If there's one thing Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro has learned from nearly four decades of playing with Neil Young, it's to trust the musically unpredictable bandleader whenever the time comes to make a new record.
"Over the years, I've learned if you just stick with Neil, he's going to put out a big ball of energy and a light that you can follow," says Sampedro, who's been with Young since 1975's Zuma album. "If you just get on board and follow it, it's going to be good. It might not be what you were thinking, but let's just have at it."
Americana, the new album from Young and the band, finds Sampedro and his bandmates, drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot, once again putting that principle into practice. It's made up of traditional American songs — many of them folk standards — which the musicians have refashioned into the full-on thundering sound that's come to be associated with a group who has released nearly two dozen albums.
Sampedro says that when he arrived at Young's California studio to start working, he knew very little about what the bandleader had in mind for the project. "Then the next thing I knew, we were playing 'Clementine,' and it was rocking pretty hard. I was wondering if I was still going to have the same kind of energy I'd had in the past — and all of a sudden I was jumping up and down and screaming and having a lot of fun. Then it was another one, another one, and another one."
In fact, it wasn't until the musicians had jammed out on a number of the songs that Young actually let them in on the concept of remaking classic American songs in the style of Crazy Horse.
"He told us that some of them were songs he used to do in coffeehouses when he was younger, like 15 or 16, and just traveling around. I really don't know how or why he thought about doing it now, but he was on that path and he was deep into it. And it was fun. He was sitting there even while we were doing it and researching the lyrics."
Sampedro caught on quickly to the fact that the album would not be a disappointment. "We were listening to the first couple of songs playing back, I was so excited," Sampedro recalls. "I just turned to Neil and said, 'You know man, we don't even have to try to have this sound.' We just start playing and we sound like us."
The band has already gone back into the studio to record a new album of original songs, some of which will be featured on this tour. After all these years together, the musicians still have a sound that can't be duplicated, even though Sampedro says Molina and Talbot have occasionally suggested playing with other artists — or even bringing in another singer-guitarist to record new music as Crazy Horse.
"At first I was into that," says the guitarist. "But it doesn't sound like Neil when we play with anybody else. So I've kind of been adamant about not doing other projects with them, so we can keep what we have."