The other night Ray Wylie Hubbard and I were hanging in Memphis, doing a showcase together. I was going to be flying to CA to open some shows with him and his wife called to say "I know you're pretty cool around famous people, but I should let you know. Ringo might show up at your LA show for Ray. Just in case you see him, I wanted to warn you." Ringo? A Beatle? Seriously? Ok. I would be flapped, I admitted. But, Ringo was a no show (or if he showed, I did not see him; then again, I heard that Chris Robinson was there and I didn't spot him, so who knows). Regardless, I was unflapped. Out of sight....
Tonight. Call me flapped. Big time. And I was flapped by someone who, quite frankly, I was pretty unfamiliar with.
Eric Taylor. I just shared a co-bill with Eric Taylor. Who I'd heard of, of course. How can you be a folk musician with a love of Texas folk music without knowing of Eric Taylor. Contemporary of (but a few years younger than) Townes and Guy, Steve and Nanci, etc. But I wasn't really familiar with his music except for the songs Lyle and Nanci had covered. I try to educate myself as much as I can on all things GREAT about songwriters, but some things slip through the cracks and Mr. Taylor had slipped. I'm grateful that I was shoved straight in front of his music tonight.
Let me just say this. I might have 'shared' the bill with Eric Taylor, but it was me who sat at a Master Class after I was done. I was just happy to get through my set, having just been flattened by the Flu (the big one) for 8 days, completely out of my mind sick, sicker than I remember ever having been, and this being the first time I'd be standing up straight for more than 15 minutes since being sick. And I'd have to stand up straight, play a guitar, sing, stand in front of stage lights AND have to remember my own lyrics. It was tough. I'm just happy I made it.
But then, I got to watch Eric Taylor. Who is unlike anyone I've ever seen perform. Theatrical, dramatic. Slow. Space. Stories that wound around and back again, repeated lines like mantra, slow and steady like a One Man Show. Stories told while fingering a riff, leaving me wondering where the song began, if it began, or when it might begin, but being drawn straight into the center of the story that seemed to have no point. More of an observation: Johnny Cash's mother sold beachtowels and thimbles by the side of the road. The history of a county and a river in Texas. Then the song, that wound back to the observation, sometimes repeating the same phrase or word, sometimes just a repetition of an image "sugarcane" or "Sammy Davis Jr". I couldn't tell what was going on, or where he was going. Did he have a setlist? Had he written these stories as monologue or was he riffing? 2 full glasses of wine and 3 glasses of water on his pedastal. Was he drinking too much? Was it authentic or an act? He told a story of meeting Johnny Cash in an AA meeting, he punctuated his story by sipping wine out of the glass. It was all of the above and the thing was, I was riveted, schooled in space and time. Maybe it was slow, methodical, at times plodding, but it was always riveting. And his songs... there was one: "Peppercorn Tree" that almost brought me to sobbing. There's a thing that the Great Texan Songwriters do that nobody else does and its based in blues and picking and that glorious thud of the thumb back and forth on the E and A or D string, with a deep drop D. The way they wrap their drawl around the end word, so that 'where' sounds like 'whar' and the gruffness of the dropping of the syllables "d" and "t" so its almost like a Bayou drawl. Nanci Griffith does it. Eliza and Lucinda do it. Its not just for the old men. Even Mary Gauthier does it. Its something I could never do, this Baltimore girl would sound like a pretender. But there's some kind of true grit in that inflection that I wish I could borrow. And there's a repeating mode, a fearless emptiness that I hear in Eric Taylor's music that I also hear in Eliza and Mary and Guy and Townes. A drowning void.
And honest. He is who he is and is unapologetic and cranky and admits to his ego-filled failings when he was younger (tells a great story of how Kate Wolf brought him down to earth). He rags on people unabashedly. Or he might be taking the piss out, but you just aren't sure. I love that he's not gonna blow smoke up anyone's ass. He said to me: "that song, that one where the line is "killer in me loves the killer I see in you"..." I said, "yeah, "The Killer In Me" He said, "where'd you get that line? where'd that song come from?" I said, "No where really. Turn of a phrase and I just let that carry the lyric" and he said, "Cool shit. Don't tell anyone. That's fucking cool." Then just as I was feeling pretty damned good, being complimented by Eric Taylor for your songwriting is a pretty amazing thing, he said:
"Yeah. That's a great line. You got a pretty good song out of it."
Bam. Not a total compliment. I heard the subtext. But that's cool. I appreciate that he spoke his truth and I kind of like him more for it. Bastard.
I have sat at the feet of giants and had the privilege of hearing my heros sing my own songs. But I would like to sit at the feet of Guy Clark and Eric Taylor and Ray Wylie Hubbard and ask them to show me what they do. Ask Ray to teach me how to play the blues. Ask Guy how to wrap a story around 3 chords. As Eric to show me about space and detail and fearlessness. I was emailing with my friend Abbie today about how we both want to go to music school, but of our own making. Learn other people's songs, really study them, really figure them out. I think I might have found my next lesson.