David Crosby coming up in just a moment.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: So pleased to welcome two-time rock and roll Hall of Fame inductee, David Crosby, back to this program. Last month, he celebrated his 76th birthday and says he has no plans to slow down any time soon. In the past three years, he’s made three solo albums.

His latest is titled “Sky Trails” and will be released later this month. I am honored to have him on the program tonight. Mr. Crosby, good to see you, my friend.

David Crosby: How are you, Tavis?

Tavis: I’m wonderful. You doing all right?

Crosby: I am doing well, thank you.

Tavis: Glad to have you back. I want to start with a clip which I warned you about. I want to get your take on this and then we’ll jump into the music and all the other stuff you’ve been working on.

Crosby: You betcha.

Tavis: So your friend and brother, Graham Nash, was on this program just a few months — well, more than a few months ago. November, I think, of last year. I asked him about your relationship which I’ve been reading a lot about online, and this is what Graham Nash had to say on this program last November.

Graham Nash: David and I are broken up as friends, you know. We have treated each other badly and it’s sad, but it’s the way it is.

Tavis: Can that breach be repaired?

Nash: I don’t really know, you know. I don’t have any desire to sing or make music with David, but I have to tell you, I’m a musician, first of all and foremost. And if David came to me with three or four songs that broke my heart, I’d have to do real serious thinking because I am a musician and I do want to put positive, wonderful stuff out there. Who knows? I don’t know.

You know, David and Stephen and Neal have been my brothers. I don’t have brothers in my personal life, but they were my brothers. Sometimes we fight and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we rise to the heights and sometimes we don’t. We’re brothers. Right now, David and I are not talking.

Tavis: But if you’re brothers, there’s always hope. That’s what that pin is about.

Nash: Yeah, there’s always hope.

Tavis: There’s always hope.”

Tavis: So I have seven brothers, some of whom I don’t talk to every now and then [laugh] when they upset me, but I love them all. I love them all. When you see a clip like that, what do you think? How do you process that?

Crosby: I think a number of things. I think he looks terrible, but I think he’s right. You know, we used to be brothers and I bear him no ill will. None of them. I made music with those guys that I’m extremely proud of, a lot.

You know, Graham and I probably were as good a singing pair, you know, harmony pair, as the Everlys. I mean, we were excellent at it and I treasure that. That’s good work. We did good work. We don’t get along.

You know, there’s a life span for bands. Bands start out and you’re in love with each other. You’re having fun. The songs are wonderful and you’re excited and it’s great. And if you’re a success, it’s rare, but it’s wonderful. 40 years later, 40 years later, when it’s devolved, devolved, to turn on the smoke machine and play your hits, it can get very tedious. It can get very hard.

We don’t really like each other, as you can tell from how he was talking, and it’s difficult. I think that the pressure of economics keeps people at it longer than they should. Some bands can work it out. The Stones? Hello? You know? If Garcia hadn’t died, then they’d still be playing, you know.

I think, in our case, I think we had a good run and we did very good work. I bear Graham no ill will at all, but, okay, you mentioned the albums. I’ve had a burst of creativity since I left that band. You know, if there is a God and they put you here for any purpose, she put me here to do music [laugh]. And I’m making music just hand over fist as fast as I can.

Tavis: Should we not be surprised, given what you’ve said, David? And I take your point. Given what you said, should we not be surprised or, put another way, should we be surprised that the bands that do stay together make it as long as they do? Because, to your point…

Crosby: Yeah. I think, sure.

Tavis: Over 40 years, that’s a long time…

Crosby: A long time…

Tavis: To have that many people in a band who see, obviously, things creatively differently get along. It doesn’t have to devolve to this point, but it is somewhat of a miracle that the bands that do stick together that long actually make it.

Crosby: I think it is a miracle when they do make it. There are some people who are more adult than others. I think if I’d be able to be James Taylor, I’d still be in the band [laugh] because he’s just a sweetheart of a human being. I think it’s all okay. I think there is one chance that we might get together again, which is Neal.

If I hadn’t, you know, ticked off Neal, I think CSNY still — and the reason being that I get an email every day, sometimes several, and I get a dozen tweets and things on Facebook saying, “Hey, CSNY was our voice against the establishment and we need an “Ohio”. Get up off your lazy butts and put your problems aside. Get CSNY out there and be our voice.”

Fine. I’d love to. I like Neal. Neal just put out a very good record. You know, I’m one of those people who says never say never. But you just don’t know.

Tavis: It sounds to me like, for all that’s been said, you and Graham ended up at the same place which is that there is still hope that it might happen again.

Crosby: Yeah, sure.

Tavis: To your point now, David, it would seem to me, as you keep hearing from your fans, that if there were a chance that you all might reunite now, there couldn’t be a more propitious time than now given with what’s happening in the country, giving what’s happening in the world, in the era of Trump.

And you guys have all had your own ways of speaking out about it individually. But how beautiful would it be in this moment when the country and the world needs to hear that kind of…

Crosby: It would be a timely and good thing.

Tavis: Yeah.

Crosby: It would be us doing our job. Part of our job has always been meant to be the one who carries the news from town to town. You know, the troubadours. That’s where we come from. The town crier. It’s 12:30 and you guys have elected an imbecile to run a country. That’s our job, part of our job. Most of our job is to make you boogie and make you have fun and tell you emotional stories.

Tavis: And you do both. You do both, yeah.

Crosby: But every once in a while, that’s part of our job. And now would be a good time. Our country is in dire trouble. You saw those faces. Charlottesville. You saw those guys with the torches.

Tavis: Yeah, absolutely.

Crosby: Well, for a long time in this country, we haven’t been willing to admit that they were there and there they were and they were not hiding behind a sheet. They were sneering directly at you and looking you right in the eye and saying, “I hate you.” These are desperate times for this country, for democracy, which is a great idea.

Tavis: You mentioned the burst of creativity that you’ve had since leaving the band and doing these solo projects, and indeed you have had a burst of creativity. The question I want to ask you that I’ve asked of others, but you’d be the person to ask, whether or not music is still pregnant with the kind of power that it once was back in the day to impact and to affect, to create the kind of change that it did back in the day.

Crosby: Music is a wonderful tool for delivering ideas, one of the best. So music now could be doing a great deal of good. I a while ago put out a tweet to go to everybody that I could think of saying, “Please, if you’re a songwriter, I’m trying to write another song like “Ohio”, an inspirational song for now for what we’re facing now because our democracy is really seriously under threat now. We need one.”

So I’ve been asking people, you know, “If I can’t do it, please, you do it. I’m trying, but, please, we need that song.” And it’s true. We can at our best function, you know, the way we shall overcome functioned. We can inspire you to get up and stand up for what you believe in, and the country needs it.

Tavis: Let me ask — I’m gonna struggle here. I apologize to you and to the audience in advance. I’m gonna struggle trying to get this question out, but just give me a second here. I think I may get there in 30 seconds or so. So David Crosby is a great songwriter. Prince was a great songwriter. Stevie Wonder is a great songwriter.

So when you say that you’re trying to write that song, I assume the gift doesn’t just magically disappear into thin air. So what happens with the gift of songwriting that allows one to write a bunch of hits in a particular era, but then fight to find that same — you see what I’m getting at here?

Crosby: I see what you’re getting at, but it’s not that simple.

Tavis: Okay. That’s why I was gonna struggle with it.

Crosby: Here’s how it works.

Tavis: Okay.

Crosby: You can at the right time have a run of writing that makes hits. I have never had any hits. I’ve been in bands that have had  hits, lots of them, but I don’t generally write hits. I usually write the weird [bleep]. What happens is each time you write, it’s a brand new experience.

Trying to write a song about something this critical is very difficult and you can’t go write at it. If you want to describe the Eiffel Tower, you don’t write a song that says it’s big and it’s tall and it’s made out of iron [laugh].

Tavis: I got you [laugh].

Crosby: You go right at it.

Tavis: Is that why my song’s not working? Is that the process?

Crosby: That’s it! I been trying to tell you, Tavis. You go at it from the view of somebody who’s looking up through the mist of Paris at the Eiffel Tower over the head of their lover whom they’re seeing in the fog. You look at it from somebody’s eyes. You personalize it. You find a way into it, but it’s not easy.

And when you’re writing a song about something that’s wrong, it’s very difficult not to be preachy. I’m not a preacher. I’m a person who can say “That’s wrong. When America starts shooting its own children, that’s wrong. We got a problem” and that’s “Ohio”. And we did right. That was a great song that did a right thing.

I believe in the power of music. I believe in the power of ideas and music is a great way to deliver ideas. So I’m still trying to write the song for now because I feel right now we’re as challenged as a country as we have ever been.

Tavis: I’ve often wondered about that. Obviously, I’m a music lover, as you know, but I look at these great songwriters who in a particular era they can do nothing wrong. Anything they put on paper…

Crosby: They hit a hot streak.

Tavis: Yeah. But I’ve always been tripped up by the fact that it’s the same person. You have the same skill. The gift didn’t just dissipate, but why does it work in one era and, 40 years later, you’re trying to write another hit?

Crosby: Tavis, if I could tell you, I would. I think it’s a lot of factors. I think it’s a very complex thing.

Tavis: I mean, timing is part of it. I get that.

Crosby: But I think, you know, people get lazy. A guy can have a string of hits and then just get lazy or convince themselves that they can’t do it. There’s so many it can go wrong. You can start doing hard drugs and lose your track completely.

I did and I stopped writing completely. The more drugs I did, the less I wrote until I stopped writing. I quit and the writing came back. That tells you everything you need to know right there. It’s not easy to write. You have to work at it. I work at it every day, every single day of my life.

I pick up the guitar and I fool around and try to see. I go, “Yoo-hoo, muse. Are you out there? Come on over. Hi. I’m awake.” You know, try to tickle it into happening. You can’t take it for granted and you can’t sit on your laurels and you can’t count your hits.

You have to think about today. And if you have stuff that really matters to you to say, and I got stuff that really matters to me to say, then you have to work at it. You know, I may or may not succeed, but I’ve been writing a lot, so keep your fingers crossed.

Tavis: Speaking of great songwriters, I started to look at the liner notes for this and I about fell off my seat when I saw Joni Mitchell.

Crosby: Yeah. Well, she’s the best. You’ve talked to her.

Tavis: Yeah, of course. Speaking of great songwriters, good Lord! I mean, you got Joni Mitchell on here.

Crosby: I think Joni Mitchell was the greatest living singer and songwriter. I produced her first record. We went together for about a year. I love her. I still love her. I think she’s the best. I think it’s her and Bob, wonderful old weird Bob. He needs to be on here. We need to get Bob on here.

Tavis: Yeah. Bob doesn’t like to talk [laugh].

Crosby: He’s fun, though.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. He’s a great writer. He don’t like to talk very much.

Crosby: I know, but he’s fun, Tavis. He likes being mysterious. Bob and Joni, and she’s a better singer, always has been a better musician than him. I love her. I wish her well. I hope she will recover completely.

Tavis: So do I, and live a long time. So speaking of Joni, you got some great stuff on here. When that…

Crosby: That song version’s one I’ve been wanting to sing ever since she wrote it. I have been actually scared of it. I wasn’t sure I could cut it.

Tavis: What scared you about it?

Crosby: It’s such a magnificent piece of music, man. The way she wrote about Amelia Earhart and her own love life at the same time on two layers. So beautiful. It’s a beautiful piece of work. I wasn’t sure I was up to it, but I couldn’t resist it.

Tavis: What do you do when — this is the first time I’ve ever heard you confess this to me. So what do you do when there’s something about the music, whatever that might be, David, that intimidates you?

Crosby: Go right at it. I think that’s always — anything that scares you, you should go right at it.

Tavis: Go right at it, yeah.

Crosby: You know, when you’re scared of something, that’s what you do. I watch you, by the way.

Tavis: I appreciate it. You’ve seen me scared a few nights then [laugh].

Crosby: I’ve seen you handle it.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Crosby: It’s not being scared that’s the measure. It was what do you do when you’re scared?

Tavis: That’s fair enough.

Crosby: That’s when you find out about courage.

Tavis: Yeah. Because I was afraid to ask you about Graham Nash, but I went right at it. I just started the show by asking, yeah. I went right at it.

Crosby: Went right at it. Well, that’s you, one of the reasons I’m here.

Tavis: I appreciate it. To your point earlier, you do get a burst of creativity, but how do you put stuff out that the audience will love, but that isn’t a repeat of something you’ve done before? Because you’ve done everything already.

Crosby: Well, songs. You can’t try to duplicate what you did. People spend in our business…

Tavis: But the record industry wants that these days. They want the same hit over and over and over again.

Crosby: Oh, man, those guys who run the record industry are failed shoe salesmen [laugh]. They have not one clue about songs.

Tavis: And no talent, yeah, yeah.

Crosby: No talent, no idea of what a song is, no idea of what music is at all, and they’re trying to sell it. But you can’t go by that. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the music business. I mean, it’s pretty depressing for us, man. You know, streaming killed records. We don’t get to sell records anymore. I lost half my business, half my income, half my musical life.

I’m still making records, but I’m making it out of the grocery money and I’m making it because they’re my heart. They’re what I do. They’re what I’ll leave behind. They’re my life’s work. They don’t matter anymore in terms of, you know, it’s done. Streaming just killed it. Streaming people sell our music and don’t pay us for it. It’s that simple.

Tavis: So how do you get motivated then to do something like “Sky Trails”?

Crosby: The songs. I love the songs. I love singing to people. I love songs. I love communicating and I got stuff I want to say about love, about people. People fascinate me now. They fascinate you. I watch you.

Tavis: Yeah. I’m very fascinated by people here.

Crosby: How could you not be?

Tavis: Yeah, it’s what I do. How would you describe what “Sky Trails” is as a project?

Crosby: You know, “Sky Trails” — okay, I have two guys that I work with as producers currently. One is my son, James Raymond, who produced this record who is a brilliant producer. I mean, he’s a brilliant writer, brilliant player, and a wonderful human being and a great record producer. There should be a line of people out his door down the block trying to get him to produce.

He and I started collecting songs for this while I was still making the last one, “Lighthouse”, which was produced by Michael League, who’s the other guy that I work with. This one, James and I, we knew we had several songs that we liked a lot. So we started collecting them to put it together for this, oh, a year ago at least. I think we succeeded.

Tavis: I mentioned Joni Mitchell earlier. There’s some Michael McDonald stuff on here too.

Crosby: Yeah.

Tavis: You got some great songwriters, man [laugh.

Crosby: Oh, he’s a hero of mine. I think Michael’s one of the two best singers in the country, him and Stevie. I think Stevie Wonder [laugh] — you know, I have a low opinion of Kanye West.

Tavis: Yes. I’ve read your tweets [laugh], as have the rest of the country. It’s not just Kanye. You got in some trouble just bashing hip-hop, period, across the board.

Crosby: Oh, some of them, you know. There’s people — Lin-Manuel is brilliant. You can’t knock that, man. If that’s rap, rap is glorious. There’s other people…

Tavis: Please don’t say Macklemore again.

Crosby: Don’t say Macklemore. Don’t say it again.

Tavis: No, don’t say it again.

Crosby: Don’t say it again.

Tavis: You don’t want to fight me about that. I love you. W e are not going to fight. If you put Macklemore on your top three list, we are not going to fight about this.

Crosby: No. I’m gonna put Lin-Manuel. Let’s talk about him.

Tavis: I’ll let you do that.

Crosby: But he’s good.

Tavis: He is. He’s great, he’s great, and I love him. The only thing I say to you about that is that, you know, with all due respect to Lin, brothers been doing this for a long time. Lin is part of a tradition and when you raise Lin-Manuel Miranda above all these other brothers, when you read Lin’s book, Lin raises Biggie.

Crosby: Yeah. I know he does.

Tavis: Lin raises Pac.

Crosby: I know he does.

Tavis: Lin raises — you see my point?

Crosby: But Lin’s a better writer than they were.

Tavis: See? We’re gonna have another fight, David [laugh].

Crosby: Bring it! Bring it, baby!

Tavis: I’m trying to help you here, man [laugh].

Crosby: Bring it! Bring it!

Tavis: And tomorrow you’re gonna get blitzed again on social media…

Crosby: Again? It’s gonna come down on you!

Tavis: I’m trying to help you, man, I’m trying to help you.

Crosby: It’s like any bunch of people, man. There’s some really talented people there, and there are some people who are just a joke, you know. Just like in my…

Tavis: But that’s true of every genre.

Crosby: Every single part of the…

Tavis: We agree on that. In every genre, there are people who are brilliant, folk who ought to go sit down somewhere.

Crosby: Really ought to.

Tavis: Take a few seats.

Crosby: Yeah, and stay there. Go to sleep. Yeah, it’s not my form. It’s not an art form that appeals to me that much, you know. I can see exceptional cases where it does move me, but rarely. I don’t like opera either. You rappers, you should know that. I don’t like opera either.

Tavis: You’re not alone, huh [laugh]?

Crosby: No, you’re not alone. I’m not singling you out. I mean, opera sucks [laugh]! I’m not real fond of country pop either. I like Alison Krauss & Union Station for country music. I think that’s really good stuff.

Tavis: Yeah. But that’s the weird thing about music. We’re all entitled to have our own tastes.

Crosby: Yeah, and it’s fine.

Tavis: And to like what we like.

Crosby: Yeah, and it’s fine, you know. Thank God there’s all this different kinds of art out there, man. That’s one of the things, one of the only good things, that’s happening from having the Orange Nightmare in Washington.

Tavis: You call him the Orange Nightmare?

Crosby: Yeah.

Tavis: Okay [laugh]. I wasn’t sure I heard you correctly. Okay, yeah.

Crosby: Instead, it’s generating some good art. There are people — oh, have you heard the Todd Rundgren, Donald Fagan song, “Man in the Tin Foil Hat”? Oh, joy, it’s gonna make you laugh like a fool. You’ll love it. It is a brilliant piece of art and it’s about Trump.

Tavis: Okay.

Crosby: One of the only good things about this disaster is that it will generate good art.

Tavis: It always happens that way, though.

Crosby: It does. It’s happened before and I’m praying it will happen again this time.

Tavis: I keep coming back to the great Paul Robeson and his quote which I just hold onto every day…

Crosby: There’s a hero for you.

Tavis: Exactly. And Robeson says that “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” That artists are the gatekeepers of truth.

Crosby: He was right.

Tavis: So in this moment, that’s what you look for are the artists who are willing to tell the truth.

Crosby: We need the artists who are willing to stand up for what they believe in. And if you believe in this country — and a lot of them say they do — now’s the time.

Tavis: Fair enough. “Sky Trails” is the new project from David Crosby. It’s a good one. Love this little kid on the cover there.

Crosby: Looking up at the sky?

Tavis: Looking up at the sky. It’s a great cover, David.

Crosby: Yeah.

Tavis: Good to have you here, my friend.

Crosby: You too, man.

Tavis: Take care, brother. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: September 14, 2017 at 1:30 pm