Ask the average person who Chip Taylor is and, if they’ve heard of him at all, most will likely know him as the writer of ‘Wild Thing’ and, possibly, ‘Angel of the Morning’. The more media-savvy may also be aware that he’s Angelina Jolie’s uncle while pop trivia buffs might recall him as the writer of The Hollies hits ‘I Can’t Let Go’, ‘The Baby’ ‘and ‘Son Of A Rotten Gambler’. However, any self-respecting Americana devotee will know he’s much more than that.
Born James Wesley Voight, he released his first single in 1958 under the name Wes Voight as the only white artist to be signed to R&B label King Records, the home of James Brown, switching name and labels in 1959 and briefly becoming a professional golfer before joining forces with Al Gorgoni in 1965 as Just Us, expanding to add Trade Martin as Gorgoni, Martin and Taylor Martin in 1971 and releasing the first of their two albums, the same year as his own solo album debut, ‘Gasoline’. Between then and 1979 he released a further five solo records, including the seminal ‘This Side of the Big River’, before dropping out of the business again, this time to pursue a career as a professional gambler.
He resumed music in 1996, but it would be a further three years before the release of comeback album, ‘Seven Days In May’. Two years later came the remarkable ‘Black & Blue America’ with its title track memoir of America between 1955 and 1966 and two numbers featuring Lucinda Williams. That year he also met Carrie Rodriguez, leading to a writing and recording partnership that would produce three studio albums over the course of the next four years before Taylor resumed his solo work in 2006 with ‘Unglorious Hallelujah’, following up with ‘New Songs of Freedom’ and 2011 Grammy nominee ‘Yonkers NY’. That year also saw ‘Rock n Roll Joe’, a tribute to the genre’s unsung heroes in collaboration with John Platania and Kendal Carson, while his most recent and fifteenth studio album (including one with his granddaughters and a fund raiser for Austin’s Cactus Café) was 2013’s ‘Block Out The Sirens Of This Lonely World’.
Now comes this latest set, a hushed, intimate collection that started out as a set of demos, became a single album project and then grew into three and has, in perhaps something of an overstatement, seen him being tagged country’s answer to Leonard Cohen. One thing they do have in common, other than a tendency to draw upon their extensive and often troubled love lives, is that neither actually “sing” as such. Even back in the day, although Taylor was known to rock it up now and them, for the most part he had a hushed, semi-spoken style reminiscent of a narcotic Willie Nelson. These days, his voice varies between a grizzled burr and a gravelly whisper, more or less narrating the lyrics in a manner that veers between naked confessional and simmering anger. The backing on all three discs is barely there, usually just a muted piano or quiet acoustic guitar, which reinforces the nature of the material. The subject matter on the first disc, Behind The Iron Door, is heavily veined with social and political comment, but always comes from a very personal place, in terms of either the narrator or the protagonist.
Unquestionably, the standout here is ‘Sleep With Open Windows’, the first of two duets with Lucinda Williams, backed by pump organ and achingly sung in the persona of a convict’s longing. Indeed, as the title hints, incarceration looms large throughout, the universally-themed opening number, ‘He’s A Good Guy (As Well You Know)’ with its mournful flugelhorn, asking not to pre-judge ex-cons while ‘Solitary’ addresses a more specific subject, the cases of Albert Woodfox, Thomas Silverstein and the late Herman Wallace who, between them, have spent 112 years in solitary confinement. Both numbers reappear on disc 3, ‘Little Prayers’, in even sparser form, alongside the soberly poignant ‘I Wish I Could Die Just One More Time’, inspired by the last words of a man on death row and, ‘The Supreme Court’ serves reminder that it is sworn to be the lighthouse to the weak and those who lack justice
He also recognises that imprisonment isn’t only about being locked up, but also about being locked in, about trying to escape who you are and become who you want to be, a theme that informs the second stunning Williams duet, ‘I’ll Only Be Me Once’ and, on disc 2, ‘Love and Pain’, ‘Nothin’ Comin’ Out Of Me That I Like’ and the waltzing shuffle ‘Hold It Right There’.
There’s other specific stories, a restrained anthem with a twangy guitar, ‘Nine Soldiers In Baltimore’ is an inspirational account of the nine Catholic activists who, in 1968, burned 378 draft files in a parking lot to protest the Vietnam War while ‘Ontario Crimes’ is sung in the voice of a witness to the religious feuds between Irish immigrants in Biddulph, Ontario that , in 1880, led to the massacre of the Donnelly family by an armed mob for which no one was ever convicted.
Likewise, ‘Ted Williams’ talks of freedom and America, referencing the Mexican-heritage baseball player of the title, blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and Pedro Gonzalez, a Mexican telegraph operator for Pancho Villa who became a hugely and popular LA radio personality in the mid 30s who, the authorities scare d of his influence among the Hispanic community, was sentenced to 50 years in a trumped up rape charge, was subsequently deported to Tijuana and only allowed back into America when he was 78 (90 according to Taylor).
Elsewhere he talks of battling segregation and racism (‘Used To Be A White Boy’, a tribute to his father Elmer), the family’s heritage and universalism in ‘Czechoslovakian Heaven’ and throws out a plea for kindness and fellowship in an age where there seems far too little to go round with ‘Merry F’n’ Christmas with its gospel female chorus.
It’s not all so serious, on the lighter Love And Pain set (which features Platania on guitar), ‘Bardot’ (where the Cohen comparison does stand), is a cautionary tale about the supposed corrupting influence of the mass media, like naked women in National Geographic, ‘Track 224’ is a late night jazzy prowl through love’s minefield while ‘Girl & Boy Thing’, ‘Joan’s Song’ and ‘The Same Way’ are all warm, fuzzy avowals of love for his first (and following divorce and later remarriage) current wife, Joan.
It may not make him any more familiar to the man in the street and it’s probably not the one you’d recommend as a first listen for the uninitiated, but for those who know his work and for those prepared to listen, much is up there with his and Americana’s very best. Amen, indeed.
Artist’s website: https://www.trainwreckrecords.com/chip-taylor.html
My sort of Christmas song:
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