Eric with Lyle and Denice

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ERIC TAYLOR,

INTERVIEW WITH ROMAIN DECORET

#141
DECEMBER 2001

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Folk Songe

With his new album Scuffletown, Eric Taylor comes out of the shadow of the Flatlands (the Houston Texas area) and offers a mature vision of what could be acoustic folksong in the twenty-first century ó a genuine renaissance and a source of inspiration for all those who have chosen to express themselves using their guitars.

Eric Taylor is a wise man, a great songwriter and a master of acoustic guitar. Even if youíre not familiar with the huge jigsaw puzzle of Texan songwriters, youíve probably heard songs by Lyle Lovett or Nanci Griffith. Eric Taylor is followed by a myriad of fans, some of whom are legends themselves (Steve Earle, for example), who consider him a keeper of the flame and a teacher. Eric Taylor simply says: ďI never really considered myself a folk singer. I suppose Iím oneĒ! Taylor grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, before he became in the early sixties, contrary to his parentís opinion, a bass player for soul and R&B bands where he often was the only white member. He then switched to the guitar and started to write his own songs, decided to head for California, but stops on his way and settles down in Houston in the seventies. The musical environment was exactly what his inspiration needed. He learns the blues guitar with Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb or Mississippi Fred Mc Dowell at the Family Hand Club in Houston. He then develops a unique picking style, using mainly substitution chords. He was imitated by the likes of Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt or Robert Earl Keen. This biography is too short to define such a complex character as Eric Taylor, who was interviewed by Guitaristí reporter, with a glass of wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other.

 

Youíre in the middle of a European tour.

Yes, with a young songwriter, Mr. Jones, who opens for me. Weíve played in Holland, Belgium, Germany and Paris for two shows at the Hotel du Nord.

 
Youíve recorded only four albums since the beginning of your career. Why?

Because I don not believe in any ďproductĒ. When Iím in the studio, the process is the same as writing a book or painting, and if you canít feel it in the final result, itís not worth doing it. The other reason is that, like other Texas songwriters, I do not want to sign with a major label that would not let me totally control the production. This can only change the nature of my music, and Iíve found what I was looking for with Eminent Records in Nashville.

 
Your new album, Scuffletown, is outstanding, and both the music and the lyrics are instantly evocative. Have you specially worked on this?

I have produced that record myself, as well as the previous one, Resurrect. My vision is to handle production as an artist paints his painting, using instruments instead of colors to focus on emotions. I think this is the reason why even listeners who do not understand English can instinctively understand the images in my music.

 
Do you write songs for a specific album or do you have a list from which you chose the songs?

Iíve been playing those songs for a long time, thatís why songs evolve. Writing a song is not the end, thatís precisely where the job begins. I play them on stage, change them several times, watch them under various perspectives. Itís an organic method, but the only one that makes it possible for a song to evolve, with all the time that is necessary.

How was the new album recorded?

For Scuffletown, I wanted songs to be recorded in a single total take, from A to Z. I have played them alone with my guitar, and then, musicians have added the organ, the saxophone and percussions. Even a song such as Delia/Bad News, which lasts over 11 minutes, was made in a single take at the beginning. This is because I want to be able to do it alone on stage without a difference in the sound. The only exception is Blue Piano, which is kind of impromptu song, dedicated to pianist girl friend. The blue piano is pictured on the back sleeve.

 
Where was it recorded, with which musicians?

The studio is Red Shack in Houston, Texas. The basic sound in the room is fantastic and you can choose either digital or analog recoding, or both. Musicians are long-time friends; Mike Sumler on the organ, James Gilmer on percussions and Eric Demmer on sax. He played with Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Eric Clapton. My songs are visual and they can depict that.

 
What is the concept behind Scuffletown?

Iíve never recorded an album with a concept! It is rather an emotional trip, that takes me away with the listener. I choose the songs in my repertoire according to the theme that arises during the recording and which I discover myself little by little. I can even start the album with Happy Endings.

In Scuffletown, the South is the linking theme between songs. I am an avid reader of southern writers such as Harry Crews, Carson McCullers and Flannery OíConnor. The song White Bone was inspired by a novel by Harry Crews. In a black community, an albino baby was born and the church minister canít say if it is good or bad news, and they finally decide to let the baby live. Heíll eventually become a preacher. That seems weird enough to make a song out of it!

 
You also write songs based on true experiences?

Yes, All the way to Heaven, for example. I went to see Charlie Rich play at the Continental Ballroom in Houston. He arrived on stage with a glass of Jack Danielís and stated to play on the piano an incredible version of Blue Moon of Kentucky. I thought I was in heaven, but at that very moment, the barman killed a threatening guy who had just taken a gun out of his pocket. Charlie Rich died soon after that show, which was maybe one the last he did, if not the last one. What else could I do, or write a song about Charlie Rich and that customer in the bar. Not mentioning the barman who had lots of time to think about it in jailÖ

 
There are also two songs written by Townes. Did you know him well?

Townes was a friend of mine. We both belonged to the early seventies scene, a period dear to me because there was no line drawn between rock, blues or folk music. We could literally play what would cross our minds. We were just musician. I think that if so many songwriters come from that scene, whether Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett or Steve Earle, thatís because we could learn from each other. That seems to be a good reason for playing together. Iím covering songs for the first time on one of my records, but I now think that avoiding the influence of other people is an evidence of paranoia or a lack of personality, to paraphrase Matisse and my old friend Dave van Ronk. About Townesí songs, Nothing and Where I lead me, the idea came when friend brought me to a club in Copenhagen. A punk band was playing one of my songs. It went so fast that I could barely hear it! I was about to leave when they started Where I lead me. A true revelation. Iíve done it in a totally different fashion to avoid being the stupid person who mimics someone else. For Nothiní, Iíve done the same thing, with Mike Sumlerís electric guitar, which has a sound evocative of the Flatlands. It is an introspective songÖ

 
Your guitar playing style is rather special. You never use basic chords?

As little as possible, I like substitution chords instead, as they offer more possibilities for picking and arpeggio. Itís a style Iíve started to work on when Townes and me would play together. I would show him substitution chords and he would teach me to treat the topic of a song though different anglesÖ

 
What is your playing style with the right hand?

I play with my bare fingers so I can feel the strings much better. I learned that from blues men. There was a period when Lightning Hopkins would call me up, along with my friend Wrecks Bell to play bass or guitar with him in the clubs. I would always try to watch where he was placing his fingers on the neck and one day, on stage, he started: ďDonít watch the fingers, watch the strings!Ē It took me over five years to understand what that meant. You have to play according to the harmonics of each string, then you pull and lift according to the note you want to reach. You should not remain a prisoner of the frets which only represent a general mapping, not always accurate. What is great with the guitar is that youíre never through learning how to play it. Iím 52 and Iím learning new things everyday.

 
What guitar are you using?

My main acoustic guitar is a vintage RK made by James Kinscherff in Austin. Those models were made by Jamie and John Ross, hence the RK name. Later they parted. John Ross is making electric guitars and basses. James Kinsherff is a specialist if acoustic guitars. The guitars they made together remain outstanding instruments, carefully crafted, with a high sound and resonance quality. I always have my RK with me, whether on tour or in the studio. I simply ask Jamie Kinscherff to check it every six months, but it never let me down.

 
Letís say the RK is your wife! Do you have other girlfriends?

I also have a Taylor for blues sounds. It is an acoustic guitar, smaller than the RK, with a cutaway to reach higher frets. As a general rule, I take it out when Iím using a pick. The RK is used for picking, but it is not an absolute rule either.

 
What guitars do you have at home?

There is that Paul Reed Smith electric guitar which I have used for overdubs on several songs on Scuffletown. I also have several bass guitars: an old Fender Jazz bass Deluxe with hot-rod microphones and a DeArmond stick bass with which Iím making some experiments in Drop-D tuning for new sounds! On the Scuffletown album, Iím playing all the bass parts, overdubbed, with the Jazz Bass.

 
You seem to appreciate various experiences. What do you pursue in this field?

I recently recorded a TV show in Nashville at the Bluebird Cafť, with Steve Earle, and Kelly Joe Phelps. Weíve played a song together, but Kelly played on all the songs I did and that was fantastic. When maybe he had been too heavy on the bottle before the show and he could not get up! Anyways, I was impressed with his lap-style slide guitar playing. I already know him but thatís the first time we played together and Iíd love to explore that style. Iíll have the bridge and nut uplifted on my old Martin D35, my old friend from the sixties, to play it on my lap.

 
With whom have you played, recently?

I have produced two records for Denice Franke, who sings harmonies on Scuffletown. I co-produced the second album of Nanci Griffith, my ex-wife. Weíre still friends and I sometimes play bass with her. I like production more and more, which means building around songs as delicately as possible so that what Ďs inside the artist can come out. As a musician, I also play with Lyle Lovett, who has recorded several of my songs, including Memphis Midnight/Memphis Morning and Fat Babies, one of his biggest hits. I record often with Guy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and all the desperados in the Houston Flatlands. We like that name better than Outlaws, which is reserved to Willie Nelson and his gang from the Lubbock hills, farther west in Texas.

 
Any project?

Iím going back to Houston to mix the Austin City Limits show. Weíve recorded that show in September with my band. After that Iím back on the road by myself and Iíll start working on the new record, which will be different, as all my albums are. I already have some ideasÖ

 

copyright Guitarist 2001