Don’t sweat the details
Growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., Chip Taylor had one predictable passion – the horse races at Yonkers Raceway – and one most unusual one – country music.”It was an unlikable kind of music in that area,” said Taylor who, born in 1940, came of age with the earliest wave of rock ‘n’ roll. “You could only hear it on a radio station from West Virginia – which I did. When I first heard it, it gave me a chill. Especially the sad songs. They made me feel like I wanted to cry.”What most affected Taylor were the famed country music duets: the Louvins Brothers, the Brown Family, the Everly Brothers. Hearing the voices of Ira and Charlie Louvins on songs like “When I Stop Dreaming” sent the young Taylor into a state so intense, he remembers the physical condition that accompanied the emotion.”When country was good and right, it gave me the chills,” said Taylor, now 65 and talking by phone from a few miles south of his birthplace, midtown Manhattan. “The physical feeling always guides me – that chill that makes you want to put down the guitar and cry. That tells you something powerful is going on. If I don’t get the chill, I put the pen down.”Judging by the mileage he got out of his pen, Taylor must have felt that chill plenty. Hired in 1964 as one of the first writers for the Manhattan songwriting factory April Blackwood Music, Taylor cranked out country songs. Chet Atkins, who was running the RCA Victor label, cut one song after another that Taylor sent him. Taylor had such success that he was given free rein to experiment with other styles. Cut loose from the country mold, Taylor penned “Wild Thing,” which became a monster hit for the Troggs and a staple of Jimi Hendrix’s live show, and the beautiful “Angel of the Morning,” which has been a hit for a series of singers – most recently, the rapper Shaggy.”Instead of having to write three songs a week to make a living, they told me, ‘I don’t care if you write one song or 10 songs or a hundred songs. Just give me what you got.’
“So the pressure was off and I could experiment with other things. I wrote stuff that sounded more like Memphis than New York. That separated me from Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Lieber & Stoller. It was more sweaty Memphis stuff.”Still, one thing was largely missing. While his songwriting took off, Taylor’s performing career hovered closer to the ground. And Taylor largely missed out on creating that ultimate chills-down-the-spine experience: two singers in perfect synch, performing onstage. Around 1980, Taylor’s other childhood interest began to surface in a big way. For some years, he estimates the split between his music-making and gambling was 50-50. But from 1980-95, gambling – both on horses and in casinos – eclipsed music almost completely. He wrote only a handful of songs (including “Papa Come Quick,” recorded by Bonnie Raitt for her “Luck of the Draw” album). And his stage presence dwindled to nothing. “I had no calluses on my fingers all those years,” he said.Not that that was all bad. Taylor was as good a gambler as he was a songwriter. He won so consistently at horse-racing that all but one of his bookies dropped him as a client. His card-counting at blackjack got him barred from all of the Atlantic City casinos. And he had fun, especially working in tandem with his horse-racing partner Ernie Dahlman, considered the finest racetrack gambler there is.”It was like doing a crossword puzzle. It was the fun of beating the game,” said Taylor.In 1995, with his mother ill, Taylor turned back to music. Part of the change was due to his mother, who had always been his biggest fan; part of it was due to a spiritual transformation that took hold of Taylor as he was listening to a radio preacher.
As he resumed his music career, Taylor slowly got into the sound closest to his heart. His 1996 album “Seven Days in May” featured a pair of duets with Lucinda Williams; the next album, 2001’s “Black and Blue America” (released, coincidentally, the week of 9/11), had more duets with Williams, as well as with Guy Clark and John Prine. But the duets didn’t signal any change in direction to Taylor. “That was just one or two songs, not a body of work,” he said. Before his appearance at 2001’s South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, Taylor was introduced to a friend of a friend, Carrie Rodriguez. An Austin native, Rodriguez was back in her hometown having graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music and looking to complete her transformation from classical violinist to Texas fiddler.As soon as Taylor met her, he got the chills. Without hearing a note of her music. Without knowing that Rodriguez didn’t sing a lick.”I was hoping she was good, because I wanted to offer her a job. I had a real nice feeling from her,” said Taylor. The next day, Taylor caught Rodriguez – then 22 – backing a band at a tiny record store gig. She passed the audition and within months was playing gigs with Taylor and his longtime guitarist John Platania (who as otherwise notable for playing on several Van Morrison hits, including “Moondance” and “Domino”).Rodriguez was similarly taken with Taylor. “As famous as his songs are, I didn’t know his name,” she said by phone from her home in Brooklyn. “But seeing that all those songs came from one person, that impressed me.” The bond was sealed when Taylor sang his “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” which, as sung by Texan Janis Joplin, had been one of Rodriguez’s favorite tunes.Even Rodriguez’s father, singer-songwriter David Rodriguez, had never been able to coax Carrie to the microphone. When the two played folk gigs together around Austin, David would announce that his daughter was going to sing a Janis Joplin tune. But Carrie was too shy to step forward, preferring the comfort of her supporting role on fiddle.
Playing with Taylor, however, was a different matter. When Taylor invited her to sing at a show in the Netherlands, Rodriguez worried that if she declined she could get fired. So she sang harmony on a tune. By the end of the Europe tour, she was featured on a handful of songs. And Taylor was getting chills again, this time from his own music.Taylor and Rodriguez captured that classic country duet sound on the 2002 album “Let’s Leave This Town,” which was followed the next year by “The Trouble with Humans.”But the duo has brought the music to a new level with “Red Dog Tracks,” due for release May 24. The album features Bill Frisell, the guitarist who has had great success blending jazz and country strains. “Red Dog Tracks” is a stunning example of folk-leaning alt-country, and the combination of Taylor’s songwriting and those two voices – Taylor’s rough, Rodriguez’s smooth – is indeed chilling in the best way. It could put Taylor & Rodriguez on a level with those duets Taylor loves so well.”Everything we do, we just find deeper places to go with it,” said Rodriguez, who co-wrote one song, “Once Again, Once More … Will You Be Mine” from the album.Rodriguez is aiming to make her solo recording debut later this year. But she doesn’t anticipate breaking away from Taylor anytime soon. The two have some heavy touring ahead; they stop at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale tonight, Friday, May 13. The two share a bond in how deeply they feel the music, and breaking that bond would be a crying shame.”What I’ve learned most from Chip is just feeling what you’re doing and not sweating the details. Which is the opposite of what you learn in classical music,” said Rodriguez, who spent the summer of 1993 as a student at the Aspen Music Festival and School. “I want to experience a song the best I can, and if I think about it too much, I’m not going to be feeling it.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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