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Arthur Woods, The Kerrville Kronikles
Taylor was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1950. “My father’s family was from South Carolina, around the Greenville/Spartanburg
area. When I was around six weeks old, we moved to South Carolina and I stayed
there till I was about eleven. Then we moved back to Georgia.” It’s
Eric’s recollection that from an early age he wrote poetry and short stories, “I
spent a lot of time alone when I was a kid.” His first musical
recollection, also provides an insight into his concern for his fellow man, “In Georgia there was a lot of black music. What was, at that time,
called soul music. Rhythm and blues was also a real big deal. What were called
race and blue records back then. Juke boxes in the south, especially in redneck
bars, and mostly out of some lame attempt at humour, had records by artists like
Lightnin’ Hopkins. The first time that I remember being moved by music, I was
in a bar with my father called The Cotton Bottom Lounge and heard Lightnin’
sing “Short Haired Woman.” All these racists in the bar thought it was a
real funny song. I was about nine years old and thought it was great.”
purchased his first guitar at the age of 13, for the princely sum of two dollars
and fifty cents - his weekly allowance at the time. In a 1982 interview with
Peter O’Brien for Omaha Rainbow,
Eric recalled that it didn’t have any tuning pegs. When
needs must, fall back on the mother of invention – it’s young owner
discovered that he could tune the strings using a pair of pliers. But there was
another, and major problem - the only place his mother would allow him to play
the instrument was in the bathroom. As he told O’Brien, “I
still play in the bathroom sometimes.”
Throughout his Junior High School years, Taylor played bass in numerous garage bands. Considering his love of words, it seemed a natural progression that Eric should start composing, “The first song I wrote was called “Trip of the Golden Calf”. It had real heavy lyrics. Music was the thing that drove our lives. We weren’t very big television watchers. We played sock hops and worked most every weekend. Colleges, fraternity houses. We would do a set of soul and rhythm and blues music, then we’d do a set of white boy music. I can’t say that in my early life country music was much of an influence on me, although I do remember really liking some of Hank Williams stuff – because to me it sounded like blues music.” During this period, Eric also played open-mike nights at the Twelfth Gate Coffee-house in Atlanta.
afterwards, he headed for Washington D.C., to investigate the possibility of
studying at Georgetown University, as well as taking time to check the local
music scene. Six months later he returned to Atlanta, after running into some
friends while on the road. The group subsequently decided to undertake a
cross-country trek to California, and although Eric had intended returning to
D.C., he was persuaded to join their expedition. More than a decade after Jack
Kerouac’s eponymous “On The Road”
appeared, this band of individuals became intent upon their own search for
mythical/mystical America. By the way, the latter novel closes with the words “I
think of Dean Moriarty.” The significance of those words will
become apparent later. The first stop on their journey was the Gulf Coast city
of Houston. A combination of circumstances dictated that Eric set aside his
plans to travel farther west, at least for a while. Finance had not been a major
consideration in the structure of their plan – Taylor was literally down to
his last dollar. Part-time jobs delivering rental television sets in the
projects and washing dishes in a diner, made ends meet for a while. More
importantly however, soon after arriving in Houston, Taylor witnessed
performances by blues legend Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, and two comparatively
young, local performers - Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Those performances
were pivotal events in terms of what Taylor did next. “Townes
was striking in every area, not just lyrically. His presentation was fast and
clean and dark. He was like a racehorse. Just amazing to see.”
Eric soon became friendly with local concert promoter Mike Condray, who contributed to Taylor’s decision to settle in Space City for a while. One of Condray’s business ventures was The Family Hand Restaurant, where Taylor saw the aforementioned musicians perform. For a while Taylor stayed at Condray’s home, and worked in his clubs doing various jobs, including performing his music. Returning to O’Brien’s interview, “Mike was a big driving force in my life, musically. He told me the wrong things I was doing and told me what he liked too.”
One of the regular venues that Taylor and Griffith played together during this period, was the listening room on the Texas A & M University campus at College Station. The booker was an Journalism/German major called Lyle Lovett. One of his flatmates, at that time, went by the name of Robert Earl Keen Jr. The spare-time pursuits of both students included, playing music and writing songs. As we shall see, Lovett and Taylor struck up, a close and lasting friendship. Whenever Eric undertook solo gigs, Lyle regularly appeared as his opening act. As for further historic connections, Lovett was a winner of the Kerrville Emerging Songwriters contest in 1982, while Keen won the competition during the following year.
wasn’t interested in cutting an album. What was important was writing and
playing them. We wrote tons of songs, that we might have played two or three
times and then moved on to something else. The times were different. Writing was
probably the most important thing – that’s what we did. I don’t ever
remember yearning for a record deal. The record came about because some people
came along and said “You gotta put out a record”. I said “Why ?” and
they said “Because we want to hear it.” I told them “You’re going to
loose your ass.” The
album was cut at Loma Ranch Studios which is located on the outskirts of that
Texas Hill Country hideaway, Fredericksburg. Eric had discovered the studio,
when he was on his way to Kerrville to make a documentary about the forthcoming
Folk Festival. Produced by Eric and the studio owners, John and Laurie Hill, the
resulting ten track, 1981 recording was titled “Shameless
Love.” Although Eric and Nanci were now divorced, her vocals are
prominently featured on the recording and she appears on the front liner
photograph with Eric. The supporting players, on this the first Featherbed
release, include Gurf Morlix [Lucinda Williams], James Gilmer and John Hagen [both
Lyle Lovett], plus Eric’s then flatmate, guitarist John Grimaudo. ”“Joseph
Cross” is the only song that I’ve ever sat down and wrote from beginning to
end. I had been thinking about attempting a western play. The story is a piece
of fiction. “Charlie Ray McWhite” is a composite song. Basically it’s
about me killing off my father in a song. He was still alive when I wrote that
song. My father’s name was Charlie, while his best friend went by the surname
of McWhite. I have an uncle called Ray and put the three things together.“
With “Shameless Love,” the world
had been introduced to the narrative songs of a master craftsman. Who could have
foretold that a silence, nearly a decade and a half long, would then ensue.
During the following year, the Houston based, Featherbed label issued Nanci’s second solo effort “Poet In My Window,” and reissued her debut disc. Cut at Loma Ranch, Eric played bass on the sessions. Brian Wood, Nanci’s guitarist, and Eric are credited as associate producers of the recording. The only Griffith/Taylor songwriting collaboration, “Ghost in the Music,” opened Nanci’s next studio album. Cut in Nashville at Jack Clement’s studio, “Once in a Very Blue Moon” was a 1984 release on the Rounder Records subsidiary label Philo. It was the first of an, irregular but, ongoing series of co-productions by Griffith and Jim Rooney. With the release of this album, the songbird took flight to destinations far beyond the borders of her native Texas. On her journey, she retained an abiding faith in the ability of that state’s songwriters, born or resident, to create stunning and original songs.
On the eve of his first European tour in 1983, Taylor decided to walk away from the music business and enter a rehabilitation programme. In the years that followed Eric initially worked at a halfway house as a counsellor, while studying for a professional qualification. He continued playing about three shows each year at Anderson Fair in Houston, and once a year at The Cactus Café, Austin’s premier listening room on the UT campus. More often than not, the trailer for his appearance at the latter venue was an appearance on the KUT “Folkways” show, compered by David Obermann. Over the years, Obermann would gently and regularly enquiry as to when Eric was going to get back on the ballpark.
“The person who had the drive was Nanci. Nanci always had very heavy focus on taking one career step after another.” In August 1988 and now signed to MCA Records, Nanci returned to Texas, for her “live” spin on red brick floor at her favourite Houston venue, Tim Leatherwood’s Anderson Fair. Supported by James Hooker [organ] and regular backing vocalists from the Blue Moon Orchestra, Doug Hudson and Denice Franke, Eric Taylor was also on hand to lend his vocal to her “Love at the Five and Dime.” The subsequent video and compact disc titled “One Fair Summer Evening” included Nanci’s version of Eric’s atmospheric period piece “Deadwood, South Dakota.” Griffith’s next studio set, “Storms,” took it’s title from another Eric Taylor composition.
“I always had plans to come back and do this again. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be in the music business. It’s just that liked what I was doing. I liked where my life was going. I liked working with addicts and alcoholics. Helping kids and old folks and families.” Remarried, the birth of his daughter, Alex, at the dawn of the nineties, dictated that the planned comeback be shelved again, albeit temporarily. “I really wanted to spend time with her.” Two decades after arriving in Houston, on his way to someplace far away, Eric moved his family fifty miles west to the relative peace and quiet of Columbus, the political centre of Colorado County, Texas.
On this side of the Atlantic, English folk chanteuse, June Tabor, became an interpreter of Taylor’s material. Her 1992 Green Linnet album “Angel Tiger” featured “Joseph Cross,” while two years later “Against the Streams” opened with “Shameless Love.” During that year, Eric was invited to join Lyle Lovett in California, for the recording sessions that resulted in the 1994 MCA/Curb collection “I Love Everybody.” The only song that they had composed together, “Fat Babies,” was included in the final selection. It had been composed over a decade earlier, while they were driving to the Kerrville Folk Festival. Late one night, following one of the sessions for Lovett’s album, Eric cut a nineteen song tape of his songs, encouraged and abetted by Lyle. Over the years, Lovett had sustained his faith in Eric Taylor, musician, composer and friend. For confirmation of that contention, just check the liner notes of “I Love Everybody” – “Guitar solo in “I’ve Got the Blues” based on a Lightnin’ Hopkins guitar lick as played by Townes Van Zandt, as shown to Lyle Lovett by Eric Taylor in the back room of Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant, Houston, Texas, October 1979.”
few months later, while sat in the office of Blue Ruby Music, his publishing
company, Eric received a telephone call from David Simone, the head of Polygram.
“I think Lyle had dinner with him in California. Simone used to be the
head of MCA in the U.K. I thought it was somebody doing a bad Mick Jagger
impression.” The outcome of the call, was a song publishing deal with
Polygram International. Presented with the ability to put bread on his table,
and clear of a 9.00am to 5.00pm daily scenario, Eric set about planning his next
album. Heinz Geissler, joint owner of the Watermelon label and, a long-time
supporter of Taylor’s music, had on numerous occasions offered to help him
record his songs. With a number of offers under consideration, in the end, Eric
decided to go with Watermelon. At Geissler’s instigation, another Watermelon
recording artist, Iain Matthews, had become a fan of Taylor’s work and was
soon involved in the project as a potential producer. Matthews had consistently
worked with Mark Hallman, at Congress House studios, since the latter part of
the eighties. Soon, Hallman was involved in the project.
“EricTaylor,” produced by Matthews/Hallman and cut at Mark’s south Austin studio, was released during the summer of 1995. One thing is true, Taylor’s songs have always been "studio ready." From the opening Kerouac inspired "Dean Moriarty" [remember he was mentioned earlier], to the closing tale of a streetwalkers pimp, "Shoeshine Boy," the album was a sheer delight. Thankfully, the producers avoided the pitfall of swamping Taylor's songs with production gimmicks and fashion values. Eric's words - his true to life tales, wistful movies and fetching vignettes - were allowed to shine through, adorned only by the minimum of instrumentation. The collection included "Whooping Crane" which I’d first heard seven years earlier, in Manchester, performed by Lyle Lovett. That my goose pimple memory of it remained intact over those years, says much for the quality of Taylor’s writing. In my book, Taylor's novelistic style of songwriting allows him to stands shoulder to shoulder with those Texas literary giants, McMurtry and McCarthy. The recording was subsequently voted the 1996 Kerrville Folk Festival, Album of the Year.
Postponed more than a decade earlier, Eric undertook his first tour of Europe in late 1995 accompanied by David Olney, Vince Bell and Iain Matthews. During October 1996, Eric was back in Europe and included an appearance at the 50th anniversary concert for the Dutch label, Munich Records. With one of his songs already planned for inclusion on her next studio album, Eric was one a group of songwriters who were invited by Joan Baez to perform in a showcase at last year’s Newport Folk Festival on Rhode Island. As 1997 drew to a close, Eric undertook another European tour, and included a five date visit to these shores. His second UK visit took place in May this year, when he supported Guy Clark. The wheel has not yet turned full circle, it’s merely rolling inexorably on……….
During September last year, Eric produced Denice Franke’s second, independently released, solo effort “You Don’t Know Me.” On this occasion, Taylor left the instrument and vocal work to others. The supporting cast of tried and true pickers included Paul Pearcy [drums], Glenn Fukanaga [bass], Gene Elders [five string fiddle], Mike Sumler [keyboards] plus Iain Matthews [vocals].
Like Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show” there’s a slow, burning intensity to Taylor’s writing that is finely observed and obtusely detailed. And picture is, probably the key word. Taylor is a master impressionist. One of the secrets of the narrative lyric is to, furnish the listener with a fragment of information and then, allow the recipient to conjure up the remainder of the picture or complete the story. Now that’s an economy of which I thoroughly approve. It doesn’t pinch, squeeze, hurt or kill anyone ! The eleven songs on the Munich Records release “Resurrect” are, on numerous occasions, peopled by real life characters……some famous and named, some unknown who never received their [probably] deserved fifteen minutes. Some are fleetingly hinted at. Given that precious fragment, establishing the identity of certain characters takes a little time. In fact, there’s probably a legion of them that I’ve missed. And they may yet take a lifetime to figure out…but that’s all part of the joy of this race. Of that initial [famous and named] group, there’s mention of Louis Armstrong, former Houston based songwriter David Rodriguez, Robert Mitchum, Howard Hughes, at least two US presidents [JFK and Lincoln], John Wilkes Booth and Robert Johnson. There’s possibly a [deliberate ?] cross reference in the lyric of “Birdland” to the “whoopin’ crane.” The late Townes Van Zandt is captured with the lines, “he fell from a fourth floor window and it didn’t hurt ‘im any.” “Strong Enough For Two” was commissioned for the 1981 Tony Bruny movie “Ephram,” which told the story of a courageous child who was literally wasting away, from a degenerative muscle disorder. The muted, yet thunderous roll of drums in the closing seconds of the latter cut, is chilling. And for good measure, the tracks “Texas, Texas” and “Depot Light” bring those pleasing spinal shivers, each and every time.
The 1998 Newport Folk Festival bill for Saturday, August 8th promises some fine music, as well as the potential for a number of historic reunions. The featured artists include Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Eric Taylor and Lucinda Williams, plus Marc Cohn, Alison Krauss, Dee Carstensen and Donna the Buffalo. Lyle Lovett’s next project is a 2CD collection of songs by writers born or resident in Texas. “Memphis Midnight” from Eric Taylor is one of the featured cuts.
The opening sentence to this article was going to be “Eric Taylor is an extraordinarily gifted human being and songwriter,” but that’s already a widely acknowledged fact………..His words can rip your heart out and [thankfully], in the process, you feel no physical pain. Taylor makes you feel…really feel…..enriched, as well as humble. If you have yet to own an Eric Taylor album, do yourself a favour right now.