The legendary singer-songwriter, whose work with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash landed him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, is famously frank when it comes to politics, religion, music and his membership in two of rock’s most influential, and internally combative, bands.
“I did it for as long as I could, and I did it the best that I could,” he said of his time in Crosby, Stills & Nash. “But I follow the music and when the music led elsewhere, I went elsewhere. … The music is in charge, and it’s my job to serve the songs. I go wherever they go.”
These days, Crosby’s muse is telling him to go on tour. The performer, who’s lived in the Santa Ynez area for 22 years, performs April 25 at Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles — kicking off the venue’s 2017 concert season.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Santa Barbara, Crosby sang and played rhythm guitar for folk-rock band The Byrds, best known for its covers of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” before forming a folk-rock supergroup with The Hollies alumnus Nash and Buffalo Springfield mainstay Stills in 1969.
Crosby, Stills & Nash combined virtuoso vocal harmonies, inspired instrumentals and insightful songwriting that delved into the personal and political. The trio of troubadours soon expanded to a quartet with the addition of another Buffalo Springfield band member, Neil Young.
Their songs — including “Long Time Gone,” “Teach Your Children,” “Woodstock” and “Ohio” — helped define an era. But while Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young found synergy on stage, their interactions elsewhere have been less harmonious.
Since their first split in 1971, they’ve reunited and disbanded multiple times amid persistent personality clashes. (Crosby has also teamed up separately with Nash.)
Rounding out the ranks is keyboardist and composer James Raymond, the son Crosby gave up for adoption in the early 1960s, only to reconnect with some 30 years later. Crosby, Pevar and Raymond perform as the jazz-rock trio CPR.
“He and I just get along unbelievably well musically,” Crosby said of Raymond, who produced and co-wrote his 2014 solo album “Croz.”
Crosby already has a follow-up on the way. His album “Sky Trails” is due out in May.
Crosby spoke to The Tribune recently about his newfound focus.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your latest album, “Lighthouse.” Why were you eager to collaborate with Michael League?
A: Because he’s a great writer, a great musician. He came to my house, and we wrote three of the best songs I’ve written recently in three days — just bang, bang, bang. Just like that. That never happens. That’s a level that you just don’t get. ...
Between him and the other people who came on board for the record. He’s just a really fine writer, fine singer, fine player, and we get along great. We have a really good time making up music.
Q: It was League who insisted on “Lighthouse’s” stripped-down, acoustic sound, correct?
A: I thought when I hired him that I would be hiring a master craftsman with a gigantic toolbox, namely his band. I thought we would use them. He said, “Yeah, we could do that, but I’d like to do is something more like your first solo record, (1971’s) ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name,’ and do acoustic guitar and big vocal sets.” Of course, that’s right in my wheelhouse and so I said, “Yeah, absolutely. I’d love to do that.” And it turned out well.
Q: Many critics have commented on the joyous vibe of “Lighthouse.” Where does that joy come from?
A: (Chuckles) It comes from being a happy guy — happy with my family and happy with my work. … I quit (Crosby, Stills & Nash) a year and a half ago, and I’ve been extremely happy ever since.
Q: Does “Sky Trails” have the same feeling behind it?
A: I’d say, “Yeah.” It’s a very strong record. I think you’re going to love it a lot. It’s got some pretty punch-you-in-the-face kind of stuff about Congress. ... (But) it’s largely about love. There’s one song on there by Joni Mitchell called “Amelia” that I’ve always wanted to sing because it’s such a beautiful song. There’s a pretty wide spread of material.
Q: You’ve always mixed music and activism. What inspired you to turn your microphone into a megaphone?
A: Here’s the thing — we’re descended, singer-songwriters, from troubadours in the Middle Ages. Back then we used to be the ones that carried the news. We were like the town cryers (saying) “It’s 12 o’clock and all’s well,” or “It’s 12 o’clock and you just elected an idiot for president and we’re in a lot of goddamn trouble.” (laughs)
It’s part of our job. I don’t want it to be the main part of our job because I don’t think people like being preached at. But I think it can be part of the job.
Part of the job should just be to boogie, make you want to dance. Part of the job should be to take you on little emotional voyages that make you feel stuff. And part of the job should be for us to be the town criers.
Q: What do you do when you come across people who say, “You’re an entertainer, just entertain”?
A: I tell them to (screw) off. (chuckles) I’ve got as much right to an opinion as you do.
I believe that everybody gets a right to an opinion, and I certainly have a right to express mine — and I’m going to. What they don’t like is that I have more people listening. If they were smarter, they’d have more people listening.
Q: You’ve been making music in a climate of political unrest for a long time. How does the environment differ from when you first started doing this in the 1960s?
A: Not much. We’re dealing with the same problems — (including) racism — that we were dealing with when we started trying to do civil rights work in this country. … We’re dealing with greed and corruption in government to a massive degree.
If anything, it’s a little bit worse, because as bad as (George) W. (Bush) was and as bad as (Richard) Nixon was, (Donald) Trump is without question the worst president we have ever had. He’s an idiot and a child and an asshole, and he’s brought a crew of rapists in with him to screw the economy every way they could and try to get more money for themselves.
I think we’re in a lot of trouble, so there’s plenty to sing about.
Q: Are musicians taking advantage of that?
A: I think they’re going to. I think this situation is so horrific that it’s going to generate a lot of good art in every corner, of every kind.
Q: We’re coming up to the 50th anniversary of Crosby, Stills & Nash. What do you see as the legacy of that band?
A: Well, good singer-songwriter stuff. We had some pretty good songs, and I think we were a very good band.
Each time we’ve gotten together it’s been different, and it’s always been fun. If Neil called and asked me to do it tomorrow, I’d do it. Because it’s fun.
I think we’ve done some good work. I’m happy about it.
Q: Do you feel you’re in the middle of a creative renaissance?
A: Yes ... Towards the end of Crosby, Stills & Nash, it had gotten pretty grim. It was just “Turn up the smoke machine and play your hits.” There was no forward motion for me.
So when I got out of there, there was a burst of forward motion, and apparently I’m still riding that burst.
Q: Did you anticipate that at this age, this point in your career, you’d be this active?
A: No. It’s just what happened. I was kind of stultified and stuck in (Crosby, Stills & Nash). … It wasn’t engendering any real joy in me. I got out of that band and all of the sudden, wham-o, comes this huge burst of songs and joy and I can only draw one conclusion from that (laughs) which is that I just survived (hell).
Q: Have you completely ruled out a future Crosby, Stills & Nash reunion?
A: I never say never. But I seriously doubt it.