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Billy Talbot is best known as a founding member of Crazy Horse, perhaps the most famous backing band in the world. Throughout his decades touring and recording with Neil Young—and prior to it, in a series of bands—Talbot has always written and played his own music. In the early ’00s, he formed the Billy Talbot Band. Around the same time, he met his wife Karin. With her, he found new and profound inspiration and peace in the wide open spaces of the North American prairie. Those feelings only grew as he began helping her to restore a homestead in Spearfish, South Dakota that had been hers for some time.
On The Road To Spearfish (Vapor Records), his second solo album with the Billy Talbot Band, evokes a journey that is at once of this world and mythic. The one-story schoolhouse at his home, now converted into a music room and guest quarters, is on the cover. Inside, painting pictures and telling stories with poetic flair and a sense of wonder, Talbot translates the strength and beauty of the elemental Great Plains landscape into songs that transcend any specific geography. Rather, they inhabit the realms of the heart and soul. The spirit of what Talbot has helped create with Neil Young and Crazy Horse over many years also flows through the record—on a more personal scale, channeled through Talbot’s meditations on the world of Spearfish and beyond.
“Songwriting is part of my life, it’s how I get through things,” says Talbot. “We all have stumbling blocks, some are more importantthan others. When I’m in the throes of a big one, I get depressed, or mad, or go through changes, and I forget there’s going to be a song that will come out of it. Eventually, when I get the song out, I feel better. It’s a kind of release that helps me find peace with the stumbling block, sums it up in some way—or maybe not. Sometimes I just get a good song out of it and feel better anyway.”
The title track is Talbot’s epic anthem to the open plain, clocking in at close to 13 minutes in the middle of the set list. Spacious and awash in guitar interplay, it’s the most akin to a Crazy Horse jam on the album. The song came to Talbot after watching the first episode of the HBO western Deadwood, in which a family of Squareheads—a slur for Swedish immigrants—was massacred. The tragedy happened “on the road to Spearfish,” which is just 15 miles from the actual town of Deadwood, and about 70 miles from where Talbot’s wife Karin—who is of Swedish descent—is from (and, incidentally, only an hour north of the monumental Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills). The song mourns the West that once was, while still seeking solace in what will never fade away.
“On The Road To Spearfish” is bookended by songs that are each almost ten minutes in length, “Cold Wind” and “Big Rain.” They are mesmerizing, atmospheric soundscapes, with arcs that are cinematic in feel. At times, Talbot’s lead vocals are so hushed as to be barely there, but they are charged with emotion and stand up to the vast expanse of each song. “Cold Wind,” says Talbot, came out of a visit to Hettinger, ND, where Karin grew up. “After the first time I visited,” he says, “I left that town, which on the surface was so bucolic, knowing that there was much more than that going on.”
The album opens with “Empty Stadium,” a plaintive ballad driven by a longing for home—the real and metaphorical Spearfish. That yearning is felt throughout the set list in songs that that juxtapose despair and redemption, range from somber to psychedelic, and that span the distances in between. “Miller Drive,” perhaps the darkest track, is otherwise notable in that it came into existence out of total improvisation—and is the one song on which every band member is credited as a writer. “We were tuning, and I was playing a Strat through an old Fender Tremelux,” says Talbot. “We just got this rhythm going. It was a great groove.”
It concludes with a pair of songs that face the light. Talbot wrote the ethereal “God And Me” in 2003 while on the road for Neil Young’s Greendale tour. Actor Russ Tamblyn was in the cast, and at the time, his daughter Amber was in the new TV series Joan of Arcadia, which was considering using Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” as its theme. Talbot came up with “God And Me” as a possible alternative. Here, it becomes a gorgeous communal hymn with the entire band on backing vocals. Closing the album, and pulsating with an E Street Band vibe, “Ring The Bell” is a soulful jam layered with horns that Talbot says was inspired by Obama’s first presidential win, as well as a particularly beautiful spot on a hill near Spearfish known as “the gates of desire.”
The road that led Talbot to Spearfish began a continent away in the lower west side of Manhattan where he was born in St. Vincent’s Hospital. He started his first vocal group at age 14. The Cavaliers sang on street corners and in the hallways of the old Hudson Tubes, which now house the PATH Trains connecting New York City and Hoboken. Two weeks into attending the city’s High School of Commerce, he began getting off the subway at 42nd Street and going to the movies instead. Talbot moved to West New York, New Jersey at age 15, and began freshman year all over again. “In New Jersey, it was totally like high school should be,” he says. “Cars, girls in pedal pushers, nobody out to knife you.”
In West New York, he formed another group, The Impalas. When “Sorry I (I Ran All The Way Home)” became a hit on Cub Records, by the other Impalas, they gave up. Talbot quit high school as a sophomore, and at 17 hopped a bus to L.A., where his mother—a nightclub singer—and brother had moved two years earlier. In late ’62, he met Danny Whitten at the Sunset Strip club Peppermint West. They began singing doo wop as Danny and the Memories, with Benjamin Rocco and Lou Bisbal in the line-up, and sometimes Pat and Lolly Vegas, who would later become Redbone. Lou left the group, and brought his cousin Ralph Molina out from Florida as his replacement—the core of what would become the original Crazy Horse was in place.
Talbot and company started playing instruments, headed to San Francisco, and morphed into The Psyrcle. After returning to L.A., the outfit evolved into The Rockets. They emerged as a top band around town and made one album for White Whale Records. In 1967, they connected with Neil Young, then in Buffalo Springfield, and started to jam with him. Young sat in on a couple of Rockets gigs at The Whisky, and soon after, he invited Talbot, Whitten and Molina to be his backing band—under the new name Crazy Horse—on his second solo album, 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. From the opening riff of “Cinnamon Girl” to the closing strains of “Cowgirl In the Sand,” Young’s alliance with Crazy Horse was forged—one song on the album is notably titled “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets).” After The Gold Rush followed in 1970.
“The chemistry was really great, however those things happen,” says Talbot. “The Rockets were a jam band—someone would play two chords and we’d soar on that for hours. As we became Crazy Horse, Ralph, Danny and I were still always a group, not studio musicians. That’s what we were able to bring to Neil. And then, on tour, that’s where we really developed a following. There seemed to be more to it than just playing rock and roll—there was a spiritual presence and connection with the audience. I feel like everyone always comes away from the shows with something that’s just a little bit more.”
Whitten passed away in 1971. Talbot met Frank “Poncho” Sampedro at a friend’s house in 1973, and took a trip to Mexico with him. They bought guitars, and jammed in their hotel rooms. Back in L.A., they hung out with Molina. “Ralph and I said, man, we should get this guy in the band,” remembers Talbot. “Soon after that, we got a call from Neil, who wanted us to come to Chicago to record on a session with him at Chess Records. I told Neil that I wanted to bring this other fellow Poncho with us, and he said okay.” Sampedro subsequently joined Crazy Horse in 1974. Talbot, Molina and Sampedro have been central to every incarnation of the group since, both on its own, and backing up Young—with the latter, on many epic tours and almost two dozen albums also including Zuma, Rust Never Sleeps, Ragged Glory, the live albums Arc and Weld, and Americana. Most recently, Crazy Horse recorded 2012’s Psychedelic Pill with Young, and embarked on a 2012-2013 world tour.
Talbot launched his solo career with the Billy Talbot Band with the 2004 album Alive In The Spirit World, recorded in a barn on a ranch in Mendocino County over the course of a week. With the addition of newcomer Ryan James Holzer on trombone, harmonica, autoharp, organ, and acoustic guitar, the same versatile band of musicians joins Talbot for OnThe Road To Spearfish. They include guitarist Matt Piucci (formerly of Rain Parade and Moving Sidewalks), Erik Pearson (horns, banjo, lap steel), Mark Hanley (lap steel, mandolin, and guitar), Tommy Carns (bass), and Stephan Junca on drums. Using vintage gear and an eclectic orchestra of acoustic and electric instruments, the new album was recorded at Light Rail Studios in a repurposed warehouse in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco. The filmed chronicling of the sessions—shot in HD—will be released simultaneously with the album.
Reflecting on his journey as a songwriter and performer, Talbot says he’s looking to put forth a truer expression of himself. He cites Warren Zevon’s final album, The Wind (2003), as a touchpoint in this quest. “I’m trying to really listen to the way I’m singing, to understand it more. When I first heard Warren’s last record, the starkness and the raw emotion, I really felt that and got into it. It inspired me,” he says. “That quality, that is what I’m going for.”
In 1989, Talbot and Ralph Molina reformed Crazy Horse with Matt Piucci and Sonny Mone and together released “Left for Dead.”
Billy Talbot with Francesco Lucarelli on harmonica, on stage during the 2005 Billy Talbot Band European Tour.
Crazy Horse in 1972 with Greg Leroy, Rick and Michael Curtis, Billy Talbot, and Ralph Molina.
Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Neil Young live on stage in their infamous huddle.
The Rockets in 1968 with Bobby Notkoff, Leon Whitsell, Danny Whitten, George Whitsell, Ralph Molina, and Billy Talbot.
Billy Talbot performing with Neil Young and Crazy Horse at a Bridge School benefit concert in 2012.
Crazy Horse with Neil Young in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1976.
In 1974, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro joined Crazy Horse. This configuration of musicians would be a constant in to the next century.
Crazy Horse in 1971 with with Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche, Billy Talbot, and Ralph Molina.