10 Best David Crosby Songs, Folk Rock Phenom

David Crosby’s musical influence reaches far and wide. The L.A. county native got his start in the business as a member of ‘60s rock band The Byrds. After short-lived success with them, he paired up with Buffalo Springfield frontman Stephen Stills and fellow musician Graham Nash to form one of the ‘70s most successful supergroups. We cover Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s formidable hits in another article. For now, we focus on Crosby’s active solo career that highlights an artist hungry to challenge himself as a songwriter and a musician who turned pain into poetry.

With one of the most distinctive stylings in the business, the singer-songwriter paired folk-rock roots of the ‘60s with psychedelic elements he helped pioneer in the ‘70s. His unorthodox approach to songwriting has long been treasured by listeners. But early on, critics had trouble understanding his approach, which wasn’t naturally marginal, but many times rendered unusually on purpose. He wasn’t afraid to explore big themes in 3-minute long chunks, and he never feared releasing epic-style narrative tales either. One of popular music’s most compelling artists, check out David Crosby’s best solo work below.

10. Traction In The Rain

A mournful, open-feeling track that plays like a lamentation, ‘Traction in the Rain’ is an early ‘70s David Crosby release that appears on his critically acclaimed If I Could Only Remember My Name album. Lyrics point to the singer reminiscing about lost love (and losing what is important to us in general), and having trouble moving on from the experience. During the recording of the album, Crosby invited several of his friends to play on the record. The session musician listing reads like a who’s who of the music industry at the time. Just a few guest appearances include Neil Young (who sings backup and plays guitar on this track), Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, and Santana.

9. Tamalpais High (At About 3)

If I Could Only Remember My Name was recorded during a short Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young hiatus due to creative differences in ‘71, but that didn’t stop the bandmates from briefly getting together to record on Crosby’s solo record at the time. For ‘Tamalpais High (At About 3),’ Graham Nash steps in to help out with guitar and harmonies while David uses his voice to communicate vocal phrasings that evoke a certain feel, rather than set lyrics. The unconventional tune centers around Tamalpais High School, which he reminisces about while looking back on his youth and a girl he once dated who attended the school.

8. I Think I

50 years after his seminal record If I Could Only Remember My Name was released, Crosby showed no signs of slowing down as he released another project that defied industry trends, For Free. Appearing on the 2021 album is ‘I Think I,’ a moody stream-of-consciousness style piece that feels familiar to longtime fans of his solo work. He employs his tried-and-true tricks, from unique chord voicings and gentle, crisp harmonies to poetic themes pondering the past and finding one’s way in the world.

7. Orleans

Friend and fellow musician Jerry Garcia played a pivotal role in the recording of If I Could Only Remember My Name. At the time, Crosby was reeling from the sudden death of his then-girlfriend Christine Hinton. He used the recording time as a sort of distraction, and similar to the anchored houseboat Crosby lived on at the time, Garcia served as a grounding anchor for the album. David credits him as making the whole thing “sparkle.” Crosby’s heartbreaking range of emotions are communicated poignantly with ‘Orleans,’ an ancient French traditional that Crosby revitalized. Over minor chords and haunting harmonies, he sings out a list of famous French cathedrals and the cities they’re located in. The slow tempo and echoing production give the tune a ghost-like quality.

6. River Rise (feat. Michael McDonald)

At 80 years old, Crosby went back into the studio for the recording of For Free, this time with his son, James Raymond, who produced the record. He also assisted in writing, ‘River Rise,’ an unmistakably California-themed song with an airy texture and nature-driven lyrics centered around the empowerment of everyday individuals. “Blue-eyed soul” vocal legend Michael McDonald makes an appearance on the track, who spent time contributing significantly to the music of both Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers during his heyday. The chemistry between Crosby and Raymond is undeniable throughout the entire album despite the two only recently connecting before the album was made. Though Crosby spent most of Raymond’s childhood as an absentee father, he rekindled their relationship after getting a second chance at life following a liver transplant. Their work together contains a fresh, powerful feel resulting from the connection fostered between the father-son duo.

5. Things We Do for Love

Dallas, Texas is home to a mountain-sized jazz ensemble known as Snarky Puppy. Over the years, Crosby formed a relationship with the band’s frontman, Michael League. And in 2016, League got a call that the singer-songwriter had chosen him to produce his latest album, Lighthouse. The leading track off the album, ‘Things We Do For Love,’ was co-written by League and Crosby. The dreamy, romantic number was written in honor of David’s wife, Jan, and lyrics feature a more real-life approach to what makes a relationship last, rather than formulaic platitudes artists often use when penning lovey-dovey tributes.

4. Hero

This early ‘90s track has a pop-like air about it. Perhaps it’s because the great Phil Collins commanded several roles during the recording of ‘Hero.’ Not only did he co-write the tune with Crosby, but he lent his percussion and keyboard talents to it while donning his producer hat as well. Featured on his Thousand Roads album, it’s an uplifting story that has an unusually big feel to it when compared to other Crosby tracks. The autobiographical tune drew heavily on David’s brief time spent in jail due to a series of convictions. While serving time, he cleaned up his act and viewed ‘Hero’ as a way to highlight his transformation. The song’s pop flavor was widely embraced by listeners. The single went all the way to number one on the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart and spent time at the third spot on America’s Adult Contemporary chart as well.

3. Tracks in the Dust

Featuring a good bit of spoken word commentary by Crosby, this is another one of his stream-of-consciousness style compositions offering everyday commentary on relationships, and one’s relationship to others. Though it appeared on his solo album, Oh Yes I Can, the album didn’t sell much commercially. When David teamed up once again with his fellow Crsoby, Stills, Nash, and Young bandmates, he brought the track out of the shadows and the group would often perform it live. Crosby has somehow managed to maintain a self-deprecating view over the course of his massively successful career. He would often introduce the songs to audiences with this tongue in cheek joke: “[This] will seem like a new song to you, since none of you bought my solo album.”

2. Laughing

Backed by a touch of eastern sounding instrumentation, Crosby gently uncovers his thoughts about the “transcendental meditation” his pals The Beatles had become enchanted with in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Over the years, David had struck up a casual friendship with George, and one day George called up him to tell him about his “guru” he found in India. The nature of knowledge, finding the truth, and how one looks at the world are all deeply philosophical themes succinctly covered by Crosby in this mystic track that also sports some guest vocal work by Joni Mitchell. Featured on his now highly regarded If I Could Only Remember My Name album, when the record first dropped, critics weren’t too crazy about it. But Crosby never cared too much about what critics thought. The album represented more than a recreation of his more trendy tracks with CSN. It was a cathartic project meant to facilitate healing from past trauma and pain.

1. Cowboy Movie

For this moody, electrified addition to If I Could Only Remember My Name, all the greats come together for ‘Cowboy Movie.’ The epic-style track clocks in at over eight minutes. But Crosby uses that time to brilliantly tell the story of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young as if they were a band of gritty cowboys starring in their own Spaghetti-western. Several Grateful Dead musicians play the role of backing band for this popular Crosby narrative. Bassist Phil Lesh, drummer Mickey Hart, and of course guitarist Jerry Garcia are just a few of the historic musicians credited on the track. Fellow bandmates Neil Young and Graham Nash understandably make appearances, and Joni Mitchell once again reprises her vocal role. ‘Cowboy Movie’ is a great example of Crosby’s creative headspace at the time. While taking a break from CSN, he teamed up with the Grateful Dead and began churning out solo material with them. They were a huge part of the If Only I Could Remember My Name album recording. And the dynamic, philosophical, and gravelly nature of the record significantly widened the scope for David Crosby as both a musician and songwriter.

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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