ben keith
‘Who’s That Guy Over There?’ ‘Neil Young.’
Ben Keith
March 6, 1937-July 26, 2010

Ben Keith (born Bennett Keith Schaeufele in Riley, KS, later relocated to Bowling Green, KY), for nearly 40 years the pedal steel guitarist for Neil Young as well as being a stellar producer and in-demand session musician, died of a heart attack while at Young’s ranch on July 26. Although his session credits ranged far and wide (from Patsy Cline’s 1961 hit, “I Fall To Pieces,” to Todd Rundgren, Warren Zevon, Paul Butterfield, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Ringo Starr, J.J. Cale, Lonnie Mack, et al.), and he had launched Jewel to stardom in 1995 as producer of her Pieces of You debut album (which has sold five million copies), he was by far best known for his atmospheric pedal steel work on Young’s recordings and concerts. Bassist Tim Drummond, who had been charged by Young with finding a steel guitarist to work on the sessions that would become Young’s influential Harvest album, invited Keith to the studio.

“I came in and quietly set up my guitar and started playing” Keith said in a 2006 interview. “They had already started playing. We did five songs that were on the Harvest record, just one right after the other, before I even said hello to him.”

“Him” was Young, whom Keith didn’t even recognize when he entered the recording facility. He didn’t know anyone in the band save Drummond. “Who’s that guy over there?” he asked. “Neil Young” was the answer.

Young recalled his advice to Keith as, “’Try to play those single notes and make it sound doubled. Just ride those babies all the way through there, that’s a great sound.’”

Keith’s “great sound” came to be one of the hallmarks of Young’s recordings through the years. Recently Keith had been touring with Young’s wife, Pegi, in support of her solo album, Foul Deeds, and had also performed this year with Young on the latter’s all-acoustic tour.

An occasional solo artist, Keith released his debut, To A Wild Rose, in 1984, with J.J. Cale on guitar and Paul Butterfield on harmonica (it was Butterfield’s last session). Ten years later he released a holiday project, Seven Gates: A Christmas Album by Ben Keith and Friends. His caroling “friends” included Johnny Cash, Nicolette Larson, Cale and both Neil and Pegi Young.

An in-depth profile of Ben Keith is online at The Cool Groove,

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