HVMusic featured articles
More Gary Alexander articles

Road Worrier

Masterful Songwriter Eric Taylor Finds His Way Here From Texas

Story by Gary Alexander

  Related Links:     Official Eric Taylor website
  Rosendale Cafe  

Perhaps the impression is a touch off center but, in a promotional photograph sent out by his Nashville label, Eminent Records, musician Eric Taylor looks like a worrier.

The picture shows a straight gaze from a man in plain country dress with his shirt buttoned up to the throat. Direct, no-kidding eyes with just a trace of caution over a nose that seems like it's been pushed around a little bit; hard, thin lips and a hairline retreating reluctantly, as if only to reveal more forehead for the reception of wisdom. But you can tell he's worrying about something.

It couldn't be that he's anxious about the reception of his new cd, Shuffletown, which has generated wide critical response since its release some eight months ago. Taylor is one of a small circle of Texan songwriters upholding a musical tradition very particular to that region of the country and as distant from the usual fare identified with the town his record company resides in as it is from folk traditions of the northeast. The release of a new album is a genuine Event to followers of Lone Star musical legacy and Taylor delivered a classic with this one.

One of the reasons his name is not well known locally could be laid to the fact that, aside from some ventures to clubs like The Bottom Line in that big city to the south, Taylor has never played in this region before. That changes on Friday, October 9th [2001], with his appearance at the Rosendale Cafe, when Northeasterner will be afforded the privilege of sharing in the Event of these extraordinarily fetching new songs.

Taylor's voice is as deep and deliberate as his gaze and his guitar style has influenced a number of other Texas artists, including Lyle Lovelett, and won the raise of other artists from Iain Matthews to Steve Earle. But Taylor's most exceptional talent is a flair for projecting visions into sound. His tunes are scenes envisaged, graphically clear and textured pictures of a moment and stories sculpted sleekly enough to launch on waves of air. They bristle with the energy of thought.

A native of Georgia, Taylor recalls getting his first guitar at 14, about the same time 3 or 4 other neighborhood kids did, and playing in the inevitable r&b bands for a few years.

"I've always been kind of a searcher," Taylor recalls. "There were a few clubs in Atlanta, mostly black clubs, I could sneak into when I was underage and see a lot of people there."

A writer and poet for as long as he can remember, Taylor hadn't yet developed a firm grasp on the craft of songwriting. He was still "searching" when he set out across country and wound up in Houston in 1970 in the midst of a strong musical community.

"Townes (Van Zandt) and Guy (Clark) were just starting up, 5 or 6 years older than me, and a lot of blues players to learn from were around- Johnny Winter, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb," notes Taylor before reflecting back a question about what he was playing then with "I was doing anything I could do. Just a kid learning and trying to pull from every direction I could pull from. I'd been doing r&b music for years, playing bass in bands, then started writing my own stuff and becoming more of a single- I hate the term- singer-songwriter.

"One of the things about Texas and Texas writers, I think, and why so much has come out of here is because, at that time, there were just no rules. Guy says basically the same thing. I'm not sure it's that way anymore but there were writers and musicians all thrown together; blues artists and folksingers all played the same places- against a backdrop of hard rock & roll. There was a strong writing core here and it was very conducive to learning from each other. There were no lines drawn in the sand about what you could or couldn't do."

One thing that Taylor brought to the table was a distinct guitar style which came from varying directions in a natural evolution which centered on exactly what he was trying to express. As a playwright and short story writer, he possessed an instinct for the story line in songs which compelled him to "try to write music around what fits the lyrics" and found that words flavor the music in their own way. His respect for lyric shows in his production of music- in the spaces he allows to grace the words while the music carries the color of feeling around them rather than over, under or through them.

Part of his technical style derives from a detour he took at a music festival in the 1960's. As he explains it, he was a kid that wanted to take in a guitar workshop at the fest but found the student seats filled.

The Last Concert: The late
John Hartford heads for the bus
after a set at Winterhawk 2000.
"So, I went to a five-string banjo workshop with my guitar and the instructor was John Hartford," Taylor recalls. "So, the first finger style playing I learned was basically the double-thumb technique from John Hartford. I've sort of kept that all along and incorporated (Merle) Travis style picking, straight picking in different styles but usually with a strong double bass going...Maybe that's how it came together. I never thought about it very much."

A technique of writing Taylor with which finds success is the "juggle and pause" approach that considers "deadlines" merely sentences that don't work.

"A poem is stream of consciousness- a lot of writing and then a lot of editing," he observes. "I don't really have rules about writing songs. What I seem to do- what's become a pattern for me- is to work on two or three things at the same time so I never feel ^—lost' on a song. It gives me time to research and mull and edit. I usually finish two or three songs at the same time rather than just focus one one thing. That leaves you some space."

Another reason Taylor is not as well known locally or nationally as he should be is the little matter of a twelve year hiatus he took from the craft after his first album, Shameless Love, captured widespread attention in 1981. His former wife, Nanci Griffith, backed him on the effort and, in turn, he co-produced her second album, Poet in the Window, in the same studio. They stayed friends after their four-and-a half year relationship during the late 1970's, he notes, and still work together on occasion.

"I was strung out in 1983," Taylor admits, elaborating his concern about a musician's life on the road. "I had a very bad drug habit and the decision was ^—the road' or my life. So, I stopped. I had planned on stopping for a few years, cleaning up, staying off the road and making sure everything was okay but I got married, had a child and wasn't very interested in signing a deal and having to be on the road all the time."

Taylor would still play select shows in Texas once or twice a year to keep up with old friends while seeping himself in southern literature the way he recalls he and Nanci used to "soak up what was around us" like the jazz at a Houston after-hours club called the Green Room, where they often retired to, after their own gigs, until sunrise. He also kept writing his stories and plays, some of the latter of which saw local production but were never earnestly pushed through a theatrical agency (although he reports some recent interest from Europe). His continuing intimacy with drama registers ever more powerfully in his rendering of song.

Besides his musical stage wok, Taylor once acted in a movie which he describes as an "art film" called Triptage. Long forgotten, he has no idea what becme of the film after he saw some cuts from it but an ability to deliver lines with arresting effect is amply evident on the new cd.

Shuffletown is Taylor's 3rd album since returning wholeheartedly to the musical fold in 1995, a move he says was partly inspired by a desire that his daughter have more artists and musicians around her and his own concerns about touring having receded well into the past. On the album, he covers two songs by someone else for the first time; a pair of Townes Van Zandt gems which he makes his own with dramatic inflection some distance from the readings given them by their celebrated late author.

Van Zandt's "Where I Lead Me" swells and heaves with an ominous anticipation saturated into a grim and knowing smile. Taylor says that he decided to shade it into his own directions after hearing it covered by a Norwegian punk band and doesn't say how well they covered it. His haughty take on TVZ's "Nothing" closes the album like a dangerously wounded animal backing away into its den.

Herein, he also redefines and upholsters Willie McTell's classic "Delia's Gone" with new streams of depth and detail, tenderly blending it with his own "Bad News from Heaven" for new snatches of folkloric color and grand elaboration. He treats the bittersweet undercurrents of simple home life in "Happy Endings" with a wind-weathered philosophy that observes, "I'm convinced that, in many cases, families are held together by struggle and adversity so long lasting, that if suddenly relieved, it would send them off in several directions."

The wryly somber and arcanely tempered blues tale of "Chicken Pie," taints a full-chested male boast with an intelligently guilt-tinged conscience and, with "All the Way to Heaven", a moody "incident" song spangled with dark reflection, Taylor teases opaquely that "suspect as any quote may be about being a true story, I may or may not be lying about this night spent listening to Charlie Rich and the surrounding events in Houston..." The point is that the song wraps you up so tightly and comfortably, you could care less about its absolute veracity.

This is a work of absorbing depth and delicacy from a noteworthy artist and these are new times for Eric Taylor. Recently returned from a month-long tour in Europe and a taping as featured artist on an Austin City Limits show soon to be aired nationally, Taylor may not look as worried as his picture. Come and see.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on November 5, 2001

HVMusic featured articles Gary Alexander home page More Gary Alexander articles