If Neil Young proved anything in his feud with Lynyrd Skynyrd (actually “more like a spirited debate between respectful friends,” writes Ultimate Classic Rock), it’s that Canadians could play southern rock just as well as the Southern Man, an argument more or less also won at the same time by The Band’s Music from Big Pink. Young’s songwriting contributions to the tradition are just as well recognized as “The Weight.” Foremost among them, we must place “Powderfinger,” covered by everyone from Band of Horses to Cowboy Junkies (below) to Rusted Root to Phish, and which Young sent to Ronnie Van Zant, who might have recorded it for the next Skynyrd album had he not died in 1977.
Southern rock stalwarts Drive-By Truckers, who’ve covered “Powderfinger” frequently, often sound like the sonic equivalent of the Young-Skynyrd debate (they even wrote a song about it), channeling their Alabama roots and Skynyrd obsessions through the sensitive, sharply observed, character-driven narratives Young wrote so well. “Powderfinger” was penned during the Zuma era, when Young and Crazy Horse redefined psychedelic Americana with barroom weepers like “Don’t Cry No Tears” and “Barstool Blues,” and wandering guitar epics like “Cortez the Killer” and “Danger Bird.”
The combination of beautifully loose, shambling guitars, loping rhythms, and “bizarre and brilliant” twists on Americana themes defined what many consider to be Young’s greatest period. “Between 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and 1978’s Rust Never Sleeps Young reached a level of genius that few songwriters have ever topped,” Rolling Stone writes.
“Powderfinger” routinely tops best-of-Neil-Young lists. Though intended for Zuma, the song did not actually appear until four years later, opening the electric side of the live classic Rust Never Sleeps. Now we can celebrate the unreleased version at the top, recorded during the Zuma sessions and just posted to the Neil Young Archives Instagram page.
Not only does “Powderfinger” show Neil Young and Crazy Horse at their dueling guitar best; it is a lyrical masterpiece of literary compression, with a narrative fans have often struggled to piece together, and have seen as representing everything from the Civil War to Vietnam. But the general interpretation of the folk-poetic verses goes something like this, notes Rolling Stone:
It’s about a family of bootleggers (or some other kind of backwoods criminals) somewhere up in the mountains. They’ve been through many tragedies, and now the authorities are moving in on them – explaining why the approaching boat has “numbers on the side.” The 22-year-old son has been forced to deal with the situation because “Daddy’s gone,” “brother’s out hunting in the mountains” and “Big John’s been drinking since the river took Emmy-Lou.” The young man is standing on the dock with a rifle in his hand when the boat begins firing, so he raises the gun to return fire – but it backfires and blows his head off.
It’s a cinematic, darkly comic scene conveyed with haunting pathos and confused urgency. The track will appear on Disc 8, Dume, of the upcoming box set Neil Young Archives Volume II, which covers the prolific period between 1972 and 1976. “This 1975 version of the song was produced by Young and David Briggs,” Brock Theissen writes at Exclaim!, and features all the original members of Crazy Horse. You can also stream the unreleased early “Powderfinger” at the Neil Young Archives site. Further up, see an animated video for an acoustic version of the classic Neil Young track and hear the original live recording from Rust Never Sleeps below.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness