“When I heard my guitar playing on these songs, I thought, ‘OK, he’s still learning,'" says Stephen Stills. "'He's playing within his limitations. Maybe he'll get good by the time he’s 50.'"
Stills is talking about the 82 tracks that comprise Carry On, a sprawling four-CD career retrospective of the singer-songwriter and guitarist's work, both in the studio and on stage, as a solo artist and with an astonishing series of iconic bands: Buffalo Springfield, Manassas and, of course, Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).
The task of reviewing the material for the gargantuan set was not always an easy one for Stills, who admits that he'd much rather do anything else than listen to his own recordings. “I'm just not the kind of guy who sits around and stares at his own navel," he says. The guitarist underscores this fact with a surprising caveat he gave co-producers Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein: "They were planning on making it three CDs, but I said it had to be four. If we were going to do this, we were going to do it one time and have everything on there."
Nash and Bernstein worked for the better part of four years to track down, compile, remaster and, in some cases, remix the more than five hours of music that makes up Carry On. "I'm listed as a producer, but Graham and Joel did the lion's share of the work," says Stills. "Going through old boxes of tapes, trying to read credits and titles when the labels have been replaced – it’s a big job. I'm glad they did it because it would have taken me 10 years!"
Stills hadn't heard many of the recordings in decades – 25 of them are previously unreleased, the earliest of which, Travelin', dates back to 1962 when the guitarist was just 17 years old – and he says that, after he finally assessed the collection as a whole, he was surprised at the scope of the musical narrative that emerges from the collection. "It really does cover the arc of the career," he says. "There’s roots music, Travis picking, old blues, jazz. I don't think there are any stones unturned."
The material is arranged in a mostly chronological order, weaving a rich tapestry of American music, following Stills as he spreads the waters of folk-rock in the Buffalo Springfield; country-rock, psychedelia, hard rock and soaring contrapuntal vocal harmonies in CSN&Y; as well as soul-moving guitar poetry in Manassas. Magically, the set expands, revealing countless moments of epiphany and reverberant imagery, in the idiosyncratic visions and prescient imagination of Stills' solo albums and later-period recordings with his celebrated bandmates.
"It's quite a journey," the guitarist says. "I forgot how good a lot of it sounded. Quite a few times I'd say, 'Oh, my God. We had so much fun when we did that.' There were some real surprises. I couldn’t believe how good the arrangement of To A Flame [from Stills' 1970 eponymous debut solo album] was, the lush strings. Arif Mardin dragged that out of me, my classical training. Hearing it again just blew me away."
Carry On will be released on 26 March. You can pre-order the box set at this link. On the following pages, Stills offers his thoughts and reflections on 10 tracks from this must-have collection.