David Crosby can claim a turbulent career to say the least. A pioneer in the ‘60s-era fusion of folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll, his contributions to both The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young) are the stuff of legend. At the same time, his penchant for destruction and obstruction led to him being castigated by bandmates, booted from the Byrds and often at odds with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, with whom he’s currently at loggerheads. Despite a plethora of excellent songs and a defining role in both those bands, Crosby’s battle with drugs and the law threatened at times to end not just his career, but his life.
And yet at 76, with a kidney transplant behind him and his trademark walrus mustache still in place, Crosby continues to make records and embark on lengthy tours, living the professional life of a musician a third his age. A happy marriage to his wife Jan, whom he’s been with for 30 years; his belated reunion with long-lost son James Raymond, a multi-instrumentalist who produced his new album; and his triumph over a notorious drug habit have all enabled him to make four studio albums since 2004, including three in the past four years: 2014’s Croz, 2016’s Lighthouse and his recent release, Sky Trails. Known for his intensity, these days he has the demeanor of a benevolent, snowy-haired granddad, happy to be plying his craft in peace.
“I have what the French call raison [d’être],” Crosby insists. “It means ‘reason for being.’ I really love my family and I really love the music. I’m really happy, so it’s not hard for me to keep going. You have to keep going. And once you get going, you keep going. I think it has a lot to do with my wife and my family. It has to do with being very happy with the work and with what I do.”
“In the first place, I love performing, and in the second place, it’s the only way we make any money now. We don’t make any money off records, so the only way we make a living is to go out and play live. And it’s hard. At my age, it’s really hard. But it’s also the only thing I’ve got.”
Part of that spate of activity comes through touring. Sky Trails, which was released Sept. 29, reveals Crosby in a creative spurt, with his gifts for folk, jazz and experimental compositions in full bloom. He loves performing the music, even if the road isn’t as kind as it once was, particularly now that he doesn’t self-medicate to numb the aches and pains. “There’s about three hours of joy, and then around 21 hours of hard stuff,” he said of the nomadic life. “When I get to sing, I’m the happiest guy you ever met. I love it. But the rest of the time, when you can’t get more than three hours of sleep in a row and you’re eating at some crappy restaurant and you don’t get home cooking, then it’s hard. It beats the crap out of me. I’m an old guy and I don’t have the kind of stamina I used to, and so it’s daunting.”
Still, this particular habit is hard to break. At an age when most people are looking to do less, Crosby feels compelled to do as much as he can. “In the first place, I love performing, and in the second place, it’s the only way we make any money now,” he said. “We don’t make any money off records, so the only way we make a living is to go out and play live. And it’s hard. At my age, it’s really hard. But it’s also the only thing I’ve got.”
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Unlike with his past solo shows, Crosby is employing a full ensemble to share the rigors of the road. Dubbed The Sky Trails Band, it features Crosby’s son James on keyboards, Jeff Pevar on guitar, Mai Agan on bass, Michelle Willis on vocals and keys, and Steve Distanislao, an old high-school friend and former member of Dave Gilmour’s band, on drums. In contrast to his famous partnerships, though, it finds Crosby solitary among the larger band, front and center. “In a CSN or a CSNY set, I only get to sing six songs,” he said. “So I like being the guy up front, and I like getting to sing 20 songs.”
Crosby, who made four studio albums as a duo with Graham Nash before a falling out in 2015, dismissed the idea of a CSN reunion. “It got to the point where it was just turning on the smoke machine and playing the hits,” he said of the group’s latter-day tours. He’s also had his differences with Young, though he left open the possibility of a full CSNY reunion “because Neil makes it alive.” He even expressed interest in a Byrds reboot. Earlier this year, both he and Roger McGuinn appeared on Chris Hillman’s album, Bidn’ My Time, though not on the same track. “I’d love to take another shot at the Byrds, because Roger and Chris and I could do it and it would be genuine,” he said. “Roger doesn’t seem to want to do it, but I would love to.”
Watch Crosby, Stills & Nash cover the Beatles’ “Blackbird” in 1973:
Crosby, still a torch-carrier for ’60s hippie idealism, acknowledges that he and Hillman are worlds apart politically, with Hillman leaning heavily to the right. “There’s no question,” he agrees. “But that never enters into it. He can believe anything he wants and so can I.”
As for Young, Crosby opts to withhold any further explanation about what’s clearly a contentious relationship. Anyway, he still has more to do and other goals to reach. “There are people I’d like to write with, music I’d like to make, books I’d like to write,” he said. I’m in the middle of making a documentary about me, which is pretty interesting. I probably should be just laying back and trying to relax, but I still really love this and I have a lot I want to do.”
When it’s suggested that he’s earned the right to relax, he demurs. “I don’t have time to do that,” he insists. “At this point in my life, I don’t have time to just screw around.”