Unsung Heroes of Americana Music-Eric Taylor and his Texas Roots
“When I learned how to play guitar, it was a natural progression to write songs,” he says. He tried to be college student, but it just didn’t work out for him.
“Music lured me away,” says Taylor. “I thought I’d make my way to California like everybody else back then but I ran out of money and ended up in Houston.”
Stopping in Houston, however, turned out to be a good thing in the early ’70s. It was the peak years of the singer-songwriter movement. It’s a time when the key players were in town were Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Mickey Newbury. It became Taylor’s home base.
He describes the period as something similar to Paris in the ’20s, a unique kind of “moveable feast of songwriting.” According to Taylor, “There were no lines drawn in the sand between musical genres in Houston back in those days. You were just a musician. I believe so many great writers came out of that scene because you could learn from others.”
Today, as he tours the world, he is a familiar face at festivals and intimate venues in the United States and Europe. His musical lineage includes some of the best songwriters and blues legends of the last 75 years.
In his life time he has personally learned from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. These bluesmen planted roots of his mesmerizing acoustic guitar style. The blues masters’ voices echo in his playing as he has formed his style, which is as unique as it is original.
As a writer, Texas is where he has found his found his deepest sense of connection. He is a writer of short-stories-in-song with his own vision of the land and the characters that emerge from his tales.
Even though he has operated frequently below the radar, he has influenced the likes of Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. His impact on them and other artists place him as an important contributor to the Americana music movement of today.
Nanci Griffith says of him, “To say that Eric Taylor is one of the finest writers of our time would be an understatement. If you miss an opportunity to hear Eric Taylor, you have missed a chance to hear a voice I consider the William Faulkner of songwriting.” Griffith, in addition to being his first wife, has recorded several of Taylor’s songs, including “Deadwood,” “Storms,” “Dollar Matinee,” and the song they wrote together, “Ghost in the Music.”
Lyle Lovett has recorded Taylor’s “Memphis Midnight/Memphis Morning,” “Whooping Crane,” “Understand You.” The two artists wrote the classic Lovett song, “Fat Babies.” He compares Taylor’s narrative voice to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska/Tom Joad sound. However, Eric Taylor was there first, so, perhaps it is Bruce Springsteen who sounds like Taylor.
It is his love for the spoken and written word that has led him from from being an ordinary singer-songwriter to a master artist equal to the best of his Texas compadres—like Townes and Guy.
The music canvas he paints upon is larger than most of today’s songwriters. His lyrical lens illuminates the poetic nature of his storytelling. It is a seamless blend of country blues with poetic textures that add new dimensions to the medium of songwriting.
These credentials beg the question: why has Eric Taylor, with his exquisite galleries of song-portraits, not received the kind of attention he richly deserves?
The answers may lie in the deep focus he has given to his songs. It is an approach that has gone untethered by the usual hook-driven formulas created to stick in the memory and sell songs. If today’s popular country and Americana music is champagne, then Eric Taylor is 98 proof whiskey.
His are not songs that are easily ignored. This is not background music. Rather, he creates well-crafted work where every word counts and each note supports the tales he weaves. The songs call out to be heard. He paints word-pictures like musical-cinematic haikus that move along with his hypnotic guitar rhythm supporting each stroke of his lyrical brush.
His song subjects reveal something of the spirit and soul of his characters. His 1995 eponymous album opens with a meditation on “Dean Moriarty,” a nod to Kerouac and the Beat Generation. “Louis Armstrong’s Broken Heart” weaves a noir tale of characters on the losing end of love as he uses a refrain from a Louis Armstrong’s song, “You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart.” It is a brilliant, atmospheric reference.
His 2011 album, Live at the Red Shack [studio], gave him the opportunity to bring in old friends for a live-in-studio two-night session. The sessions were recorded with a film crew and live audience. His guests included Nanci Griffith; Lyle Lovett; his wife, Susan Lindfors-Taylor, from Milan, Italy; Marco Python Fecchio; and percussionist James Gilmer. The result is a wonderfully energetic and inspired session of classic songs. It was named one of the Top 10 albums of the year by Texas Music magazine and Best of 2012 Live album by Third Coast magazine.
In 2013, Taylor released his latest album, Studio 10. It was also recorded at the Red Shack and is made up of nine new songs and one cover; a song by Tim Grimms called “Cover These Bones.” The album includes special tributes to Dave Van Ronk and Bill Morrissey.
One of his major career milestones came when he was asked to write the music for the documentary: The 2014 film Road Kid to Writer—The Tracks of Jim Tully, a Story Works production that was aired on PBS. His work on the film earned him an Emmy Nomination.
The story of Jim Tully seemed made to order for Eric Taylor. Tully is a historical figure who has been all but forgotten. The film and Taylor’s song, “Tully,” tell the story of a young boy from Ohio who ends up as one of the first Hollywood journalists in the 1920s. He becomes friends with movie stars like Charlie Chaplin. He was also a pugilist (a boxer) in his youth and he became an author of hard-boiled autobiographical tales. Tully’s story-in-song as told by Eric Taylor, is a compassionate reminder of artists who too often are overlooked by mainstream media bent on posturing over content and soul.
Like Jim Tully, Eric Taylor is one of the unsung heroes of his time. His influence can be heard in the music of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. But, few in the world of Americana know his name. As he travels the world, he continues to write, perform, and record his unique songs. However, in the end, he returns to his Texas home, where his roots run so deep. He is one of the finest songwriters of our time whose songs will be remembered into the next century—and if you’re reading this article, it is this writer’s recommendation that you go to your Internet’s music service and find one of the three albums that are included. His songs are examples of the pure live-giving and healing energy music can bring. They are timeless. And Eric Taylor is a treasure of song and story with a twist of Texas.