The Church Stone

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07 28 2010

(photo by Anthony Crawford)

I was listening to a solid state jukebox and talking to another musician in a kitchen in Laurel Canyon late last night when he asked me if I'd heard about Ben Keith. I kind of stammered for words... smiled nervously... and immediately felt a chill over my entire body. I first met Ben over a decade ago, when Neil introduced him to me as "Long Grain." I always figured it was a play on Uncle Ben's long grain rice, but Ben was such a lanky fellow with long legs and long arms... the name just fit. He was tall and gentle, with long spidery fingers. Fingers meant to hold a slide and pluck steel strings. And, fingers that lent melody to Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" as well as countless classic records. Ben was found dead yesterday, and even though he was 73 years old, I am finding it hard to wrap my head around it.

Amongst our friends, Ben was (and is) talked about with reverence. A legend if there ever was one, right? In last night's conversation, the gentleman I was talking to mentioned how he'd once met Ben and gushed about how much he loved his playing. Ben just smiled and thanked him softly, like he was surprised to have a fan. Long Grain was a quiet southern gentleman, humble to his core. One of my favorite guitar players, Carl Broemel, told me this morning that Ben was his "favourite steel player of all time." There was something special that Ben Keith added to all those classic records he played on. That intangible soulful "something" ... that will be studied and appreciated by generations well beyond Ben's awareness while he was here. Our friend Anthony Crawford told me this evening that his friend and bandmate since the 80's was "like the church stone" - the final stone put into place that holds everything together. That analogy resonated with me. Anthony also mentioned that he had the same reaction when he heard the news, a chill that overtook his body. Strong souls have strong effects on us I suppose. Anthony called the loss "monumental" with zero hyperbole. It's a loss that will be felt in countless ways for years to come. Ben was involved in just about every twist of Neil Young's career. Neil has trusted him to be his church stone for four decades. Neil referred to him as his favorite musician. Ben Keith was his true friend.

In the past few years, we got to spend a lot of time on the road with Long Grain. Every time the road had me feeling worn, I could look at him and know that music is something that grows within us and never ages. Ben came out to our Troubadour show in LA a few weeks ago, and it was a treat for us to see him there smiling and giving us sweet handshakes and hugs. I'm fortunate that I had the pleasure to see him play lap and steel one last time a few nights later leading Pegi Young's band. With that beautiful head of white hair he seemed to glow up there, and he sounded so damn good. He always sounded so damn good. He had a presence on stage that I can only describe as "power through tenderness." That might have been the key to his musical sensibilities. Before we went in to record On Approach last fall, he'd offered to play steel for us if we wanted him to, but it never came to pass. I guess we'll always kind of kick ourselves for that one.

It's been a summer of logistical hoops and hassles, and some deeply challenging personal tragedies. But Long Grainules was a friend to our band, and I hope the guys don't mind if I say, from all of us... Thank You Ben, you inspired and taught us to be better musicians.

I'm headed to the cupboard for a tequila nightcap to honor our friend. Cheers.

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