The Song Remains: Eric Taylor 1949-2020

I heard from a colleague,  who has contact with associates of Eric Taylor, that he had died on March 9th 2020 following a period of illness. I immediately checked the web for confirmation but there was no surge in posts commenting on his death and then I saw that The Houston Chronicle had announced “Houston loses quintessential folk songwriter, Eric Taylor”. This web response was not suprising given that while Eric Taylor was a legend of the Houston folk music scene bridging the generation of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark with the later generation of Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle he was not particularly well known by the wider public. However, while his name may not be well known his songs did receive international recognition in versions by artists such as Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett.

Eric Taylor was born on September 29th 1949 in Atlanta, Georgia. Growing up in the south he was drawn to the black musical heritage and took to learning the guitar which when matched to his love of poetry meant he was a readymade songwriter. In 1970 he decided to follow his muse to California but ran out of money in Houston. This was a life changing event for Eric as he was able to learn blues guitar stylings direct from musicians such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi Fred McDowell and hear Townes Van Zandt perform while he worked as a dish washer at the Family Hand. Houston was also  a songwriting centre because many bar and club owners preferred to employ musicians who played their own unrecorded or unpublished songs rather than having to pay Performing Rights charges. This meant there was a whole community of songwriters playing their songs and having formal and informal songwriting sessions across the city.

Eric honed his guitar and songwriting skills for over 10 years before recording his debut album ‘Shameless Love’ in 1981. Nanci Griffith, who was married to Eric for a few years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, called him “the William Faulkner of songwriting”. From his debut album it was clear that Eric shared one characteristic with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and that was he was a sublime story teller who was able to reduce words and phrases to the essence of what he wanted to say. Nanci Griffith sang backing vocals on some tracks on ‘Shameless Love’ and the title track was covered by June Tabor.

It was another 14 years before Eric released another album, the ‘80s being lost to personal and alcohol related problems. ‘Eric Taylor’, his 1995 album release,  showed that he had matured as a songwriter and musician. Again, there is no filler with Deadwood being the most well known track after it was covered by Nanci Griffith. The album was produced by ex Fairporter Iain Matthews who said “Once you become a Taylor fanatic, it gives one immense joy and pride to be able to enlighten others to the man’s work”. Eric issued another seven albums during his lifetime, the last four being on his own label Blue Ruby Music, and all of them maintained his high standard of songwriting and performance. Unlike many of his Houston contemporaries, Eric never left Texas and he was living in Weimar a town between Houston and Austin at the time of his death.

As well as releasing his excellently crafted albums Eric toured America and Europe regularly to the joy of his dedicated fan base. He was an impressive performer who would growl out his songs that were really mini novels accompanied by his own intricate guitar work. While Eric Taylor has sadly gone, his legacy will be maintained and nourished by the cohort of artists who were influenced by his songwriting and guitar playing.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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