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Twin Cities folkie Eliza Blue found Neil Young’s bassist at home on the prairie

August 23, 2018

When she moved from the Twin Cities to ultra-rural South Dakota seven years ago, Eliza Blue figured her music career would quite literally be put out to pasture.

“One of the problems out here is simply finding someone to play music with,” said the banjo- and guitar-picking singer/songwriter, who now lives in Bison, S.D., among cattle, sheep, chickens, her rancher husband and their two toddlers.

You can imagine her surprise, then, when she heard murmurings that a certain rock legend had bought a place nearby — then multiply that surprise exponentially when, two years later, that rock legend wound up producing and collaborating on her new album.

“I figured he’d only live here super part time, and would mostly keep to himself,” Blue remembered in a phone call last week from Bison. “Never would I have thought I’d wind up at his house making my record.”

Her new neighbor is none other than Billy Talbot, bassist for Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. After more than four decades serving in one of rock’s most legendary backing bands, the 74-year-old music vet wanted to get away from California and relocated to the Bison area, where his wife has roots.

Talbot set up a recording studio in a barn and proceeded to make a solo record, for which he recruited Blue. When it came time for her own album, Blue recounted, “I had to work up the courage to ask him.”

“I had just had my first child and didn’t really plan to tour or promote the record. So I asked Billy, ‘Could I maybe come over one day and you just press play?’ I figured I’d make just some raw, basic recordings.”

His response was a firm no: “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right,” she recalled Talbot telling her. “Let’s make a real record.”

The result is “South Dakota, 1st of May,” which Blue is promoting with a release party Saturday at the Aster Cafe featuring her pals in the old-school folk trio Corpse Reviver.

Even from 500 miles away, Blue still considers herself part of the Twin Cities music scene: “Minneapolis is still the nearest big city to me.”

True to Talbot’s word, the album is much more than just a modest acoustic affair, loaded with lush, Daniel Lanois-style ambient twang and ruggedly rootsy tones behind Blue’s warm, earthy voice. They recorded it piecemeal over several months, working out a creative process that melded their distinct backgrounds.

“Billy is obviously a rock ’n’ roll guy,” Blue said in humorous understatement, “and I’m obviously more acoustic.” Add a third collaborator (and neighbor), Jack Hughes, whom she said is more into pop music, “and we really came up with something interesting, a record we can all say we’re happy with.”

The songwriting, though, is all Blue’s and draws heavily from what was clearly a dramatic lifestyle change, going from a touring musician and Twin Cities resident to settling outside a town with a listed population of 333.

“I was totally a city girl,” said Blue, who was raised in Plymouth and spent part of her youth in Detroit. Now, she said, “I don’t spend part of my day running errands, because there really is nowhere to go to run errands.”

That explains how she finds time for songwriting amid the daily livestock, farming and parenting chores. She first came to Bison to record with local native Darren “Kid Dakota” Jackson and moved there first for the solitude, then fell in love with her future husband, Max Loughlin, a fourth-generation rancher.

The album’s title track and opening song, “South Dakota, 1st of May,” came during that transitional period between her relocation and when she started her family, which she likened to early May — “when you feel like you’re out of the woods of winter, and sunshine is just around the corner,” she said, “but you’re not quite there yet.”

Other songs on the album follow a similar mold, using weather and the rural landscape for inspiration, from the love that outlasts the seasons in “Come to Me” to the ruts in the road that help define the path in “Good at Staying.”

Blue has found other creative outlets in her new environment, including a folk duo with friend Jami Lynn, dubbed the Nesters. She also writes a newspaper column called “Little Pasture on the Prairie” that she now tapes as a monthly feature for South Dakota Public Radio.

Coincidentally or not, she also headed to the SDPR studios in Rapid City in May to record a live appearance promoting her new album. Its producer planned to accompany her, but Talbot had to cancel when Young announced his first shows with Crazy Horse in four years.

“He was so sweet and apologetic about it, like, ‘Sorry, I need to go play some dates with Neil,’ ” Blue recalled.

Suffice it to say, she didn’t begrudge her new neighbor for putting the old band back together.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • @ChrisRstrib

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