After Young left Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he recruited a group of country session musicians (whom he christened The Stray Gators) and recorded a country rock record in Harvest. The record was a massive hit, producing a US number one single in "Heart of Gold". Other songs returned to some usual Young themes: "Alabama" was "an unblushing rehash of 'Southern Man'"; and "The Needle and the Damage Done" was a lament for great artists who had died of heroin addiction. The album's success caught Young off guard and his first instinct was to back away from stardom. He would later write that the record "put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."
"Words (Between the Lines of Age)", the last song on the album, featured a lengthy guitar workout with the band. It has a typical Neil Young structure consisting of four chords during the multiple improvised solos. The song is notable for alternating between a standard 4/4 time signature for verses and choruses and an unusual 11(3+3+3+2)/8 for interludes.
According to the Neil Young Archives the actual release date for Harvest was February 25, 1972.
The recording of Harvest was notable for the spontaneous and serendipitous way it came together. The story is told in an article in Acoustic Guitar Magazine, which includes interviews with producer Elliot Mazer, among others.
Young arrived in Nashville in 1971 to perform on a broadcast of Johnny Cash Show where Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor would also appear. Mazer had opened Quadrafonic Sound Studios in Nashville, and invited Young to dinner (or breakfast according to another Mazer interview) on Saturday, February 6, to convince him to record his next project at the studio. Neil admired the work of the local studio musicians known as Area Code 615 who had recorded there and was interested. Young had been working on new songs that he had been performing on the road, as seen by the repertoire on Live at Massey Hall 1971, and told Mazer that all he needed was a bassist, drummer, and pedal steel guitarist. Young made the decision to start recording that very evening.
Since many of the Area Code 615 musicians were working on a Saturday night, Mazer scrambled to find drummer Kenny Buttrey, bassist Tim Drummond (who was just walking down the street), and steel-guitarist Ben Keith. That night, they laid down the basic tracks for "Heart of Gold", "Old Man", "Harvest", and "Dance Dance Dance," with the latter being left off the album but showing up that year on the debut Crazy Horse album. "Out on the Weekend" was recorded in later sessions along with overdubs by session musicians Andy McMahon and John Harris (piano on "Old Man" and "Harvest", respectively), and Teddy Irwin (second acoustic guitar on "Heart of Gold").
After taping the Johnny Cash Show on Sunday night, Young invited Ronstadt and Taylor to come back to the studio with him. The three sat on a couch and recorded the background vocals for "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man." Taylor picked up Young's Banjo guitar (a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar) and overdubbed a part for the latter song.
"Bad Fog of Loneliness" and "Journey Through the Past" were recorded during these sessions as per their appearance on Young's The Archives Vol. 1 1963-1972, which lists the same musicians in the credits including Harris on "Journey" and Ronstadt and Taylor on "Bad Fog". "Journey Through the Past" was released in a solo piano form on Time Fades Away, and "Bad Fog of Loneliness" remained unreleased on compact disc until Live at Massey Hall 1971 in 2007 (though it was included on Young's live "Red Rocks" DVD released in the year 2000).
The electric-based songs were recorded in a barn at Young's ranch in California. Using a remote recording system, Mazer set up PA speakers in the barn for monitors rather than have the players wear headphones. This resulted in a lot of "leakage" of each microphone picking up sound from other instruments, but it resulted in a sound that Young and Mazer liked. "Are You Ready for the Country", "Alabama", and "Words" were recorded in these sessions with Buttrey, Drummond, Keith, along with Jack Nitzsche on piano and lap steel. Young named this bandThe Stray Gators, which would accompany him on his tour in the winter of 1973.
"A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World" were recorded by Nitzsche with the London Symphony Orchestra, and "The Needle and the Damage Done" was taken from a live performance at UCLA. Background vocals by Crosby, Stills & Nash were recorded by Mazer in New York.
Mixing was done at both Quadrafonic and at Young's house. During playback at the ranch, Mazer ran the left channel into the PA speakers still in the barn and the right channel into speakers in the house. With Crosby and Nash beside him Young sat outside listening to the mix. When asked about the stereo balance, he called out, "More barn."
According to a Rolling Stone interview, Young had wanted the album sleeve to biodegrade after the shrink-wrap was broken, but was overruled by the record company on the basis of expense and the possible product loss due to shipping accidents.. Mo Ostin mentioned Young's request at the 22nd annual ASCAP pop music awards