David Crosby died Jan. 18 at age 81, while in the midst of planning a new album and tour. Two of the many younger musicians he sang with and championed toward the end of his life were Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, who are both leading lights in Americana music as well as husband and wife and sometimes bandmates.
They first joined up with Crosby on stage and in song at the Newport Folk in 2018, and Crosby’s last public performance was singing “Ohio” with Isbell at a Santa Barbara gig in 2022. In-between, the legend sang harmony on Isbell’s 2020 “Reunions” album, on top of many more private moments of bonding. The two musicians shared their impressions of their friend with Variety.
Isbell: It’s rare that anybody lives as many lives as David did. We knew so much about David because, on one hand, he was really honest and open, especially toward the end of his life. And on the other hand, he just lived a long time for somebody who made that many mistakes and had that many resurrections. He still had a really powerful voice, as far as his physical singing voice, but also his personality. David was always 100% in there, up until the very end.
We invited him to come be our guest, the first time that we headlined the Newport Folk Festival. And he didn’t know going into it that we were gonna be able to play the songs; because we were a bunch of young kids, he didn’t know who we were. He had heard, I think, my records, but he’d never seen us live and didn’t know what we could do. We started rehearsing and immediately we were really good friends, and he was confident after that, that we could pull it off. I think it wasn’t a matter of seeing that we had the technical ability to do it. I think he just wanted to know that we really did understand his music and weren’t just bullshitting him. And he could tell pretty instantly that we all had grown up with those songs. David was worried about “Wooden Ships.” He thought maybe we couldn’t pull it off, and then once we played it on acoustic guitars for him, he was like, “Oh, you guys are for real,” and we were all buddies until he passed.
Shires: He understood music theory more than I initially realized — with singing as much with guitars — and would be naming everything from a fifth to a 13th. He could do the theory and speak it, but it was so natural to him that you couldn’t tell that there was as much thought [about the mechanics of music] as there was.
Isbell: Yeah, he knew the theory, but he didn’t need you to know that he knew it. He had such a love for jazz, and for adventurous, exploratory popular music that he learned why certain things worked and certain things didn’t. But he had no interest in showing off. He just wanted to learn those things in the service of making music that was more beautiful. And it’s really rare.
Shires: That showed in his taste in music too, like his love of Joni (Mitchell) and Sarah Jarosz.
I grew up listening to those records, and I never imagined we’d get to be close friends with the man. Growing up, because I considered myself more of a guitar player, so I never really expected that I would be a lead vocalist. I’d already started studying harmonies, and that had led me to David’s harmony singing. Before I was 12 years old, I was trying to figure out what he was doing with his harmony singing. My parents, when I was 8 or 10, went and saw Crosby, Stills and Nash on the “Live it Up tour, and they wouldn’t take me because they thought people would be smoking weed and stuff at the show. I was so upset, I didn’t speak to my parents for three or four days at all — just completely silent after they went to that concert. I was already listening to those records and honestly trying to learn them.
Isbell: David was a real influence on me. When I was a teenager, me and Chris Tompkins, who has now written 15 or 16 No. 1 country songs, drove up from our little hometown in Alabama to go see Crosby Stills and Nash in Nashville, and the arena wasn’t full. They did the thing where they went back and got us from the back and brought us up to the front few rows because we were having such a good time. That was one of the greatest nights of my life.
I think part of what made them so special (in the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash) was that they just found each other, because you can learn a lot about harmony singing and still not blend with the people that you’re with. There has to be something about your delivery and about just the way you view music in general. Me and Amanda have both tried to sing with people who have really good relative pitch and they won’t blend with you as well, because they sing the right notes, and we don’t always sing the right ones. You’ve gotta have somebody who’s willing to give a little bit.
Shires: If you can open your ears and listen while other people are singing, that’s a big trick. And seeing him in the studio do it, he wasn’t particular. He’d try stuff out before he settled on exactly what he wanted to do.
Isbell: Right. And he wouldn’t try only try the things that he knew he could hit. He had no shame. He would try something wild and crazy and completely wrong to eventually get to the right thing to sing. A lot of people are afraid to do that in the studio, but David truly did not give a shit. You could laugh at him or with him, as long as you were laughing.
I think he did a job of filling in those spaces and making chords with those harmonies, without standing out. When you hear Neil sing, it doesn’t matter how many people he’s singing with; you can hear Neil’s voice, but David blended. I think a lot of what David was doing as a harmony singer was, he was just pretending to be multiple people. He would be Phil (Everly)one second, and he’d be Don the next, and he would skip. He had such a broad range and such a powerful voice, and he wasn’t a scooper. He was somebody who could land right on the note and not have to sing flat and scoop up to it.
He was also one of a handful of people who really invented, or at least stumbled upon, the kind of music that we make now. On (the Byrds’) “Turn, Turn, Turn,” Roger (McGuinn) was the only person who played on that; the rest were studio musicians. But when they finally let David and Gene and the rest of the guys play on the rest of that Byrds record, they made that shift, and what they gravitated toward was a louder version of the folk trio music that they’d been making in the early ’60s.
And that’s really all we’re doing. They make up all kinds of different genres for it. We’re talking about places that we all grew up in out in the middle of nowhere, but we like loud electric guitars and a little bit of psychedelia. So we’re making folk-rock, just like the Byrds did, really, at the end of the day.
David had a conscience and a big heart that a lot of classic rock stars just either didn’t start out with or lost somewhere along the way. I think that’s part of what kept him alive. I know that he felt like he had run a lot of his old friends off, and he mentioned that a lot. But I also feel like he was proud of the person that he had become in his old age, and he was able to live with those regrets. And it made him more complicated than just your standard rock star in leather pants with a much younger wife or girlfriend. David and Jan were together for a long time, and were equals in a whole lot of ways. He had actually committed himself to being a good, honest person. And I think even with all the mistakes that he made in his past, that allowed him to be at peace at the end of his life.
In some ways, I think part of what kept David listening to new music and going out and finding younger musicians to collaborate with was the fact that he hadn’t run any of us off yet. He had a bunch of friends that were much younger than him when he passed away, and he never really got the chance to piss us off too bad. He was really sweet to us.
Shires: He really loved poetry. We talked a lot about that. One of the poems we talked about was Ron Paget’s “How to Be Perfect,” one of my favorites. I sent it to him, and he responded, “Just so you know, this poem is some of the best advice I’ve ever seen.” He loved flowers; we talked a lot about Casa Blanca lilies. We went to the guitar shop together and he forced me to buy this tiny ukulele — like, really forced me — and I’m so glad I did. It’s tiny and it’s like super-old, so you can’t tour with it, but it’s really nice-sounding.
Other anecdotes? Well… it was hard to keep him out of a peanut butter and jelly. [Laughs.]
Isbell: Yeah, he liked peanut butter and jelly.Amanda’s mom made him a pie for his birthday a couple years ago, and we had probably three good two-hour conversations about how much he liked that pie.
You know, he would just roll up joints and smoke ’em at random times. It didn’t matter where he was — in the studio, in public, inside a business…
Shires: He was genuinely into family. Past the part where you talk about the music and work, he genuinely cared about getting a picture at Christmas, and “How’s everybody doing?” and all that.
I’d take notes in our conversations, and I just pulled some up. Some quotes from Crosby: “Friendship is holy.” And “Food isn’t something to be messed with.” As in, getting too crazy with the eating…
Isbell: Yeah, that you gotta watch what you eat. Basically, it’s like heroin or something. If you can take it too far, it’ll kill you. “Food is not something to be messed with.”
Shires: He’d just sent me another Donald Fagen song. David and Jason both loved Steely Dan, and I hate them, so they’d team up against me. He forgave me for that. Oh my God, now I don’t have him here to try to convince me that I’m going to love Steely Dan one day!
Isbell: He spent all night one night in the studio, like three or four hours, showing (producer) Dave Cobb every alternate guitar tuning that he’d ever used, and every one that Joni (Mitchell) had ever used. And he took one of the guitars in the studio and showed Dave Cobb how to do every one of those tunings, patiently and calmly, and then he went and fell asleep on the couch.
As big as his ego was, and as confident as he was as an artist, he loved to talk about how Joni was better than all the rest of ’em put together. I heard that a lot. Anytime the conversation steered to Joni, he talked about her as though they still spent every day together, like it was 1969, and about how she was really the most talented member of that whole group, and she was the one that really transcended.
He was never boring. He had a lot of opinions, and he was serious about ’em all. But the proof was in the kind of music he made, I think. (On Twitter), if somebody sketched a picture of him and he didn’t like it, he would say, “This is the worst fucking piece of shit I’ve ever seen.” But one thing I noticed about David… A lot of people have been mad at David for 20 years, but I don’t know if David has been mad at them for that long. It always seemed like if he got mad at somebody, it was immediately forgotten. But then he could offend people to the point to where they would never speak to him again. He was quick to anger, but he was also quick to forgive.
He was so sweet to us. You know, granted, he’s my grandparents’ age, and so there was a different dynamic there than there was with his contemporaries. But he just found ways to spread joy even after he’d fucked a bunch of stuff up and after he was supposed to be dead a dozen times. He got to be an old man, and that’s a miracle.
He treated a lot of things like it was his last. and I think that’s probably why the work that he did toward the end of his life was some of the best work that he ever did. You know, I think John Prine was the same way. He thought, “I’m on borrowed time here for whatever reason, so I’m gonna make the best of it.” And they got to go out with respect and with dignity and with a lot of people singing their praises.
The first time I met him and heard him sing in a room, when we were rehearsing for him to sing with us at Newport, I asked him straight-up: “I don’t want to offend you, but how the hell does your voice still sound like that? I know your history.” And he said, “I’ve tried everything I could to kill it, and it just wouldn’t die. So I guess I have a responsibility to share it with people as long as I can.”