RIP: Eric Taylor, A Folksinger’s Folksinger

Eric Taylor

Houlon2BY JONATHAN HOULON FOLK MUSIC EDITOR In the midst of all of “this,” it would be a shame for the recent death of one of America’s best songwriters to come out of Texas or really anywhere to go unnoticed. And other than a wonderful obit in the NYT by Bill Friskics-Warren, it appears to have. I first caught up with Eric Taylor in a Quaker meeting house in Phoenixville, PA. I’d been hearing about him for years: Vietnam vet, ex-junkie, second wife was Nanci Griffith, came out of the same Houston folk scene of the late 60s/early 70s that produced Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, the latter of whom was one of Eric’s running buddies. He was revered by Lyle Lovett, who covered several of his songs, as did legendary folkies such as Joan Baez. As Eric wrote in the liner notes to one of his records, “I have some formidable friends and I’m proud of ’em.” Eric even appeared on Letterman with some of ’em.

When I lived down in Austin, however, Taylor hadn’t been heard from for many years. He’d put out his debut record Shameless Love in 1981 and then sorta disappeared, supposedly working as a drug and alcohol rehab counselor. But then he suddenly re-emerged in the 90s and released a series of records over the next 20 years that I would rank with anyone’s.

I can honestly say that WXPN has only ever introduced me to two things that I wasn’t already aware of and/or was actually worth knowing about. The first was Swamp Dogg. I recall hearing his version of John Prine’s “Sam Stone” and literally having to pull over to the side of the road in awe. If you haven’t investigated the Dogg, now’s a good time. The second was actually hearing Eric Taylor for the first time after hearing about him for so long. They played a song called “Happy Endings” from his 2001 release called Scuffletown (not to be confused with Joe Henry’s “Shuffletown” that I previously wrote about for Phawker). Henry’s a shuffler; Taylor’s a scuffler and a rough one, too. WXPN had a cool show at the time where local music luminaries listened to and weighed in on new releases. I’m pretty sure it was Jim Sutcliffe and Joey Sweeney who, in effect, turned me on to Taylor. It was shortly after this show that I stopped listening to XPN altogether. One too many Duncan Sheik spins and there’s something about the NPR-inflected way they pronounce the final letter of O-R-G. Haunting shit that I just couldn’t take any longer, so I ripped the wires out.

Anyway, back to the meeting house in Phoenixville. I do understand that Quakers are notoriously quiet but I have never seen someone command a crowd’s attention like Eric Taylor did that night. Not only could you have heard a pin drop … you coulda heard a cell divide. It was that quiet. Part of that may be attributed to the fact that Taylor was a daunting figure. Tall, and unlike most folk wimps, he looked like he would come down off the stage and kick your ass if you crossed him. He had a reputation as being kinda ornery too but, based on a my personal interactions with him, my guess is that a kind and gentle soul lurked beneath his gruff exterior.

The other thing that demanded your attention was Taylor’s presentation: he would tell these long stories that sometimes would and other times wouldn’t seem to relate to the song he would play. Often it would be weeks, months, years later that you would somehow put together the story to the song in some sort of retroactive ah-ha moment. The stories were weird — he often went on about Sterling Hayden; who talks about that guy? — and filled with mighty silences during which Taylor would either seem to be on the verge of tears or breaking into that wicked grin of his — or both.

Silence is powerful and Taylor used it as effectively as anyone I ever heard or saw. Never a wasted word in his stories or his songs which were chiseled down to a perfection that not even Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt achieved very often. I recently told a pal of mine that I was sick of listening to people talk over me when I perform. “You need to write better songs,” he told me. Taylor had the better songs, the best ones. The Thin White Duke was surely on fleek (is that how you say that?) when he sang “it’s too late to be late.” But, no matter, here’s nine ways to get your Eric Taylor on:

“Prison Movie” Eric regularly played this one in his sets and I always loved when he arrived at this line: “I killed a little man up in Macon who had a mouth too big for his face.” Jazz like that tended to keep audiences quiet!

“Dean Moriarty” How’s this for an opening line?: “Dean Moriarty don’t live here no more // He’s off in California, works in a liquor store.” ET had the balls to take Kerouac a little further down the road (actually the one that Jack would ultimately arrive at in St. Petersburg) and did it with perhaps the most beautiful melody of a songbook filled with them.

“Walkin’ Back Home” Taylor often opened his shows with this one. He was a gifted finger picker and had an arresting way with these minor key blues: a technical precision tempered by emphatic brushes of the strings with his silver-picked index and middle fingers that would instantly restore your attention if you were lulled by his musicality. ET takes no quarter here: “Don’t want no long lost brother // Don’t need no mother’s hand // don’t seem to like each other // never knew that other man.” Hmmm. That other man, huh? This doesn’t bode well for step-fathers or actually any father with a capital F.

“Two Fires” Taylor could write a catchy chorus and this is one of his best. Here he is joined by ex-wife Nancy Griffith to sing: “He used to burn like Atlanta // He burned like the lonesome in a young girl’s eye.” Taylor originally came from Georgia and he often refers to it but, make no mistake, he was Texas through and through.

“Happy Endings” This was the gateway song for me from the Scuffletown record, arguably Eric’s best. A short story in song without an extraneous note or word. “Sometimes they drank Four Roses sometimes the Old Grand Dad // They never drank in the mornin’ but sometimes I wish they had.” Listen to the way Eric intones the title towards song’s end. Nothing could be further or closer to the truth.

“Where I Lead Me” The best Townes Van Zandt cover out there for my money. Here Eric plays it at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe with Kelly Joe Phelps joining in on slide. I’m not sure how the other singers in the round — including Steve Earle — could have followed this one. A great studio version of this on Scuffletown if you can track it down.

“The Great Divide” Title track Taylor’s first self-released record on his Blue Ruby label which his wife and constant champion Susan Lindfors-Taylor (a formidable singer and songwriter herself) ran. Taylor was funny: “I got a horse named Corsicana // I got a dog named Moon // And I got a woman that calls me a fool.” A laconic finger-picked tall tale: you can hear that Eric learned at the feet of Masters including Lightnin’ Hopkins.

“Manhattan Mandolin Blues” I heard Eric say that Manhattan Mandolin was street code for heroin in NYC in the 80s. Another classic minor key blues. “I can’t make no money playin’ this mandolin // I put this thing down, then I pick it up again.” Eric would often say that he just didn’t like mandolin players … and the crowd would chuckle. I guess they didn’t get the joke … or the point. Check out the silver back mullet sitting in the front row in this vid. Party on, dude!

“The Peppercorn Tree” I didn’t think ET could write another one on the level of Happy Endings but here he did. This is from Eric’s Hollywood Pocketknife record from 2007 which other than the hodgepodge of Studio 10 was, in effect, his last real collection of songs. Another chorus you will never forget after hearing it: “Now the Angelina River can’t carry me back // Up to Angelina County and live like that // Long as I live, boys, that’s a fact // I’ll keep the Angelina River runnin’ at my back.”

Yea, man, you do that: keep those angels behind you. The last time I saw Eric was at a house concert in Lansdowne in 2017. Slo-Mo and I had the honor of opening up for him. But it was a sad affair. Eric was in real bad shape by then (terrible neuropathy running down his legs) and could only muster a couple of tunes even with Susan on stage encouraging him along. This was about a year into the reign of 45 and, at that point (and even now) every other word outta my mouth was “fuck Trump, fuck Trump’s base,” etc. Eric gave me a knowing look and said: “We ALL did this.” True, amigo. We all DID. I gave Eric a hug that night and knew I’d never see him again. You rest in peace, brother, thanks for everything and do say hello to Townes.