Though born and raised in Atlanta, Eric Taylor is one of the finest singer-songwriters ever to be associated with the Lone Star State of Texas. Throughout the past forty years, he has had the likes of Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett cover his songs, and as a good friend and drinking partner of the late Townes Van Zandt, Eric has seen the bottom of more than one whisky glass. In this exclusive interview, Eric tells Americana UK about his music, his life and being at the very heart of Texan music.
Interview by Maurice Hope
The last time we spoke, Eric, you were itching to get started with a show for the Jumpin’ Hot Club at Cluny2 in Newcastle. What a night it turned out to be, it was like as if you were playing for old friends?
Thanks; it was a lot of fun. We were up against a lot of competition that night with Joan Baez playing over the river at the Sage, Gateshead and other stuff on.
Kate Wolf who you toured with then was leading the charge for female folk singer-songwriters in California, and beyond for that matter as she set the bar?
She set the standard for many people, especially for females and getting out and playing gigs. She was a hard worker and she was very kind to newcomers and people coming in.
Getting out there is so important and where word of mouth is your greatest tool?
You have got to get out there and work, and it is something I still like to do. Kate also became popular in Michigan and Canada and was really getting it together when she died.
Did you come across another female Californian singer-songwriter Mary McCaslin?
Yeah, she was married to a guy called Jim Ringer. I have known Mary for many years, but haven’t seen her a few years. She has a radio show but usually as luck happens she would be away when I was out there. Nanci and myself first met her and Jim years ago at Kerrville.
How important is the Kerrville Festival to emerging artists?
It can be, at that time it was a very large and long festival, and still is. Today you have a lot of festivals like it, but for me Kerrville is the one that has stayed honest. They don’t bring in a lot of pop; there isn’t a lot of pop music going on around there he laughs. Unlike some of the other festivals in America! It is hot, it is dusty, dirty and it is crowded but people come back every year. It has been that way for many years (since before Eric won the New Folk Award in 1977).
Where do you get the ideas for the likes of your songs Big Love, Prison Love and Manhattan Mandolin Blues?
I take notes on everything; Big Love is based on a true story, and a person I knew. Manhattan Mandolin Blues is based on an experience I had in New York City, I am a writer and collect these things. Things that interest me things that I have seen and the people I have met. It is about paying attention to what is going on around you.
The thing about you, Eric, is the way you bring together such minute detail. As you bring in maybe, a mystical southern blues feel. An ambiance if you like that captures the imagination of the listener and bring the characters you write on to life. I feel it is a rare gift you have, and ever so natural too?
Thank you. That is the point, to make the people listening to believe in it enough to where they become part of it. So they can feel and be part of it (Eric becomes so engrossed that he becomes the character in the song). Performing for people is a special part of my life.
When did you first get to meet up with Townes Van Zandt?
It would be in 1970, right after I got here. He was living Houston at the time and he knew pretty much the same people I did and he was using Houston along with Colorado as his base. That is when we became friends (“there were no lines drawn in the sand between musical genres in Houston back then”).
The catalogue of songs he came up with around that time and recorded for Tomato records will never be bettered?
No, I think they are some of the greatest songs you ever will hear. They are stripped right down to the bone and some of them beautiful to the point that it hurts. I like to include a song from Townes when I make my albums.
By all accounts he wasn’t always in control of his life, as he lived life like there was no tomorrow but beneath all the craziness there was also this tender and sensitive side to him as heard in the poetic lyrics of his songs. He seemed to be a kind caring person too?
Very much so! Yeah, the thing that I remember most, and want to remember about Townes is his kindness and his sweetness. He certainly had his moments when he wasn’t that, but the times I want to remember were when he could be hilariously funny. He also had an incredibly energy, especially when he was younger. Townes loved the road and I think he was never happier than when he was on the road and if he was ever holed up anywhere for too long that is when the problems would start.
People talk about all the suffering, and he did some of that but the thing I remember about him is he would laugh and make you laugh and he could make you cry too. He was a big part in people’s lives here and is remembered by them in their own way.
You mentioned Nanci (Griffith) to be involved on the tour she did in support of ‘Other Voices Other Room’ must have been a one in a lifetime experience. To travel and play with the likes of Odetta and Dave Van Ronk must have been a great thrill?
It was great to be out with those people; Dave and Odetta, Dolores Keene and Philip Donnelly was also there. I made some very good friends and saw people I had not seen for quite a long time, it was a great thing that Nanci did. I was great for her to put all those people together. It was helluva job. Sometimes when you are working with musicians is like herding cats he chuckles. Everything seemed to go so smooth on that tour and there were hardly any problems to speak of and it was very well put together. It is all down to her credit, picking the people she did and pairing them off the way she did. She seemed to know who would be able to work together, and when you have that many egos (he chuckles) Hell, between Tom Russell and Iain Matthews you could sail the Titanic he laughs!
I can imagine it would be hard for some people all the touring, because some people are morning people and others just aren’t no matter what is going on?
That’s right. With so little time in between dates and the travelling there were a lot of early starts and that was sure fun! It was a well-organised well-oiled machine at one time counting crew and musicians it was eighty people one time.
I still remember Dave (Van Ronk), and that great laugh of his and how he would continue to talk while he laughed, and finish his sentence. He was great to know.
Phil Donnelly was with Nanci the first time she was over with her band and has played with the best —what is he doing these days?
I have not heard from him in quite a while, and when I was over in Ireland no one seemed to know what he was up to. Dolores is still around, but I don’t think she is doing any singing. She is amazing, I hope her health can improve and get out there singing again.
During the last ten to 15 years have you found greater confidence on stage?
Yes, I do. I probably feel more confident on stage than off it these days. I am now more polished and the work is good and I when a venue is set up for it I just love to get up there and get the job done.
I was a little surprised when you said you did over 200 dates last year. It is a lot?
I am going to take some time off. I don’t have any major tours till late February and it will start all over again.
When were you starting out was it the blues you were most interested in?
When I first got here. Lightnin’ Hopkins lived in Houston you could see him. There was a lot of blues here, Houston was just an incredible music town; Big Mama Thornton lived here, plus George ‘Harmonica’ Smith and a bunch more. There was such a lot of great music. I was associated with a venue called, Liberty Hall who put on a bunch of blues artists early on when it opened. I was just knocked out by the old blues masters. Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi Fred McDowell were also big influences on me.
To Townes everything was the blues?
Yeah, there is a picture of us all hanging out in Lightnin’s back yard. People were accessible, then. You could learn a lot if you paid attention to what they were doing.
I was thrilled to see Lyle Lovett has included a version of your song, Whooping Crane for his last album (Natural Forces). He had been kind to you before because it is the second time he has done one of your songs?
I have known Lyle long time. Ever since he was in college and he used to open for me a lot and, yes he has been very nice. Lyle has been nice to a lot of people and still is.