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Folk Icon Stephen Stills Reflects on Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y and His New Box Set, 'Carry On'

This is an excerpt from the May 2013 issue of Guitar World magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Brad Paisley, Testament, Tommy Thayer, Children of Bodum, Steven Wilson and more, check out the issue at the Guitar World Online Store.

“You can’t fit me onto three discs!”

That’s what Stephen Stills told the producers of Carry On, Rhino’s new box-set retrospective of his remarkable career. The label had originally envisioned a three-disc set, but Stills won his point and a fourth CD. Given the incredible range and scope of his career, there’s quite a bit of ground to cover.

Carry On takes us through his early days as an earnest young folkie and his paradigm-shifting tenures with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash (and occasionally Young) and Manassas. But it also provides evidence of his friendship and musical partnership with Jimi Hendrix and studio collaborations with everyone from Eric Clapton and Booker T. Jones to members of the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Even four discs barely capture the immensity of Stills’ talents as a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer and producer. From Monterey to Woodstock to Altamont, he has a Zelig-esque knack for being present whenever rock history is in the making.

“I had to fight to get four discs,” he says, “ ‘cause I don’t wanna do this again, let alone put my friends through it. Geez, I could have a whole box set of just blues. But at the same time, I wasn’t gonna release something where every time I farted in the studio it’s on there and it costs $400! We wanted something where you can have the four discs or you can get one of them.”

They don’t make rock stars like Stills anymore. Earthy, well read, voluble on any number of subjects, from British history to psychoacoustics, he’s possessed of a ready wit and a gift for withering sarcasm. “I’m working on that,” he says somewhat apologetically of the latter trait. “Trying to get it in check. But sometimes I can’t help myself.”

Even at age 67, Stills seems endowed with boundless energy. His well-chosen words come in torrents, much like the notes from his guitar. Remarkably versatile and insatiably curious about musical styles, he can tear off a heart-breaking country lick, a barn-razing rock solo or an elegantly incisive acoustic folk run. He can even negotiate a Latin groove far better than most white guys can. And his masterful guitar work has always been in service of a plaintively flinty singing voice that can embody the conscience of a generation or the pain of lost, lamented love.

Nor is he content to rest on his laurels. Fresh from overseeing the production of his box set, Stills jumped right in the studio to cut a brand-new blues album with Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

“Kenny Wayne and I are like brothers,” he says. “We figured out that we probably are related through a couple of white slavers and a Cherokee or two. I mean, my origins—according to my aunt, I’m basically a blue-eyed Injun’ from Louisiana. And after the Civil War, my great-great-grandmother gravitated to southern Illinois, where my father was from. But I’ve got relatives that look so much like ‘gator swamp guys. Duane Allman and I had the same kind of bond. All of us crackers—we’re all just a tribe.”

Stills self-identifies as a southerner and can drop into a thick drawl when the occasion demands an “I’ll tell ya whut, boy…” But actually, he spent his childhood roaming around the Gulf of Mexico, on both sides of the U.S. border. This goes a long way toward explaining his unusually broad musical scope. The son of a military career man, Stills did some growing up in Louisiana, Florida, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Panama Canal Zone. He has vivid memories of seeing the Zulu Parade in a New Orleans Mardi Gras at the tender age of six. He began picking out tunes on a Stella acoustic guitar when he was around 13.

“I was really a blues guy,” he says. “I loved Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Guitar Slim. But I had an acoustic guitar. So who do you copy? You learn Travis picking and you learn Doc Watson, Lead Belly and stuff like that. Most of the folkies were writing poetry to the accompaniment of whatever chords they could muster. Hank Williams was the songwriter/guitar player among them.”

Photo: Getty Images

For the rest of this story, plus features on Brad Paisley, Testament, Tommy Thayer, Children of Bodum, Steven Wilson and more, check out the May 2013 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.

Alan di Perna

In a career that spans five decades, Alan di Perna has written for pretty much every magazine in the world with the word “guitar” in its title, as well as other prestigious outlets such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, Creem, Player, Classic Rock, Musician, Future Music, Keyboard, and He is author of Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits, Green Day: The Ultimate Unauthorized History and co-author of Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Sound Style and Revolution of the Electric Guitar. The latter became the inspiration for the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibition “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll.” As a professional guitarist/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist, Alan has worked with recording artists Brianna Lea Pruett, Fawn Wood, Brenda McMorrow, Sat Kartar and Shox Lumania.