The tale of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young is an interesting one. First, there was Crosby, Stills, and Nash, or CSN, which became CSNY with the addition of yet another top-level musician.
It was “sometimes Y” and other times not. But despite the changes, listeners could always count on stellar songs and musicianship. And the bedrock of their captivating sound is, of course, the three main members’ unrivaled vocal harmonies.
Join us as we delve into the complicated history of these legendary and prolific musical artists.
The Story of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
The three principals of Crosby, Stills, and Nash were already successful and famous when they joined forces in 1969. They came together somewhat by happenstance after an impromptu jam session in Los Angeles. In doing so, they became one of the rock era’s first true supergroups. They also helped to usher in the hugely popular singer-songwriter and folk-rock genres.
David Crosby was the able rhythm guitarist and distinctive harmony singer in The Byrds. Stephen Stills was a driving force (along with Neil Young) in the groundbreaking Buffalo Springfield. And Graham Nash was the lead singer of the popular British quintet the Hollies.
Their debut album, far from being sparse with simply strummed guitars, had a dynamic full-band sound. The supremely talented Stills played many of the instruments, but the record also featured drummer Dallas Taylor on most cuts.
A Canadian Adds His Magic
An additional name graced the cover of the second album, Deja Vu, and this is where some confusion started. At the urging of their record label, Neil Young from Canada turned CSN into CSNY. The singer, guitarist, and songwriter was Stills’ good friend and previous collaborator. He’d already made a name for himself as a solo artist after the breakup of Buffalo Springfield.
Though Young’s presence was energizing in some ways, you could argue that he never fully integrated into the group. He contributed only two songs to the second album but did go on tour with them. After a failed attempt at another recording, he quit but rejoined for other tours later.
So Neil Young certainly left his mark, but he contributed a fairly small part to the group’s vast musical legacy. With and without Young, they’ve sold more than 30 million records. They’re members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a group and as solo artists. They also have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s Best-Known Songs
Perhaps more important than the record sales and accolades, they have many great songs with a permanent place in peoples’ hearts. You could probably spend most of the day singing classics from CSN and CSNY. But, for now, we’ll look at three of their top tunes.
Joni Mitchell famously missed out on performing at Woodstock, but she wrote about the experience anyway. This revved-up version from Deja Vu features Young’s snarling, squawking guitar and a memorable, soaring chorus. “We are stardust, we are golden,” they sing. “We are billion-year-old carbon…And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Their recording was a big radio hit but not quite Top 10 in the U.S. It did reach #3 in Canada, however, and plays over the end credits of the Woodstock film.
Teach Your Children
Special guest, Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, laid down the tasty pedal steel licks that give this sweet tune a country flair. Otherwise, it’s probably one of the folkiest songs in the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young canon.
Nash wrote this one while still in the Hollies, but they never recorded it. So he came into the group with quite a keeper. Lyrically, it’s a valuable reminder of how different generations can learn from one another.
This soft-pop classic from Nash honors the charming home in the famous Los Angeles neighborhood of Laurel Canyon that he briefly shared with Mitchell. Accompanying himself on piano, Nash paints a picture of domestic delight, with two cats, fresh-cut flowers, and a loving partner.
The composer’s European sensibility shows itself in not only the lilting melody but in his proper pronunciation. Even today, the way he sings “vahz,” not “vase,” is as ear-catching as his bouncy, stair-stepping piano part. This song reached only #30 on the charts, illustrating that even the group’s most beloved selections weren’t smash hits.
Did Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young Perform at Woodstock?
Most musicians probably remember their early gigs, but not many play in front of around half a million people to begin their careers. CSNY performed at the famous Woodstock festival, in upstate New York, in August 1969.
It’s a common myth that Woodstock was their first public appearance, but that’s not true. It was their second. They performed the previous night at an auditorium in Chicago.
The Woodstock appearance happened in the wee morning hours on the final day of the three-day festival. Crosby, Stills, and Nash hit the stage first and performed with just three acoustic guitars. Then they surprised the crowd by introducing Young, unveiling him as their new member. Then, after a few more songs, they brought drummer Taylor and bassist Greg Reeves.
We mentioned earlier that their friend Joni Mitchell wasn’t there but nearby. She was preparing for an appearance on the nationally televised Dick Cavett Show in New York City. Maybe that’s why she wanted to immortalize the festival in her song that they made famous.
Why Did Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young Break Up?
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were often off and on, but they had quite a run. With various configurations of backing musicians, they recorded and performed for more than 45 years.
However, it was never super smooth. The mercurial Young would sometimes leave the rest of the band in a lurch by suddenly pulling out of projects. And Crosby, in particular, struggled with substance abuse problems and spent time in rehab and prison.
In later years, he admitted to being the cause of a lot of the band’s tension. Though no one has ever recounted all the details, he and his loyal friend Nash had a serious falling out in 2016. Crosby said that some of it related to ugly things he’d said about Young’s wife, actress Daryl Hannah.
Many held out hope that all four would reunite once again. But sadly, Crosby passed away in January 2023. You can’t have a CSN or CSNY without the C. Many believe that, despite the problems he created, his magic middle-range voice tied them all together.
A Legendary Supergroup
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, four talented individuals with dramatically different styles, created powerful music together. For a long time, CSN was a true brotherhood. Neil Young was a wild card that gave them an occasional shot in the arm.
Their vocal harmonies and musicianship were nothing less than magnificent. And their catalog of inspiring songs is nothing short of amazing. We’ll miss seeing them in concert but love that we can always listen to the great music they created.