The One Who Stayed Behind
Eric Taylor doesn't see himself as a victim of circumstance so much as a survivor by choice. Far from being a powerless bystander in the literate folk implosion that shook Houston in the '70s, the 48-year-old singer/songwriter is nonetheless a lesser-known name on a list of more prominent Texas contemporaries. A plain-spoken poet and detail-oriented documenter of the Southern condition who also knows his way around an acoustic guitar, Taylor seems unfazed by his low-key reputation. While his 28-year career as a musician has been spotty, it has never suffered for lack of merit -- or the proper associations.
Consider the facts: Taylor was tight with Lightnin' Hopkins and Townes Van Zandt, both of whom inspired him to settle here in 1970, instead of the California destination he'd originally chosen. He honed his songcraft under the casual tutelage of another pal, Guy Clark. His marriage to Nanci Griffith later in the decade sanctified a fertile collaborative partnership that has continued long after their divorce. His early contact with a gawky Texas A&M student named Lyle Lovett quickly evolved into a durable friendship that has steered the careers of both artists over the years.
But while those and others around him moved on and up, Taylor was content to hold down the fort in Houston. But by the start of the '80s, the city's folkie ranks had largely fallen into disarray. Not that Taylor was in any condition to rally the troops. Hobbled by drugs and alcohol, he dropped out of the mix completely in 1983, two years after the release of his debut album, Shameless Love. The album has yet to be reissued on CD, and you get the impression that Taylor might like to keep it that way.
"I listen to Shameless Love about once a year. I'm amazed at how many people still think that's a great record," he says. "I own the rights to it completely, [but] I'm not real big on bringing up archives."
He's also not real big on dredging up the past, even one as juicy as his own. Rehabbed and remarried now, Taylor -- who is a certified drug and alcohol counselor -- lives in Columbus with his wife and daughter. Indeed, the present is about as stable as it has ever been for Taylor. When pressed, however, he gives an account of the city's singer/songwriter heyday that, while somewhat muddled by time and the haze of addiction, is rife with specifics.
"It was amazing," Taylor recalls of his first days in Houston. "I heard Lightnin' Hopkins on a Friday night and Townes Van Zandt on a Saturday night, and I said, 'Fuck this, man. I need to stay here.' Houston was wide open at the time; there was no division between writers and musicians. There were clubs here that were all about the music. Liberty Hall [the long-gone venue run by one of Taylor's oldest Houston friends, concert promoter Mike Condray] was doing shows that would be considered legendary now: putting Bruce Springsteen in a 450-seat hall and having him play for damn-near five hours. This was in the skinny, 'unmusclely' part of Springsteen's life."
Local lore notwithstanding, Taylor would rather talk about his new CD, Resurrect, which is only his third solo release in 17 years. The release of its predecessor, 1995's Eric Taylor, may have been more newsworthy, seeing as it was his first album in more than a decade. Looking back on it, though, Eric Taylor was a "comeback" album from a man who had never really arrived to begin with, a somewhat tentative thumbs-up delivered from the sober side of the fence. And while its very existence was a personal victory for its creator, it wasn't an especially personal statement -- a fine, impeccably assembled piece of work, sure, but one in which the author maintains a considerable distance from his subjects.
By contrast, Resurrect couldn't be more intimate, the result, perhaps, of Taylor's gaining a hint more perspective on his place in life and the obsession with Texas that has consumed a good part of it. Two of its tracks -- the self-empowered breakup tune "Walkin' Back Home" and the mythic reflection on childhood "Depot Light" -- cut especially close to the bone, so it's only appropriate that they should bookend the 11-song effort, giving it a concept-like feel. "You keep that long tall pine / You take that Georgia moon / I'm going home to mine," sings the Atlanta native on "Walkin' Back Home," declaring an unavoidable affinity for his adopted home state that, by now, must be seared into his DNA.
That seamless jockeying between impressionistic detail and measured introspection (never too self-involved but frequently involving) vivifies Resurrect. The narratives are goaded along by Taylor's nimble production and the instrumental accents of bassist Rock Romano, pianist Mike Sumler and percussionist James Gilmer. Also making contributions to the CD are violinist Gene Elders and horn player Dennis Dotson. The latter's muted trumpet lends a delicate melancholic tinge to "Louis Armstrong's Broken Heart," home to the disc's most indelible melody. Occasional backup vocals are supplied by Alaina Richardson, Anne Lockhart and Denice Franke; Taylor recently produced the latter's own solo album.
Though the ensemble cast is impressive enough, Taylor's sturdy, resonant compositions rarely need much propping up. Hence, the less-is-best approach.
"I might even take more pains with someone else's stuff than I do mine," Taylor admits. "The lyrics are very important to me in songs, and it's very important to sort of build around those lyrics. The idea is to try to build pictures around pictures."
Eric Taylor performs with Darcie Deaville, Gary Burgess and Michael Rickard on Saturday, September 12, as part of the Second Saturday Concert Series at West University Community Center, 6104 Auden. Tickets are $6; $3 seniors. For info, call (281) 347-3235.
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