By early 1968, Buffalo Springfield had also disintegrated over personal issues, and after aiding in putting together the band’s final album, Stephen Stills found himself unemployed by the summer. He and Crosby began meeting informally and jamming, the results of one encounter in Florida on Crosby’s schooner being the song “Wooden Ships,” composed in collaboration with another guest, Paul Kantner.
Graham Nash had been introduced to Crosby when the Byrds had toured the UK in 1966, and when the Hollies ventured to California in 1968, Nash resumed his acquaintance with Crosby. At a party in February 1969 at Cass Elliot's house, Nash asked Stills and Crosby to repeat their performance of a new song by Stills, “You Don't Have To Cry,” with Nash improvising a second harmony part. The vocals jelled, and the three realized that they had a unique vocal chemistry.
Creatively frustrated with the Hollies, Nash decided to quit and throw his lot in with Crosby and Stills. After failing an audition with the Beatles' Apple Records, they were signed to Atlantic Records by Ahmet Ertegün, who had been a fan of the Springfield and disappointed by that band's demise. From the outset, given their respective band histories, the trio decided not to be locked into a group structure, using their surnames as identification to ensure independence and a guarantee against the band simply continuing without one of them, as had both the Byrds and the Hollies after the departures of Crosby and Nash. Their record contract with Atlantic reflected this, positioning CSN with a unique flexibility unheard of for an untested group. The trio also picked up a unique management team in Elliot Roberts and David Geffen, who had engineered their situation with Atlantic and would help to consolidate clout for the group in the industry. Roberts kept the band focused and dealt with egos, while Geffen handled the business deals, since, in Crosby’s words, they needed a shark and Geffen was it. Roberts and Geffen would play key roles in securing the band’s success during the early years.
When it was announced that the band was forming, they ran into a slight contractual problem. Nash was already signed to Epic Records, the North American distributor of records by the Hollies, while Crosby and Stills were signed to Atlantic. In order to resolve this problem, Geffen engineered a deal whereby Nash was essentially traded to Atlantic for the rights to Richie Furay's band Poco; Furay was signed to Atlantic as a result of his membership in Buffalo Springfield.
Retaining Taylor, the band decided initially to hire a keyboard player, Stills at one point approached Steve Winwood, who was already occupied with a newly formed group Blind Faith. Atlantic label head Ahmet Ertegün suggested Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young, also managed by Elliot Roberts, as a fairly obvious choice. Initial reservations were held by Stills and Nash, Stills owing to his history with Young in Buffalo Springfield, and Nash, due to his personal unfamiliarity with Young. But after several meetings, the trio expanded to a quartet with Young a full partner. The terms of the contract allowed Young full freedom to maintain a parallel career with his new back-up band, Crazy Horse.
With Young on board, the restructured group went on tour in the late summer of 1969 through the following January. Their second gig was a baptism-by-fire at the Woodstock Festival; CSNY's recording of the Joni Mitchell song memorializing Woodstock would later become a hit and the recording most associated with the festival. By contrast, little mention is made of the group's subsequent appearance at Altamont, CSNY having escaped mostly unscathed from the fallout of that debacle.
Great anticipation had built for the newly-expanded supergroup, and their first album with Young, Déjà Vu, arrived in stores in March 1970 to zealous enthusiasm, topping the charts and generating three hit singles. Déjà Vu was also the first release on the Atlantic Records SD-7200 "superstar" line, created by the label for its highest-profile artists; the subsequent solo albums by Crosby, Stills, and Nash would also be the next releases in this series.
Young and Crosby were staying at a house near San Francisco when reports of the Kent State shootings arrived, inspiring Young to write his protest classic "Ohio," recorded and rush-released weeks later and providing another Top 20 hit for the group.
However, the deliberately tenuous nature of the partnership was strained by its success, and the group imploded after their tour in the summer of 1970. Concert recordings from that tour would end up on another chart-topper, the 1971 double album Four Way Street, but the group would never completely recapture momentum as years would pass between subsequent trio and quartet recordings.
Though there were no official CSN or CSNY projects during the year, 1972 proved fruitful for all the band members in their solo efforts. Young achieved solo superstardom with the chart-topping Harvest and its attendant #1 single, “Heart of Gold”. Stills joined with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman to form the country-tinged band Manassas, releasing a self-titled double album; counting the three CSN records, Manassas became Stills' sixth top ten album in a row. Nash also joined Young to record Young's single "War Song". On tour, Nash and Crosby rediscovered the joy they had originally felt with CSN, minus the egotistic in-fighting that had made the last CSNY shows so difficult. That enthusiasm led to their first album as a duo, Graham Nash David Crosby, which peaked at #4 on the pop album chart.
The group members fared less well in the following year. Young embarked on a solo tour noted for its dark tone and Young's erratic behavior (these recordings would later be issued on the LP Time Fades Away) and began work on a rough documentary film Journey Through the Past. Crosby spearheaded a reunion album of the original Byrds quintet which proved a critical debacle and sold only marginally well. Nash delivered his bleak second solo album and Stills released a second Manassas record; neither disc sold to expectations.
In June and July of that year, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young met at Young's ranch and recording studio in Hawaii for a working vacation, ostensibly to record a new album, tentatively titled Human Highway. However, the bickering that had sunk the band in 1970 quickly resumed, scattering the group again.
Roberts finally prevailed upon the group to realize their commercial potential, the quartet reassembling once again in the summer of 1974 with sidemen Tim Drummond on bass, Russ Kunkel on drums, and Joe Lala on percussion to embark on the first-ever outdoor stadium tour, arranged by San Francisco impresario Bill Graham, fresh off the large-scale indoor arena tour he had developed for Dylan’s return to the spotlight earlier in the year. The band typically played three and a half hours of old favorites and new songs: Nash's “Grave Concern,” Crosby's elegiac “Carry Me,” Stills' Latin-infused “First Things First,” and Young's majestic hard-rock epic “Pushed It Over The End.” For certain fans, Nash's unreleased film of the Wembley Stadium concert of September 14 attests to the excellence of this material, even though none of it ever appeared in a definitive CSN or CSNY studio format. Others have noted the cluttered, overambitious sound of the band--while a dedicated conguero was added to the group, only Stills employed Latin rhythms on a regular basis in his song craft. As can be witnessed in the Wembley film, the four principals would often switch instruments within the context of the same song. The mid set acoustic interlude disrupted the flow of the concerts in the opinion of Crosby and Young, who preferred the dual acoustic/electric set format of earlier tours. The shows attracted the stereotypical summer party crowd, many of whom would not refrain from talking during the acoustic set. This particularly annoyed Crosby, who refused to finish his solo rendition of Joni Mitchell's "For Free" on one of the earlier tour dates due to the excessive noise.
While they would have the press believe that their characteristic arguments were a thing of the past, excesses typical to the era took their toll. In a bout of cocaine-induced delirium, Stills began supplementing his trademark wardrobe of football jerseys with military fatigues, insinuating that he was a deep-cover CIA agent. In an ironic twist from the author of the menage à trois ode "Triad", Crosby's entourage included two quarreling girlfriends, furthering the tension. Throughout the tour, Young isolated himself from the group, traveling in an RV with his son and entourage and was reportedly resentful that his songs made up the bulk of the group's new material. An attempt at the new CSNY LP in the fall was scrapped, the label having compiled So Far to have something to promote during the tour. Nash viewed the re-shuffling of items from only two albums and one single as absurd; it topped the charts anyway. Songs performed on the 1974 tour later appeared on various releases including Stills, Zuma, American Stars n' Bars, Long May You Run, Comes a Time, Hawks & Doves, Wind on the Water, and Whistling Down the Wire.
Reaching an impasse with the parent band, Crosby and Nash decided to re-activate their partnership, inaugurating the duo act Crosby & Nash, touring regularly, signing to ABC Records and producing two additional studio albums, Wind On The Water in 1975 and Whistling Down The Wire in 1976. They continued to use the sidemen known as “The Section” from their first LP, this crack session group contributing to records by many others of similar idiom in the seventies, such as Carole King, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne, in addition to the CN concert album released in 1977, Crosby-Nash Live. Crosby and Nash also became a cottage industry themselves, their vocal prowess adding to the appeal of various songs, including hits like Taylor’s “Mexico” and Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man In Paris.”
Stills and Young returned to their own careers, with Young gaining in critical accolades during the remainder of the century and beyond, as he weathered and embraced changes in taste and style to be, along with Bob Dylan, one of the few rock artists from the sixties still considered vital by the critical community into the early years of the new century. The non-aligned pair also united for a one-off tour and album credited to The Stills-Young Band, Long May You Run. Initially, the album started life in the spring of 1976 in Miami as the third attempt at a CSNY reunion, but when C&N were bound to return to LA to finish Whistling Down the Wire, S&Y wiped the vocal contributions by the other pair off the master tape. The old tensions between Stephen and Neil, dating back to the Buffalo Springfield days, resurfaced, exacerbated by Stills’ choice of professional studio musicians to back them rather than Young’s preferred Crazy Horse. After their July 18, 1976 show, Young's tour bus took a different direction. Waiting at their July 20th show, Stills received a laconic telegram: Dear Stephen, funny how things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil. Young's management claimed that he was under doctor's orders to rest and recover from an apparent throat infection. Stills was contractually bound to finish the tour, though Young would make up dates with Crazy Horse later in the year.
Once the fearless musical general who kept the collective together, Stills' copious drug use and collapsed marriage sent him into freefall. Crosby & Nash also faced diminishing returns, although their Wind On The Water album was the only disc by any member of the quartet to fare well in the marketplace during the period from 1973 to 1976. Stills approached the pair at one of their concerts in Los Angeles, his "Rose Mary Woods act" in Miami apparently forgiven, setting the stage for the return of the trio.
On a promise to Crosby should he clean himself up, Young agreed to rejoin the trio in the studio upon Crosby’s release from prison for American Dream in 1988. Stills and Crosby were barely functioning for the making of the album, and the late eighties production completely swamped the band. It did make it to #16 on the album chart, but the record received poor critical notices, and Young refused to support it with a CSNY tour. The band did produce a video for Young’s title-song single, wherein each member played a character loosely based on certain aspects of their personalities and public image.
CSN recorded two more studio albums in the 1990s, Live It Up and After the Storm, both low sellers by previous standards and mostly ignored by all except for their remaining core fans. A well-conceived box set arrived in 1991, four discs of expected group highlights amidst unexpected better tracks from various solo projects. Owing to certain difficulties, manager Roberts, no longer with the trio but still representing Young, pulled most of Neil’s material earmarked for the box; only seven CSNY songs in total remained to be included.
After the Storm barely made the top 100 on the album chart, and by the late nineties CSN found themselves without a record contract, Atlantic having let go of a band once one of its cash-flow titans. They began financing recordings themselves, and in 1999 Stills invited Young to guest on a few tracks. Impressed by their gumption, Young increased his level of input, turning the album into a CSNY project, Looking Forward, released on Young's label Reprise Records. With writing credits mostly limited to band members, the disc was better received than the previous three albums, and the ensuing CSNY2K tour in 2000 and the CSNY Tour of America of 2002 were major money-makers.
CSN was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997; Crosby has also been inducted as a member of the Byrds, and Stills as a member of Buffalo Springfield. Young has been inducted for his solo work and for Buffalo Springfield, but has not been inducted with CSN.
The CSN logo that Crosby, Stills and Nash used in the mid-1970s through the 1980s, was designed by comedian Phil Hartman.
In 2006, long-time manager Gerry Tolman died in a car accident.
Various compilations of the band’s configurations have arrived over the years, the box set being the most comprehensive, and So Far being the most commercially successful. Individual retrospective sets have been slated for release from Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. In 2007, Crosby's well received box - Voyage - chronicled his work with various bands and as a solo artist.
In 2006, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young set off on their "Freedom of Speech" tour in support of Young's album Living with War. The long setlists included the bulk of the new protest album as well as material from Stills' long delayed solo album Man Alive! and newer material from Crosby and Nash.
In February 2007, CSN were forced to postpone a tour of Australia and New Zealand due to David Crosby's illness.
The popular song, "Teach Your Children" was performed by Crosby, Stills, and Nash on The Colbert Report on July 30, 2008 with host Stephen Colbert filling in the fourth harmony (Neil Young's portion) and wearing a Young-mocking outfit (and being referred to by Nash as "Neil").
The release of “Ohio” following the Kent State shootings in 1970 marked the boldest musical statement made to that date regarding the Vietnam War, calling out Richard Nixon by name and voicing the counterculture's rage and despair at the events. Between "Ohio", their appearance in both the festival and movie of Woodstock, and the runaway success of their two albums, the group found themselves in the position of enjoying a level of adulation far greater than experienced with their previous bands.
The collective talents allowed the band to straddle all the flavors of popular music eminent at the time, from country-rock to confessional balladry, from acoustic guitars and voice to electric guitar and boogie. Indeed, with the Beatles break-up made public by April 1970, and with Bob Dylan in reclusive low-key activity since mid-1966, CSNY found itself as the adopted standard bearers for the Woodstock Nation, vouchsafing an importance in society as counterculture figureheads equaled at the time in rock and roll only by The Rolling Stones. CSNY was originally commissioned to create the soundtrack for Easy Rider, but Stills' offering, "Find the Cost of Freedom" was rejected.
An entire sub-industry of singer-songwriters in California either had their careers boosted or came to prominence in the wake of CSNY, among them Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and The Eagles. All were managed, incidentally, by Roberts, and all but Nyro signed to Geffen’s Asylum label, which would be the home for what came to be known as the Mellow Mafia for the remainder of the decade.
The band has continued to be associated with political causes throughout its existence.