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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We spoke with Neil Young this week at a hotel in New York City, a famously opulent hotel where you suspect any other man who was wearing soiled work pants, a wrinkled shirt and scuffed boots would be told, `Sorry, buddy, but all deliveries go out back' until someone noticed, `Oh, my gosh, that's Neil Young.' Mr. Young has a new album called "Prairie Wind," a series of portraits reflecting how he feels about family, God, the North American Plains and Elvis Presley. His wife, Peggy Young, sings on a number of the tracks.

(Soundbite of "The Painter")

Mr. NEIL YOUNG (Musician): (Singing) If you follow every dream, you might get lost. If you follow every dream, you might get lost.

SIMON: That song is called "The Painter." We also wanted to talk about this year for Neil Young. It's been unlike any other. While on the way to record "The Painter" last March, he stopped off in New York City to help induct The Pretenders into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Mr. YOUNG: And then when I got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I had a--what they call a visual event where my vision looked like a shard of broken glass. And I woke up in the morning and I had this like a huge piece of glass in my eye it felt like--or it looked like. And then--so it scared me and I went to the doctor and they took a bunch of pictures of me and they discovered I had an aneurysm in my brain. So that was kind of shocking. But the neurologist, Dr. Sun(ph), who's a Chinese gentleman, he told me in his wise Chinese way, `Don't worry, Neil, you've had this aneurysm for hundreds of years. Hundred years it's been in your body.' But, for me, I'm--we're going to take it out immediately.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOUNG: So we...

SIMON: But you don't joke with a man who's about to crack your head open.

Mr. YOUNG: No, he--and he showed me a picture of it. It looked like Florida, kinda hanging off of the United States. So we had to get rid of it. It wasn't natural-looking, that's for sure.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. YOUNG: And the appointment was in four days. So I went to Nashville and started recording the record. And then I finished "The Painter" and then I finished the next song that night and then the next song the next night. They're sequential on the record. They come one after another in the order I wrote them. So...

SIMON: So you did this all before...

Mr. YOUNG: Did eight songs before, two songs after.

SIMON: I have to ask a question--I'm--forgive me if it's just a little brusque, but did you--did you feel you had to lay down all those songs then because you might not get the chance?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, you know, I always feel like I have to lay down all the songs because I might not get a chance. So that it was--even though there was in reality some reason to believe that, it wasn't that much different from the way I usually approach things...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. YOUNG: ...because I like to get while it's hot, as they say, you know. Get it on wax.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the title song, "Prairie Wind." Was it as simple as just some memories put that in your mind?

Mr. YOUNG: That's the sixth song on the record and when I got finished with the fifth song, I--you know, I still had the studio time booked and I was wondering what I was going to do next. And I had the melody--it wasn't even a melody really; it was a guitar structure that I'd written during the Greendale Tour and I didn't write any words for it because I wasn't mentally prepared or ready to. But I liked the guitar figure and I liked the melody of the guitar structure. So I kept playing it over and over again for a while until I really learned it, and then I forgot about it for a year or so. So that night it came back to me. I remembered, so it was like an old friend coming back to me saying, `Here, I can help you. Look at me. You know, know, all you need is words.'

(Soundbite of "Prairie Wind")

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Try to remember what my daddy said before too much time took away his head. He said we're goin' back and I'll show you what I'm talking about. Goin' back to Cypress River, back to the old farmhouse.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Prairie wind blowin' through my head.

SIMON: Your father is an important figure in this album.

Mr. YOUNG: He's an important figure in Canada, too.

SIMON: He's a great sportswriter--a great sportswriter and author, Scott Young. And he died before--just before you were...

Mr. YOUNG: Well, he actually died after I recorded this.

SIMON: Really?

Mr. YOUNG: He had suffered vascular dementia.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. YOUNG: He had a stroke at some point, maybe five or six years--maybe 10 years ago and, you know, so his memory had been declining. And he was really living in the moment basically, but he was very bright and on top of it in the moment. So, you know, we wanted to do some things together, go back and visit the old homestead and go back and see the old places that we--that my dad came from and that his grandpa came from. We never did get to do that.

SIMON: The songs do a pretty nice job.

Mr. YOUNG: The song's going there...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. YOUNG: ...and the family is still up there. So we'll get there. This generation'll go back.

SIMON: What area are we talking about exactly?

Mr. YOUNG: Manitoba. There's a town in Manitoba that--that's where the great west is--north--the northern part of the Great Western Plains.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. YOUNG: It's all wheat fields, really gently rolling, you know. It used to be totally covered with buffalo and the great migrations of the birds and everything. You know, it was a phenomenal place.

SIMON: Switching directions, a really fun song on the album is "He Was The King."

Mr. YOUNG: Yeah, that's a lot of fun. That's a good one.

SIMON: Yeah. You have real feeling for The King.

Mr. YOUNG: You know, he was the kind of hero that you can remember with a smile on your face.

(Soundbite of "He Was The King")

Mr. YOUNG: The last time I saw Elvis he was shootin' at a color TV. The phones were ringing in the pink motel and the rest is history. He was The King.

SIMON: Your first line, he was--last time I saw The King he was shootin' at the TV?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, actually he was karate chopping a two-by-four, but I didn't put that in the song. There was lot of things I remember that I saw in my mind. There's too many to put in the song. But here's a character that was such a human, you know. He became a phenomenon and he screwed up and he did some things wrong and eventually, you know, he died. You know, but he made a lot of great music. And so I like Elvis and I like his memory because of who he was and the music that he made and the mark that he left on people's lives. And it's usually happy.

SIMON: Mmm.

Mr. YOUNG: It's a happy feeling.

(Soundbite of "He Was The King")

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) The last time I saw Elvis he was ridin' in a pink Cadillac. The wind was blowin' through his hair and he never did look back. He was The King.

SIMON: Peggy joins you on a few cuts on this album.

Mr. YOUNG: Yeah, she sings on quite a few of them actually.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. YOUNG: You know, she sings a few songs with me directly and, you know, it's just the two of us. And it's great. She's--now that the kids are gone and they're out of the house to a great extent, you know, she has time to do these things.

SIMON: Had you and her--and Peggy sung together before this?

Mr. YOUNG: Ah, it's just been a thing we do around the house.

SIMON: Around the house, yeah. It must be nice to...

Mr. YOUNG: Oh, it's great.

SIMON: ...take it out ...(unintelligible).

Mr. YOUNG: We sound real good singing together. It's a real special thing, especially when it's just the two of us with an acoustic guitar.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. YOUNG: It really is beautiful.

SIMON: And this special quality you describe is--comes from your feeling for each other, or how well you know each other.

Mr. YOUNG: Well, it's probably all of those things, plus she's just really got a good voice, you know. Anything--I can use all the help I can get.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Falling.

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Falling off the face of the earth.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Falling.

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Falling off the face of the earth.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Falling.

SIMON: Want to ask you about the--one song in particular, but the appearance you made recently at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, often called the high church of country music. First, what does the Ryman mean to you, to be on that stage?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, the Ryman is the home of country music. It's the place where "The Grand Ole' Opry" used to be recorded and where they did live radio shows. So the spirit of the history of American country music lives in the building. And it's a fantastic building.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. YOUNG: It sounds like the inside of an old guitar and it is a church.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. YOUNG: I mean, it used to be used for gospel gatherings. It was a round church and used--the preacher used to be in the middle and the choir and then the whole congregation used to be around. And it's all wood and it just sounds like God in there.

SIMON: Well, the song "This Old Guitar"...

Mr. YOUNG: That song is about everybody's old guitar, all the song writers who got their guitars. And my guitar has a history. It used to belong to Hank Williams and a lot of people have touched it and played it and, you know, it's a revered instrument, obviously, for its historical value. But I've chosen to try to keep it creative and keep it going rather than just put it on a shelf where people can come and look at it and everything because I don't think the guitar itself really wants to just sit it out.

(Soundbite of "This Old Guitar")

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) The more I play it the better it sounds. It cries when I leave it alone. Silently it waits for me or someone else I suppose.

Mr. YOUNG and Mrs. PEGGY YOUNG: (Singing) This old guitar. This old guitar.

SIMON: When you play these song now--and I guess you performed this entire album at the Ryman, if I'm not mistaken. Didn't you play it there?

Mr. YOUNG: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: Does it hang together in your mind as what you're feeling in this--what had been this momentous year with the departure of your father and your own challenge, I might put it that way?

Mr. YOUNG: You know, it's all just--it's just the times. It's just the way things worked out. You know, I would like to think that I could have made an album like this without having major things happen in my life but maybe that's the way it's supposed to be.

SIMON: The song "When God Made Me"--there's a kind of lament quality to that.

Mr. YOUNG: It's a hymnal type of composition and I kept saying `I don't know where this is coming from. I've never written a song like this before. I'm not--there's something moving me towards this and I don't understand what it is.' Until the engineer in the studio that I was in took a flashlight and opened up a air vent in the top of the building and said, `Well, take a look at this.' And I looked up there and there's these old arched church windows. It's an 18th century church. See, from the Civil War it was a Confederate morgue, Confederate hospital. It had been a church before that and after that. Then it became a recording studio called Monument--Monument Records where Roy Orbison recorded all of his hits.

SIMON: Mercy.

Mr. YOUNG: Then it became Masterlink, which it is today, and it's--it survives with a facade on it. You can't tell it's a church. It looks like a kind of semi-modern old-time building that's, you know, one on the endangered list in Nashville. And, you know, I'm hoping to put together some sort of a group to try to preserve it and perhaps even return it to looking like the old church that it used to look like and as a historic building, and yet keep it as a historic building inside as the recording studio that recorded so many great pieces of American music.

SIMON: Thanks for your time, Mr. Young.

Mr. YOUNG: Thank you.

SIMON: Thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of "When God Made Me")

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Was he planning only for believers, for those who just have faith? Did he envision all the wars that were fought in his name? Did he think there was only one way to be close to him?

Mr. YOUNG and Unidentified Group: (Singing) When God made me, when God made me?

SIMON: Neil Young's performances at the Ryman were recorded for an upcoming film directed by Jonathan Demme. "Prairie Wind" will be released on September 27th. To hear the complete album and our extended interview, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

(Credits)

SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

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