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Published: 2014/05/19
by Brian Robbins

Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot Runs with the Wolves

Mention Billy Talbot’s name and the first thing that likely comes to mind is the legendary catalog of studio work he and his bandmates in Crazy Horse have created over the years with Neil Young, beginning with 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

Crazy Horse – Talbot on bass; drummer Ralph Molina; and guitarist Frank “Pancho” Sampedro (who replaced original member Danny Whitten after his death in 1972) – has also ridden alongside Young for some of the epic live performances of his career.

Talking with Billy, however, you realize he is as passionate about music made at home with friends as he is the moments of rock ‘n’ roll history he’s been a part of – perhaps more. Last year’s On The Road To Spearfish – recorded with a hand-picked group of multi-talented musicians collectively known as the Billy Talbot Band – was as broad and expansive as the South Dakota territory Billy and his wife call home, yet as intimate as a woodstove-warmed prairie cabin.

It turns out that the sessions for Spearfish have spawned another project for Talbot, as he and multi-instrumentalist Ryan James Holzer have joined forces with drummer Molina and guitarist George Whitsell (who first made music with Billy and Ralph back in the 1960s) to create the band Wolves.

Visit Billy’s website and you’ll find links to purchase the four-song Wolves EP, along with videos of the quartet captured in the moment as the music was being birthed. Holzer is mesmerizing to watch as he leads the band on guitar and vocals; his body sways in near-rapture, fueled by the sparse-yet-powerful groove of the music. Whitsell weaves his leads throughout Holzer’s jagged rhythm work, finding beauty amongst the ache; Talbot and Molina morph to create that single massive rhythm soul that is theirs and theirs alone; and the powerful harmonies layered behind Holzer’s lead vocals sound like leather-jacketed angels.

The result is some of the most powerful music you’ve heard Billy Talbot create.

Billy was kind enough to share some quiet time at home on the ranch to talk about the Wolves project, old friends, cool guitars, and music to come.

BR: Billy, the last time we spoke was in August, talking about your On The Road To Spearfish album. You were with Crazy Horse, touring with Neil over in Europe at the time. I think either later that same day or the next was when Pancho hurt his hand and you guys had to cancel the tour.

BT: Yeah – that’s right. He broke a couple of fingers.

And the Wolves sessions took place when?

We – Ryan, George, Ralph and I – got together to record some of Ryan’s songs before that leg of the Crazy Horse tour.

We went into the studio three different times during the course of a year – for a day each time – and did the recordings. The four songs on this EP are the last session we did together.

You laid down these four songs in a day?

That’s right.

Cool. Let’s back up for a second to On The Road To Spearfish, for those who don’t know. Ryan was the rookie in the band for those sessions, correct?

That’s right. Ryan had contacted me through my website – he sent me a note, and we exchanged hellos and ideas and stuff. He had four songs up on his own site that I checked out – I really loved what I heard, and I told him so.

Ryan was living out here in South Dakota; I was home at our ranch and he came to visit. We wrote some songs that we ended up recording with the Billy Talbot Band for the On The Road To Spearfish album.

And that experience led to forming Wolves?

Yeah: we wanted to do some more stuff together. I wanted to get in the studio and record some of Ryan’s songs.

There may be folks who don’t realize that George goes way back with you and Ralph to The Rockets in the late 60s.

That’s right. George was around with The Rockets: Danny Whitten; Ralph and me; George and his brother Leon; and Bobby Notkoff.

George was a part of Crazy Horse for awhile, as well – between Danny and Pancho. He’s always been around and a part of things through the years – in our minds, if not in body.

George is such a powerful player – but tasteful at the same time. The songs on the Wolves EP showcase that well.

I’m glad you think so, Brian – he’ll love hearing that.

How long since the last time you and George had played together?

Before these sessions with Ryan and Ralph? Oh … years and years. I’ve seen George; we’d hung out and promised each other things, but it just never worked out. It was Ralph who thought of bringing George in for these sessions – said he’d be great … and he was right.

It’s amazing to watch the videos of the sessions on your website, especially now that I know it was a one-day session and happening on the fly. The music is raw, yet lovely at the same time. The deep-rooted connection between you and George is obvious and great to see.

And Ryan is quite animated during these songs. You can really see it in “Know Your Knot”. (laughter)

That’s right. I remember at the end of that song – after that fierce jam – he’s looking down at his picking hand as the camera fades, like he’d peeled the meat off the tips of his fingers.

He did; he was really hurting. You can tell he’s really rocking out – almost hypnotic.

These songs are just the tapping of the surface as far as Ryan’s talent is concerned; it goes way deep. Every song I’ve heard of his is incredible.

He’s got soul.

Yes, he does.

You’ve moved back to bass for Wolves after switching to guitar for the Billy Talbot Band. Plus, you’ve brought your longtime wingman Ralph in on drums. I wanted to ask you: is there an easy way for you to describe your musical relationship with Ralph as opposed to other drummers that you’ve played with over the years?

You know, Ralph and I have been together all these years and it’s … it’s like soul-to-soul for us.

I just knew that Ralph would play great with Ryan. I knew we’d have it on the first or second take every time and not even worry about it.

I’ll tell you something, Brian: Ralph hadn’t played with anybody since Danny Whitten as smoothly as he did with Ryan.

Wow.

Yeah. Ralph was blown away and really happy with it all. He hardly even blinked and it was over. I don’t even know as Ralph has ever listened to the songs. (laughter)

Really?

After each of the three one-day sessions, Ralph just went home. That’s Ralph: I don’t know as he thinks about it much, which is really great … it’s a beautiful thing, actually.

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