Ben Keith, the respected Nashville multi-instrumentalist whose distinctive and evocatively lonely steel-guitar adornments provided an inescapably haunting accompaniment to many of Neil Young's biggest hits, died this week at age 73 at Young's ranch in Woodside, California.
Besides adding crucial parts to such Young classics as “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “World on a String,” “Tonight's the Night,” “Words,” “Prairie Wind,” “No Hidden Path” and “Rockin' in the Free World,” Keith recorded the weeping steel-guitar melody on Patsy Cline's 1961 single “I Fall to Pieces.” Playing dobro, keyboards and various steel guitars, he also backed Ringo Starr, Linda Ronstadt, The Band, Ian & Sylvia, Warren Zevon, Emmylou Harris, Bobby Bare and Waylon Jennings during his long career. Keith even produced Jewel's 1995 debut album, Pieces of You, after meeting the then-unknown singer at Young's ranch.
Born March 6, 1937, in Fort Riley, Texas, and raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the former Bennett Keith Schaufele got his start as a session musician in Nashville in the late 1950s and 1960s, working with Cline and Faron Young. A chance recommendation by bassist Tim Drummond led to an impromptu invitation to take part in Neil Young's recording sessions for Harvest in Nashville in 1971, and Keith ended up collaborating regularly with Young over the ensuing four decades. While the notoriously unpredictable Young performed with varying lineups during that time, Keith was involved in most of the singer's projects, showing the versatility to crank out electric hard-rock jams while also retaining the artful sensitivity that allowed him to embellish the gentlest ballads with such sublime grace.
Keith was active onstage until recently, backing Neil Young on a short acoustic tour earlier this year and then supporting Neil's wife, Pegi Young, when she opened for British folk-guitar whiz Bert Jansch. In the past decade, Keith appeared as Grandpa Green in Neil Young's theatrical opus Greendale and was a key figure in Jonathan Demme's 2006 concert documentary Heart of Gold, serving as a de facto music director and as a wise and calming eminence grise. He also recorded two solo albums, To a Wild Rose (1984) and Seven Gates (1994), a set of Christmas songs where he was joined by such pals as Johnny Cash and J.J. Cale.
“Ben was a quietly intense Southern gentleman with dancing eyes and an eternal smile. He could be counted on to not only play the exact pedal-steel licks needed, but without a wasted note. Nobody in Nashville had a bigger soul or was more loved,” Vanguard Records' Bill Bentley (a former Neil Young publicist) told the Weekly.
At a concert in Winnipeg earlier this week, Young dedicated a version of “Old Man” to his longtime friend. “This is for Ben Keith,” said Young, according to Rolling Stone. “His spirit will live on. The Earth has taken him.”