Mountain Climbing with Nils Lofgren

A chat with the influential guitarist about his love and gratitude for making music

Nils Lofgren (Image: Carl Schultz)

Most artists would be satisfied to be a part of only one super successful band and still be able to maintain a credible solo career as well.

Nils Lofrgren can not only claim to be credited with both those accomplishments, but also to have been given the ability to take them several steps further. After being recruited by Neil Young in 1968 as a member of Young’s back-up band, Crazy Horse, at the tender age of 17, he went on to create a remarkable legacy that includes some of the most notable musical moments of the past 50 years.

For starters, Crazy Horse still reconvenes, both as Young’s backing band and on their own. Since Nils rejoined the Horse, the group recorded three albums with Neil (2019’s Colorado, 2021’s Barn and 2022’s World Record) and an album tellingly titled All Roads Lead Home and released earlier this year under the banner of Molina, Talbot, Lofgren and Young.


AUDIO: Molina, Talbot, Lofgren & Young “Rain”

What’s more, he also plays an occasional role in Ringo Starr’s superstar conglomerate, the All Starr Band. 

Then of course, there’s his ongoing tenure in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, which has provided him steady employment since 1984. His tenure in that particular outfit earned him and his colleagues induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. 

Still, Lofgren can also proudly claim a superb solo career. After his initial indoctrination into Crazy Horse, he branched out on his own and formed his band, Grin. After that band’s premature demise, he initiated a string of superb solo albums, the latest of which is titled Mountains

Rock & Roll Globe was recently given the opportunity to speak with Lofgren about the new album, and also his amazingly prolific career in general. Gracious and amenable to a fault, he spoke with us via Zoom from Frankfurt, Germany where he and the E Street Band were completing the final dates of their latest European tour prior to his planned return home to Scottsdale, Arizona. 

“We’re playing about an hour and a half outside of town tomorrow,” Lofgren mentioned. “And now we have only three shows left. That closes out this three month European campaign. And then I get some blessed time at home with my wife Amy, our son Dylan and the dogs. Then we start playing the States. I’m 72 years old now. After 55 years being on the road, I drop my bags in the hotel room and go look for the gym so I can do some stuff to get my body and my mind and my spirit together to keep that in shape.”

Lofgren’s love of performing never seems to ebb, despite the fact that he’s no longer able to do the backflips off a trampoline like he once did in his stage shows. A double knee replacement put an end to that. Regardless, his enthusiasm for this latest jaunt and touring in general always finds him in good spirits. 

“The shows have been amazing,” he said. “The band and the audience to me seem as good or better than they’ve ever been. So I’m grateful for that. But I’m also thrilled I get to go see my family soon. We’ve got some great work all the way up till Christmas. But getting back to the United States will be great, because then it’s a little easier to zip home for four or five days here and there or every couple of days. It really breaks things up nicely.”

Even so, he says the fulfillment he finds in playing for a live audience remains undiminished. 

“There’s a gratitude and a joy in walking out to play that is even greater now than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Lofgren insists. “I love performing by far more than any other part of my job. And, man, it’s a delight to be able to do it after all these years. It’s just a really great gift. I’m very grateful that I get to walk out and do that. I just feel real blessed, even as homesick as I sometimes am… There’s some spiritual lift that I get out of performing in front of people.”

Clearly that joy is reciprocal. No doubt his fans will agree that also it’s good to have Lofgren reposition himself in the solo spotlight. Mountains is an exceptional album, flush with the energy and emotion that’s always been his stock in trade. As for the title and the lovely artwork that adorns the album cover, Lofgren has a ready explanation.

Nils Lofgren Mountains, Cattle Track Road Records 2023

“I just felt like there were a lot of new mountains to climb these days, and many that I hadn’t counted on in my older years,” he muses. “It was a real exorcising kind of spiritual growth in dealing with a lot of crises and mountains that I really wasn’t expecting to have to navigate, especially in my 70s.”

Nevertheless, Lofgren’s optimism appears to override the challenges that come with overcoming the obstacles he refers to. “I sort of came at it from a child’s perspective,” he confides. “It was like maybe we were starting to get a handle on things as a human race, you know — peace, kindness, compassion, and then we kind of threw it all out the window. What the hell happened? We better friggin find things out. That’s why I have a children’s chorus sing with me on the song ‘Back In Your Arms.’” 

That’s hardly the only significant contribution on the album. Lofgren’s various appearances to other people’s efforts was rewarded with some reciprocal involvement, including cameos by Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Ron Carter and, in what may well have been one of his final appearance on record, David Crosby.

“I stayed in touch with David for 55 years,” Lofgren notes. “His wife and my wife Amy got to be good friends on Twitter. They both have real wit, and a great sort of sarcastic sense of humor. But they’re both also very passionate about civil rights, human rights, women’s rights… all of it. So when he heard I was making a new album, David said to me, ‘I want to play on your record.’ Naturally then, I knew that I had to get David to sing. So I wrote a song called ‘I Remember Her Name.’ I could just hear his voice singing it and it paid off. Naturally we continued to stay in touch, even as he was getting ready to tour. He was excited to be doing so. I miss him a lot. But I was very grateful because he sang so beautifully. And every time I hear it, I get a little misty. I spoke with him pretty regularly every few weeks while we were getting the song together. We did his part long distance with ProTools. We didn’t try to get together with covid going on and all that.”

As it turned out, it would would be one of the final times he and Crosby spoke.

“It was about three weeks before he passed,” Lofgren recalls. “I was getting ready to send him the finished product. I had sent him a good rough mix. He said he loved it and was happy he got to sing for me. So it was a real shock when the end came, but we should be grateful he was around for such a long time. And I was tickled that I got him to sing on that song.”

Lofgren said he’s also grateful to have two ongoing day jobs that find him giving due diligence to his role within both Young and Springsteen’s backing bands. “I learned very young, through working with Neil Young in particular, how valuable it is to be in a great band and not always having to lead it,” he explains. “Most solo artists or songwriters really don’t want to do that. And that’s fine. But I love doing it.”

It’s little wonder. He still has vivid memories of his initial efforts once Crazy Horse beckoned.

“When I met Neil and joined Crazy Horse on their first tour, Neil and his producer, David Briggs, became my two greatest mentors. I was 18 years old when I was driven up to Topanga Canyon and into the driveway of Neil’s house up in the hills to record After the Gold Rush

In a very real sense, Lofgren considers himself a man on the mission, part of his steady pursuit of his musical muse. “When I first hit the road at 17, I never thought that at 72, I’d still be doing this. But you know, I believe that music’s the planet’s sacred weapon. Billions of people are tuning into it every day, and in that way it serves to heal us and unite us. I’m a recovering Catholic, so all the religions are kind of like cults to me. Maybe in a way I’m kind of like a caretaker. I have this beautiful life and I want to keep it going. I appreciate the fact that I was blessed with incredible parents who gave me the spirituality and work ethic that I have today, and who told me just to love my fellow man. It’s an ethic that continues to save my ass even now.”

Mountains, then, is a kind of mantra, one that speaks to the need to climb the peaks before us and do our best to find a better way around. “We just have to help each other out, and offer some comfort and solace to each other,” Lofgren maintains. “Imagine if everyone did that. It would be like heaven on earth, quite literally. But meanwhile, with all the madness we all have to navigate, we can’t take anything for granted. I recognize what a lucky lad I am to have been given the gift of music. My focus on higher power began when I was five years old when my parents paid for my accordion lessons.”

Nils Lofgren 2023 (Image: Rob DeMartin)

The gratitude Lofgren felt then and still feels now, is manifest with the new album. “I’m so happy how it came out,” he declares. “And I’m so grateful to all my friends who I asked to help and then stood up and said yes. You never have enough time with the people you love.”

Asked if he plans to tour behind this album, if in fact his obligations with Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young don’t get in the way, Lofgren refrained from offering any definitive prospects. “I don’t force anything,” he demurred. “I didn’t even start recording till I knew I could sing all the songs live, and until every word was written and done so I could perform the song in front of a live audience. I can only perform a song if I know it well. And you have to get some kind of an emotion with a performance. If you get to the core of it with a vocal, that really feels great. Then I can sing it and do overdubs if I have to. It’s the same as playing an instrument. If I’m performing and playing and singing at the same time, I find it’s better for me— maybe not technically, but certainly more emotionally. So that’s what I did here. Once the core was there, I was really happy about the journey. For now, I’ll be happy to be home, and just trying not to get caught up with not being out on tour.”

All in all, it’s clear Lofgren is in a happy place. And why not? He has a successful solo career, he plays a major role in two enormously popular bands, and he’s doing the thing he loves most, which is making music and sharing it with the world. 

“Here I am,” he concludes. “We just finished a great tour, I’ve got a new record out and I’m still here all these years later. I can look back on all the records l’ve made and all the high adventures I’ve had on the road. It’s been a lot of beautiful crazy stuff, but I’m just grateful I’ve been able to experience it all.”


AUDIO: Nils Lofgren “Won’t Cry No More (For Charlie Watts)”



Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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