Article from Reuters, February, 1996

By Gary Graff

DETROIT (Reuters) - Neil Diamond has never seemed like a country kind of guy. He's a Brooklyn native who began his career in Manhattan's Brill Building song factory. When he moved, it was to another coast -- Los Angeles, the site of triumphs such as his live ''Hot August Night'' album and The ``Jazz Singer'' film.

So what drew Diamond -- he of mainstream pop hits such as ''Song Sung Blue,'' ``Heartlight'' and ``America'' -- to Nashville, where he spent a year living and writing songs for his country tinged new album, ``Tennessee Moon?'' ``I've been wanting to come here for a long time,'' Diamond, 55, says during a break from rehearsals ``for Neil Diamond ... Under a Tennessee Moon,'' a concert special that airs at 10 p.m. (EST) Feb. 24 on ABC. ``My buddy Waylon Jennings, who I've known for 25 years, has been trying to get me to come down to Nashville to record for years. Bob Gaudio, who produced 'The Jazz Singer,' lives down here now. Everything seemed to fall into place at the right time, so I just jumped in with two feet.''

The Nashville experience also provided a respite for Diamond as his second marriage was splitting up. He decided to head for Music City just four months after separating from his wife of 25 years, Marcia. ``I really threw myself into this project, just to keep myself sane and express some of the feelings I was dealing with,'' says Diamond, whose new songs ``Win the World,'' ``If I Lost My Way'' and ``Open Wide These Prison Doors'' deal directly with the break-up. ``I had to throw myself into something; I could throw myself off a building, but I decided to do an album instead. It was healthier.''

In fact, ``Tennessee Moon'' -- which features guest shots by country stalwarts such as Jennings, Chet Atkins, Mark O'Connor, Beth Nielsen Chapman and the Mavericks' Raul Malo -- is the most inspired Diamond effort in years. Working in Nashville, he says, broke a writer's block that had led him to spend the past few years recording albums of Christmas songs and cover tunes. ``This is a songwriter's community,'' says Diamond, who fell in love with country music via Atkins, Hank Williams and the Everly Brothers when he was still Noah Kaminsky, fledgling musician. ``There's a lot of interaction between the songwriters here, and because of that I was able to get a lot done.

``We started really from zero -- no songs, nothing. It was 'O.K., let's put Neil in Nashville and get him together with some writers and musician=s and see what comes out.' ``There's definitely a creative vibe that goes on in this town. I worked with about 18 or 20 different writers, and they were sharp. They write every day, and you just get better if you do something every day. We were able to start at least one song at each of the writing sessions. I don't think I'd have been as productive in L.A.''

Only occasionally dabbling in the lushness that's marked his music for the past two decades, the songs on ``Tennessee Moon'' most recall the more straightforward rock songs Diamond recorded at the beginning of his career. The string sections were left in Los Angeles, and the new album was made with a battery of guitars, fiddles and pedal steels -- with his 1967 hit ``Kentucky Woman'' reprised to draw a connection to his early day. ``These songs are just very direct and very honest,'' Diamond acknowledges. They're pretty basic -- nothing too fancy, no tricks. They're just heartfelt song, for better or for worse.''

One moment that was particularly special was recording the song ``Blue Highway'' with Atkins, who also appears in the ABC special. ``I still remember reading Gretsch guitar catalogs when I was 16, looking through all the Chet Atkins models and dreaming someday I would play like Chet and own one of his guitars,'' Diamond says. ``The last time I was in town he actually gave me one and signed it to me. I try to emulate him and copy him; I even begged him to teach me a few licks today. I'll steal from him at any time.''

Diamond says he plans to incorporate a good chunk of ''Tennessee Moon's'' songs in his live show, and he may even add a Nashville musician or two to his touring band. He's confident that his audience will embrace his new music along with his array of pop hits. ``I'm interested, yes, but I have a feeling they're going to like it, '' he says. ``I'm not really that concerned about it, only to the extent of which songs I want to do in the show. But I think they'll like the album a lot; it's a very straightforward honest album.''

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