David Crosby is an iconic acoustic captain at the helm of his ever fantastic ship, always listening for a song on the wind that might lead him to some mystical, musical port of call. More than ever lately, he appears to be a man on a mission, perhaps making up for lost time. He’s dropped five albums since 2014. Snarky Puppy ringleader and bass ace Michael League produced 2016’s Lighthouse, and they’ve continued a working relationship that Crosby regards as a band. Otherwise, the guitarist’s primary co-captain is his son James Raymond. Crosby refers to their collaboration as Sky Trails, which is the title of their 2017 album, and James also produced the new album, For Free (BMG). The colorful folk-rock legend sounds almost too good for having lived a pirate’s life. His voice is unbelievably unweathered. His fingerpicking and signature six- and 12-string sounds are well intact, but as Crosby reveals in the following feature, there is trouble on the horizon in the form of treacherous tendonitis. Before sailing into the sunset, he’s being as creative as possible.
What he hasn’t been doing is working with the company of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It’s well documented that much love has been lost on that front. No more new musical magic is expected from the quartet, but there is a fantastic new 50th-anniversary boxed-set edition of Déjà Vu featuring insightful guitar-and-vocal demos and extensive liner notes by Cameron Crowe. What we can expect at some point, according to Crosby, is a major documentary produced by Nigel Sinclair and Tim Sexton (Sinclair recently produced the stellar Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart).
For Free gets its title from the Joni Mitchell classic that Crosby covers on the new album. He credits her for opening his eyes to alternate tunings, which he still uses to create deep, cosmic textures. “Think I” is a crafty composition with exceptional acoustic guitars and vocals that exemplify Crosby’s breezy, existential vibe. Steely Dan fans will dig the funky groove and jazzy changes on his collaboration with Donald Fagan, “Rodriguez for a Night.” Clever electric guitar comes courtesy of session legend Dean Parks (Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Steely Dan), who also wrote the music for the soldier song “Shot at Me.” There are some catchy commercial hooks here as well, including “River Rise,” which features backing vocals courtesy of another cat from the Steely Dan camp, Michael McDonald. Most cuts feature Crosby’s acoustic at the core, and he’s a better guitar player than he often gets credit for, considering how much attention is paid to his voice and character. He’s actually quite humble about his playing and understands why most of the guitar cred from his crew has gone to Stephen Stills and Neil Young, “Naturally it would go to them, man,” he says. “Those guys are lead players and have different levels of competency.”
Crosby is a true acoustic aficionado, and he can’t help himself from boasting a bit about his awesome collection. He still uses most of it, including his classic Martins from the Woodstock era. Perhaps his most infamous Martin is his six-to-12-string conversion D-18. Martin has released limited-edition signature versions, first as the D-18DC in 2002, and then as the D-12 David Crosby, featuring a reversed string course in the third slot, in 2009. Frets fortuitously caught up with Croz on the heels of recent features with other notable 12-string appreciators from his generation, Leo Kottke and Taj Mahal.
How did your six-string roots start you down the 12-string path?
It’s an interesting story. The first guitar I bought was made by a banjo company that produced a 12-string guitar. Bob Gibson [an American folk singer and a key figure in the 1950s/’60s folk revival] played one, and he was one of the folk guys I liked, so I got one too. But the first good one was a Martin D-18 that I bought at a music store in Chicago when I was living there. When I moved to California, I took it to Jon Lundberg in Berkeley and asked him to convert it to a 12-string because I was entranced with 12-strings. He did, and to this day it’s the best. Kottke is going to argue with me about this, but I have a handful of the best 12-strings existing in the world. That one is still the king. It’s better than my D-45 12-string from the Martin Custom Shop, which is killer fucking good. Or my Roy Smeck Gibson that the folks at Alembic converted into a 12-string, and that looks exactly as if there had been a Roy Smeck Gibson 12-string. Or the copy Martin made of my D-18 for the prototype of my signature 12-string. That has an ebony neck, and it is still hanging on my wall. I truly love 12-strings, and the best one I’ve ever had is still that first one.
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