Songwriter Eric Taylor on storytelling and listening
Songwriters and musicians often talk about striving to make music that’s stripped down and spare. Everyone’s aiming for a potent simplicity, it seems. But there’s stark, and then there’s extra stark. The music of Eric Taylor, a Texas singer, songwriter and storyteller, is extra stark. His songs have the carved-away, wind-blown austerity of a desert mesa. You can see the signs of persistent forces. They’re etched in the long game. Cracks and fissures show up in patterns that reflect rhythms a little deeper than the day-to-day hustle.
Taylor will be performing on Friday, March 18 at the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania and leading a songwriter workshop/ presentation/discussion on Saturday, March 19, both presented by the Fiddle and Bow Society. On his two most recent records, 2013’s “Studio 10” and 2011’s “Live at the Red Shack,” the production style is matched to the songwriting aesthetic. There are stretches, on a song like “Reno,” for instance, where you listen and you think you hear the percussive beat of palm or fingertips on a guitar body, just the body motion of a hand caught up in its own patterns, marking out the time before the next strum. But then you listen closer and you realize it’s the work of a separate player, a hand-drum accompanist who’s playing so minimally as to almost disappear. (It’s the remarkably restrained work of longtime Taylor collaborator James Gilmer, who also plays with Lyle Lovett.)
“I don’t like overproduction very much,” says Taylor, who spoke by phone with me from a tour stop in Pennsylvania. “That’s why I produce my own records now. I like to be able to call my own shots on that kind of thing. I want the story to be able to come through. I think if you have too much, you really don’t have enough room, enough space to tell the story the way it’s supposed to be, the way it’s supposed to be told.”
Taylor provides lovely reserved atmospheric guitar overdubs on the “Studio 10” album as well, bringing to mind the work of Bill Frizzell on the most recent Lucinda Williams record.
Taylor’s songs are probably best known in the versions performed by people like Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. But anyone who’s into the American troubadour tradition, with artists like Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Terry Allen, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Fred Neil, Mickey Newbury and others, might like to soak up some of Taylor’s work. Taylor’s songs have a zen cowboy vibe. They’re a little like Sam Shepard’s stories, with flashes of that taciturn ingrown American manliness, and of the history of the West, about farming, wandering, Native Americans, highways, restlessness, religion, struggle and the force of nature.
Taylor, 66, grew up in Atlanta and made his way west, spending some time in California and Texas before settling in the Lone Star State. In Houston, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Taylor got to learn from watching and meeting blues legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Big Mama Thornton.
“I was just at the right place at the right time,” says Taylor. “I was a young kid that came in to Houston. On any night you could go hear them play. Houston was a very fertile town for writers. There were so many writers that were there, to learn from. I was really lucky to be there, to be able to fall upon those people, or have them fall upon me. It was certainly a life-changing experience for me.”
Taylor was drawn to writing before he became interested in songwriting.
“I started out writing short stories and outlining plays and stuff like that, when I was about 12,” says Taylor. “I picked up the guitar when I was around 14, I think. It was sort of a natural progression. I just fell into writing songs as well. Storytelling is a big part of what I do on stage now.”
Taylor has done some screenplay writing and writing for the stage. He studied acting for a time, and he’s written music and scores for film and television. Taylor wrote songs and music that were featured in a documentary about the writer Jim Tully, a boxer/hobo/poet/journalist who covered Hollywood and wrote about the hardships of the working class. (Those songs are also on “Studio 10.”) Some writers and songwriters stress the importance of writing what you know, of drawing from experience. That’s not exactly Taylor’s approach.
“I write very few songs about me,” he says.
“I know me, and I don’t find myself that interesting.”
Taylor prefers to transform the act of listening to other people’s stories into the experience that fuels his work. Being able to plumb one’s own emotions is one way of interacting with the world, but having a keen eye and ear is another way of engaging with life.
“You really have to study your environment and study your surroundings in order to write songs with depth,” says Taylor.
Part of that will be what he aims to impart in the songwriting discussion.
“I just say ‘Pay attention, take a lot of notes, and edit,’” he says. “The main thing is pay attention. And listen. Listen to other people. Listen to their stories. Listen to what’s going on in their lives. If you listen to other people, you can write anything. All you got to do is keep your mouth shut.”
FRIDAY, MARCH 18 – 8:00 PM Fiddle & Bow Society
Muddy Creek Music Hall 5455 Bethania Rd.
Winston-Salem, NC zip www.fiddleandbow.org 336-923-8623 Tickets: $12 / $10 members
SATURDAY, MARCH 19 – 2:00 PM Afternoon Workshop / Discussion
Fiddle & Bow Society Muddy Creek Music Hall 5455 Bethania Rd.
Winston-Salem, NC zip www.fiddleandbow.org 336-414-1699 or email firstname.lastname@example.org Tickets: $30 !
JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.