El guitarrista Ben Keith, uno de los instrumentistas más habituales en la trayectoria del rockero Neil Young, murió ayer a la edad de 73 años, de un ataque al corazón. Nacido en Texas y residente habitual de Nashville, capital de la música 'country', Ben se especializó en la modalidad de guitarra 'pedal steel', fue músico de sesión en los años 50 y 60 y debutó con Neil Young en el influyente disco 'Harvest', del año de 1971. I. Z.
On stage in 1973, the Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young introduced his collaborator Ben Keith with the words: "I swear to God, I love every sound he makes. No matter what the fuck it is." Keith, who has died of a suspected heart attack aged 73, played alongside Young for nearly 40 years. He was primarily a steel guitarist with a distinctive touch – his playing once likened by Young's bassist Tim Drummond to the way "fingertips of fog crawl in from the ocean" – but he was also a gifted multi-instrumentalist and producer.
Keith was born Bennett Keith Schaeufele in Fort Riley, Kansas, and brought up in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Such was his unstinting dedication to the guitar as a teenager that one of his fingers required surgery. The lap steel guitar – played while placed across the thighs – became his instrument of choice and, by 1956, he had joined the Nashville musicians' union. A year later he was enlisted by the honky-tonk star Faron Young for his Country Deputies band, alongside Tom Pritchard (double bass) and Odell Martin (guitar).
Keith remained a top session player for the next few years, his most famous recording being the memorable steel backing on Patsy Cline's I Fall to Pieces, a huge hit in February 1961. He continued to play and produce throughout the next decade, explaining later that "growing up in Kentucky, so close to Nashville, gave me some country roots. I was also really lucky to get to work with some great producers – Chet Atkins, for example."
The union with Young was a serendipitous one. When the latter breezed into town for Johnny Cash's TV show in 1971, he opted to stay in Nashville to record his next album. The producer Elliot Mazer suggested the drummer Kenny Buttrey and Drummond, who in turn recommended Keith. The band, dubbed The Stray Gators, were packed off to the nearby Quadraphonic Sound Studios to record what became the classic Harvest. Keith, who did not even know who Young was, told the film-maker Jonathan Demme in 2005: "They were already recording [Harvest] at the time. I set up my steel and kind of snuck in there and started playing and we did five songs before we ever stopped and introduced ourselves."
Keith's contributions were both luminous and elegant, bringing a sweeping sadness to tender songs such as Out On the Weekend and Old Man. On its release in February 1972, Harvest became Young's biggest-selling album, spawning his sole US No 1, Heart of Gold. He then took Keith on the road for the tour that saw the recording of Time Fades Away in 1973, and retained him for Tonight's the Night, recorded the same year but not issued until two years later. These two albums became part of what was eventually known as the Ditch trilogy, in which Young eschewed the middle-of-the-road success of Harvest for a rough ride through the margins of his own tortured psyche. With Young mourning two recent deaths, Tonight's the Night was described by the bassist Billy Talbot as "a drunken Irish wake". Keith's spooky steel accents helped define the album's mood, particularly on songs such as Albuquerque and Tired Eyes.
On the Beach (1974), the third part of the trilogy, found Keith and Young playing off one another on For the Turnstiles, a spectral country ballad that had them trading strange, almost impossibly high vocal harmonies.
Keith was by then an integral part of Young's band as well as being an in-demand session player for the likes of Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Todd Rundgren. In 1995 he even produced the singer-songwriter Jewel's debut album, Pieces of You, which sold millions in the US. He received his first co-production credit with Young on Comes a Time (1978) in a country style, and did so again in Old Ways (1985), in a similar idiom.
In 1992 it was Keith who was largely responsible for reuniting the Harvest band for Young's Harvest Moon, inevitably seen as a sequel, his steel and dobro (resonator guitar) licks investing the album with a wistful feeling of rustic nostalgia. The same sepia tones flooded Prairie Wind (2005), produced by Keith, the songs making up most of Demme's subsequent concert film, Heart of Gold. Demme said of him: "With Ben on board, there were no limits."
• Ben Keith (Bennett Keith Schaeufele), musician, born 6 March 1937; died 26 July 2010