Neil Diamond. The Jewish Elvis Presley as some have referred to him over the years. An internationally-recognized superstar that has sold some 130 million records worldwide, making him one of the best selling artists of all time, complimenting a career many would consider as one of the greatest in music of all time. He’s a master of rock, pop, folk, and adult contemporary, and one of the greatest singers of all time.
But country? That’s probably not what you think of when you think Neil Diamond. And taking stock of his career as a whole, of course you’d be right. But what is surprising is just how many ties to the country world you can draw back to Neil Diamond, and how many of his songs would sound country with just a few tweaks, including a few that actually were country when those tweaks were made.
Born in Brooklyn, New York to a Jewish family, and spending most of his young life within the city, it’s hard to find a nexus between Neil Diamond’s upbringing and country music … except when you learn that he actually spent four years when growing up also living in the Rodeo Capital of the World—Cheyenne, Wyoming. Diamond’s father was stationed in Cheyenne while serving in the Army. And yes, Neil’s real last name is “Diamond,” which couldn’t have made transitioning to life in cowboy country easy for a kid from Brooklyn.
But Neil Diamond’s ties to country music don’t exactly express themselves via Western songs and cowboy culture. It’s his evocation of Southern geography in so many of his classic songs, some of the phrasing and approach he brings to his music, and overall, its the soul that Neil Diamond captures that you could almost mistake as “Southern” if it wasn’t coming from someone so distinctly not.
Neil Diamond was inspired to get into music when he was 16. After receiving his first guitar, Diamond saw folk singer Pete Seeger perform a small concert while attending a camp for Jewish kids. This is what inspired him to get into music and write songs. Since Neil’s original inspiration was folk as opposed to rock or pop, this created a foundation to his music with close similarities to country.
Diamond’s first label in the mid 60s was Bang Records, which was an independent label with ties to Atlantic. Though Neil had released a few non-successful singles earlier in the 60s, his first real single was “Solitary Man” in 1966 that he wrote himself. The dark chords had a distinct folky feel, and the horn accompaniment made it ripe for pop play. “Solitary Man” became a minor, but breakout hit for Neil Diamond, hitting #55 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But when country artist T.G. Sheppard heard the song, what he heard was a country hit. Recording the song in 1976, T.G.’s version went #14 in the country charts, and he also decided to make it the title track of his 1976 record. This was just the start to “Solitary Man” not becoming a standard in the pop world, but in country. Chris Isaak also cut the song in 1993. The B-side of the single was a little song called “Wicked Game.”
Then of course Johnny Cash came along in 2000 to record the song with producer Rick Rubin, and similar to T.G. Sheppard, Cash decided to make it the title track of American III: Solitary Man. Cash would go on to win the Grammy for Best Male Country Performance for the song … a country Grammy for a song written by Neil Diamond.
That was a very auspicious start for Neil Diamond in contributing to the country music canon. While he was still signed to Bang Records, another one of Diamond’s early hits was “Kentucky Woman.” Not far off from a country song, it didn’t cut near the lineage of “Solitary Man.” Rock band Deep Purple was the outfit that took “Kentucky Woman” and ran with it as a single. But Waylon Jennings also sang it on his 1968 album Only The Greatest. Try telling Waylon it wasn’t country.
Okay, so these were Neil Diamond songs that others turned country, but what about songs that Neil Diamond sung himself that could be considered country? Well, there’s quite a few you could count in that category. Unquestionably, Diamond’s most well-recognized song is “Sweet Caroline” (Bum! Bum! Bum!). Don’t take it lightly that Neil’s object of affection is named after the Southern states in Cackalacky, or that Waylon Jennings covered this song as well on his 1977 album Ol’ Waylon.
And like “Solitary Man,” if you take the horn blats out of “Sweet Caroline,” you could definitely pass the song off as something that could have been selected by Chet Atkins or Billy Sherrill to be a hit during country music’s Countrypolitan phase. How are many of Neil Diamond songs less country than, lets say, Glen Campbell’s catalog? Really, the differences almost come down completely to production choices.
The same could be said for many of Neil Diamond’s other biggest hits. The superbly-written and introspective “I Am .. I Said,” and the very folky “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “Song Sung Blue” can fall into this country-adjacent category. Lose some of the horn parts, replace them with some steel guitar, and you have Nashville Sound country hits of the 70s, and ones country could be proud of.
But the pinnacle of proving that Neil Diamond at times was a country artist in disguise is the immortal song “Forever in Blue Jeans.” Forget having to tweak this or that to consider it a country song, a country song is exactly what “Forever In Blue Jeans” is. Released in 1979, it’s not only country, the pounding half time bass drum beat is downright Outlaw. With Diamond’s raspy voice and the simple story about deciding love and blue jeans is enough, it is every bit country.
Though “Forever in Blue Jeans” never charted in country, country artist Tommy Overstreet recorded the song later in 1979 on his album Never Let You Down. The song was co-written with Neil Diamond’s guitar player at the time, Richard Bennett. Country fans may recognize that name since Bennett was a member of The Notorious Cherry Bombs with a few country guys named Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, and Tony Brown. Bennett also played guitar on “Let Your Love Flow” by The Bellamy Brothers, and on country material from Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler.
See, it told you Neil Diamond’s ties to country music were numerous.
Then in 1996, Neil Diamond stopped beating around the bush, traveled down to Nashville to the Dark Horse Recording Studio, and cut himself a country record called Tennessee Moon with a bunch of country music A-listers behind him, including Brent Mason on guitar, steel guitarists Dan Dugmore and Bruce Bouton, bassist David Hungate, and so on. Guests on the album included Waylon Jennings, Hal Ketuchum, Raul Malo of The Mavericks, Chet Atkins, and Beth Nielsen Chapman.
Sure, Tennessee Moon is a bit schmaltzy for country, but it’s the thought that counts. Waylon and Neil Diamond even recorded a video together, with Gary Nicholson also participating. They also performed their duet “One Good Love” at the Ryman Auditorium.
And you can continue to go up and down the Neil Diamond catalog and cite other examples of his country leanings from there. In 2018, Neil Diamond announced that he would stop touring due to being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. In March, he gave a rare interview with CBS Sunday Morning where he said he’s just now coming to terms with the disease.
Too often we wait to pay tribute to these kinds of music greats when they pass. All the more reason then as a country fans to show some appreciation to Neil Diamond now before the angels come calling. Nobody would ever mistake Neil Diamond as a country artist. But his contributions to country music were nonetheless important, and more numerous than you might think. And for that, he deserves our appreciation.