50 Years Later, All Roads Lead Home For Crazy Horse

Co-founder and bassist Billy Talbot reflects on five decades with Neil Young and his new album with the infamous backing band.

Music Features Neil Young & Crazy Horse
50 Years Later, All Roads Lead Home For Crazy Horse

Back in 1969, a year after leaving Buffalo Springfield and putting out his first solo record, Neil Young was looking for a group of guys to jam with. There wasn’t a record in the pipeline, but Young found a band he liked, the Rockets, and invited a few of its members, guitarist Danny Whitten, drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot, to come by his California home and play together. The product was Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, which was recorded in only two weeks and spawned some of Young’s greatest tunes, like “Down By the River,” “Cinnamon Girl” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.”

Before becoming the Rockets, though, Whitten, Talbot and Molina sang in a doo-wop group called Danny & the Juniors. Though unbeknownst to them at the time, it was perfect practice for a lifetime of singing harmonies behind one of the great, and most prolific, songwriters of the 20th century. They quickly ditches the singer stuff for rock and roll and, over the years, Molina and Talbot would remain integral in Young’s backing band, whether they went by Crazy Horse or the Santa Monica Flyers. Multi-instrumentalist prodigy Nils Lofgren hung around a bit, playing on records here and there and touring, before joining Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band full-time in 1984.

In 1972, Whitten would pass away from a drug overdose after Harvest came out; three years later, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro would come on as a rhythm guitarist. After having a hand in making After the Gold Rush, Tonight’s the Night and Zuma, Crazy Horse would join Young on tour in the late-1970s, making two live records, Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust. They’d play on Re·ac·tor and Life before making their seminal “comeback” album, Ragged Glory, in 1991.

For 50 years, Crazy Horse has lived on as one of the greatest backing bands in the history of rock and roll, forever cemented in the echelons with the Revolution and the E Street Band. Now, for the first time, Talbot, Molina and Lofgren are making an album together without the Crazy Horse moniker slapped on the cover. It’s a collection of eight songs, three from each member plus one from Young, that showcase the prowess and songwriting finesse of three men who’ve often been one step out of the limelight on stage.

All Roads Lead Home is not just a seminal work of art from the members of Crazy Horse; it’s a methodical assemblage of great acoustic tracks by guys who are quite good at getting loud as hell. The record was recorded by Talbot, Molina and Lofgren in different places in the country over different spans of time, but it examines just how well their work co-exists together. There’s a certain, unshakeable rhythm afoot on All Roads Lead Home, where even the syntax of each track tumbles flawlessly into the language of the next. With the 50th anniversary of Crazy Horse’s inception on the horizon, Talbot sat down with Paste to talk about All Roads Lead Home, playing with Young for half-a-century and what might be next for one of the greatest backing bands in the world.

Paste Magazine: Was part of the reason to not name [All Roads Lead Home] a “Crazy Horse” record due to you, Nils Lofgren, Neil Young and Ralph Molina recording the songs in different places with different people?

Billy Talbot: Yes. We each contributed. The songs that I did, I did with my band. A bunch of them came out here to South Dakota and we recorded twice, in 2017 and in 2019, and we got some songs each time. I’ve been working on mixing them, and so on, through the years. I still have a whole bunch left. We came up with about 10 of them, and I used three for this album. I have seven more and I’m working on getting them out next, sometime. I’m not saying for sure, because I have no idea when these things will happen.

Paste: Are you planning on, hopefully, putting those onto a solo record?

Talbot: I really don’t know. I have some other songs that I recorded back in 2015; I have some other stuff that I’m going to have to figure out how to get out. Neil told me that he has a Crazy Horse timeline on his sight, so I might add some stuff to that timeline. Maybe these new things will get there, as well.

Paste: In the past, how often do you get to focus on your own solo work? Because there was a period of time there where Crazy Horse had taken a break from working with Neil.

Talbot: Yeah, and that’s when I did this, between 2005 and 2008, 2009. I did a bunch of stuff, and I’m still sorting through it all, just trying to figure it out. I like it, after all these years, when you look back on some things and you really liked them and nobody much has heard them. That’s a good thing. It’s still a chance for them to be heard by others and it’s not boring to you, because it’s never been put out as matter of fact. It’s not boring, because it’s interesting and musical.

Paste: Neil put a song on this record, “Song of the Seasons,” which you guys also did on Barn a couple of years ago. How does his support for you and Nils and Ralph pour in beyond the work that you do with him on his own records?

Talbot: Well, he’s a pretty good guy, He’s very interested in what he’s doing, and that’s the way it should be. And, if we have anything that we want to contribute, if we have stuff, he’s interested in hearing it. And that’s all we can do. I don’t expect him to stop what he’s doing to help me, because he’s pretty busy and he’s all consumed with what he’s doing. And that’s great, but he did help us with this. We did three records with him in the last two-and-a-half years, Colorado, Barn and World Record. And that’s a lot of work with Neil and all at once, for us, over two-and-a-half years. Three different records, we’ve never done that before, I don’t think. I don’t really keep track of it; I just keep plowing on.

Paste: Trick Horse came out about 14 years ago. Do you think that you guys are ever going to get back in the studio and make a record in the same space together again?

Talbot: I’m surprised that you heard of that Trick Horse one. That was an interesting one, because there are other guys playing the instruments. That’s what Poncho [Sampedro] contributed. I think it’s a pretty good record, and good songs. I think that it would be really good if Nils and I and Ralph got together in the future. Nils, right now, is off with Bruce Springsteen, so he’ll be doing that for at least a year, if all goes well and nobody dies or COVID doesn’t make it hard. So, maybe next year Ralph and I and Nils can get together on some songs and we can record them with just us together.

Paste: With Crazy Horse, there’s often this return to the blueprint, which calls for these long, heavy compositions and they’re constantly flirting with going 10 minutes long. But all of the tracks on All Roads Lead Home, except for Neil’s, are five minutes or shorter. Are the long jams that you guys do together a product of the chemistry going on when you’re playing together, or is that something that you are seeking out during recording?

Talbot: On World Record, “Chevrolet” is 15 minutes long. Neil wrote that having us in mind playing it with him. He likes to take guitar solos. He doesn’t like to play shorter guitar solos, particularly on his songs. In particular, what Neil likes to do with us is, he has a great song, but it has these instrumental parts where he goes off on his guitar and we all play. And he loves that, where he’s playing his butt off, and we love doing that song. That was about the third or fourth take, and we didn’t do them in a row. The one [that made it onto the record] came together beautifully, and there are a couple other good rocks on there that Neil wrote that are very cool. He also feels that, with Nils in the band, that he is able to do more of everything, not just the rockers that he would have done with just Crazy Horse. Back a long time ago, we did a song with Neil and Danny [Whitten] and I and Ralph, and I believe Ben Keith was with us. We did “I Believe In You,” and it turned out beautiful. It was a softer song, and it was so cool when Nils came into the band that Neil felt like he could do stuff like that with Crazy Horse again.

Paste: I want to talk about Danny Whitten, because you and him and Ralph were in Danny & the Memories together. You were just a couple of 20-year-olds. How did joining that band with Danny come together?

Talbot: That’s how we started. We were in vocal groups back in New York, where I grew up. And Ralph had been in vocal groups. He’s from the Lower East Side. Then, he moved down to Florida, and he wasn’t in vocal groups as much down there, but he still kept singing. When we both moved out to California, we met up and we were trying to do some singing. Danny and I had become friends and we started singing together, and then Ralph came in and we all started singing with our other friend Ben Rocco, who was in Danny & the Memories with us. We recorded on [a song] on Scopitone. We did “Land of 1,000 Dances,” with us singing it as a vocal group. We have people dancing and it’s a film that they made, Scopitone, that was put on top of jukeboxes. It was just out for a couple of years, it didn’t really connect.

Paste: The fact that you guys went from a singing group, from doo-wop, to making something like “Cinnamon Girl” or “Down By the River” in a matter of five years, it’s kind of mythical. The rock and roll you went on to make with Neil was definitely not the rock and roll that was going on in 1963. Did you always see yourself getting away from making doo-wop records? Or did that come more organically around the time that you started working with Neil?

Talbot: No. Back then, we were in our early-20s. Your age. And then Neil joined up with us and we went into the studio and, at one point, we had first played up at his house. “Down By the River,” I remember when we first tried playing it. We weren’t playing it like we wound up playing it. That was the one that sparked the whole thing off, as far as long guitar solos and things like that. “Down By the River” started and then we did “Cowgirl in the Sand” and then “Running Dry,” which [included] Bobby Notkoff from the Rockets, which was our first rock and roll band, with Danny and I and Ralph and Leon and George Whitsell.

The Rockets were quite a band. Neil came to our house and then he came and sat with us when we were playing the Whiskey a Go Go, and that’s how we got started. Bobby Notkoff, who was playing electric violin in the Rockets, sat out and Neil came and joined in and Bobby listened to us from up in the balcony. And then, Neil wanted Ralph and I and Danny to come to his house and record some songs. And that’s what we did, and that’s how “Down By the River” came about.

Paste: One of my favorite records that you did with Neil was Rust Never Sleeps. I know a lot of those tracks were made for Hitchhiker, but that record got shelved. And then a lot of the new material that was on Rust Never Sleeps was actually new music at the time of its release. It was your first record with Neil after Zuma. How did he approach you and the band about doing that album and doing that tour?

Talbot: He just said, “I have some songs. Let’s get together.” That’s what he always says. It’s the same thing he always says! [Laughs]

Paste: Do you remember what your reaction was the first time you heard Neil rip through both solos on “Powderfinger”?

Talbot: Well, I love the song, first of all. I’m not usually awestruck by the fact that we’re [playing music together]. I’m too engrossed in actually doing it. I have to be there, in the moment. We’re going for it, and you don’t have time to think about it. As a matter of fact, it’s better not to think about it. When you go to write this, you just gotta let it flow, I hope. And that’s the best way, especially when you’ve done your homework. And as long as you put yourself into that information, let it come through you, you’ll uniquely pull it off. If you try to copy somebody else, well, that’s too bad.

Paste: Nils was in the band, in the early years, playing on After the Gold Rush and those first two Crazy Horse records that you guys did by just yourselves. But then there was a forty-year gap where he wasn’t a core member. In the years between Tonight’s the Night and Colorado, did you and him keep playing music together at all?

Talbot: Not really. He was off with Bruce Springsteen, and he was having a very busy career. But we ran into each other every once in a while on the road, in Europe and in New York. When we lost Poncho, Ralph suggested that we contact Nils, and Neil liked the idea.

Paste: In a perfect world, where Poncho is still able to play and tour and he’s not dealing with arthritis, is there a version of Crazy Horse in 2023 that has both him and Nils in it?

Talbot: You know, I sometimes have dreams of that. And it doesn’t scare me. I like the idea of it, but I don’t know about Poncho. He’s pretty stubborn, and once he’s made up his mind on something, it’s hard to change it. He’s a Spaniard, from Spain, and they’re pretty thick-headed.

Paste: After 60 years together, what’s the one thing you’ve come to expect, or even look forward to, when you’re going into playing on a record with Ralph?

Talbot: It’s changed through the years, as I’ve come to understand myself and my role better. And understand Ralph better. I just try to play the song, and he keeps the beat. That’s what we do. I wind up with his kick and bass pedal on his notes, and he winds up with his kick and bass pedal on my notes. We both wind up in this place that keeps the beat, and I like doing it. I used to listen to the bass when I was a kid growing up. I never thought about being a bass player, though. But, I used to like just singing bass parts. I never thought about it until later on. I don’t consider myself much of a bass player; just good enough to do what we do.

Paste: You compliment whatever work you’re doing, and, sometimes, that’s all you need.

Talbot: That’s all I needed. I’m just looking to do my job as best I can, because it might not be as good as somebody else. But that’s not what’s important. The important thing is doing it when the time comes, doing what you can do to add your part to what’s happening, not take away from it.

Paste: For years, you, Nils and Ralph were putting your voices into the background, doing harmonies. After 50 years of doing that, how comfortable are you singing lead?

Talbot: I have some good songs and I like singing them. I like my voice when I’m singing my songs. I like the way I sound, so that’s a good thing for me.

Paste: I imagine that spending decades making music with one of our greatest living songwriters cannot be understated. Have you picked up a trick or two from Neil over the years when it comes to writing your own music?

Talbot: I’m sure I have. I don’t try to, but I know I’ve been heavily influenced. But I can only do things my way. I can try to do it any other way, but it just doesn’t work. That’s something that I’ve learned, and it really helps me be around Neil, because that’s what he does. He just does it his way. He’s very talented, in my opinion, and, consequently, his way is a good way. I’m not as talented, but, if I do things my way, they turn out good.

Listen to an exclusive recording of Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East from March 6, 1970:

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