CHIP TAYLOR:
AMERICANA AT ITS FINEST

By Terry Roland


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I am coining a new phrase: The 50-year-old Line of Musical Experience. People 50 and over usually have a pretty good knowledge of popular music from the 60s on. You go too far below the age 50 and this period becomes musical history. Common songs of the 60s era are unfamiliar Blowin' in the Whaaa? Prior to doing this interview, I asked people if they had ever heard of Wild Thing. The results were about 99.9% on both sides of the age-50 divide. The song crosses generations and even cultures. But few know the man who wrote the song, Chip Taylor. Even fewer know that he is a folk and country singer-songwriter who was once on staff of April Blackwood Music in New York City, just a few blocks down from the legendary Brill Building where such luminaries as Carole King and Neil Sedaka got their start. The circle of knowledge grows smaller after this. Did you know that he was responsible for such pop classics as Angel of the Morning, and Janis Joplin's Try Just A Little Bit Longer? You are among the privileged few.

Have I lost you? If so, here are some additional Chip Taylor facts (in case you want to baffle your friends and terrorize your enemies). He is the younger brother of Oscar winning actor, Jon Voight. He took 13 years off from the music business to pursue his other passion, professional gambling. He's so good, he was once banned from Atlantic City casinos and labeled a card counter.

When he returned, he and fiddle player and singer, Carrie Rodriguez, collaborated as a duo, landing them at the top of the Americana charts with critically acclaimed albums Let's Leave This Town, The Trouble With Humans and Red Dog Tracks.

Since the 2002 release of their first album, Taylor and Rodriguez have seen the rise of another duo with an elder statesman rock and roller (Led Zeppelin's singer Robert Plant) and a young female fiddle player (bluegrass fiddler Alison Krauss) who won a Grammy last year. To Chip and Carrie, the concept must have seemed familiar.

The only other tidbit of information that comes to mind is he maintains a faithful following in Holland. This is the subject of his new book, Songs from a Dutch Tour which comes with a CD of the same name. Most recently he has found another young fiddle player, Canadian Kendall Carson. She is already a capable solo artist with the release of her own, Alright Dynamite.

More information on Chip Taylor and the other fine musicians that he plays with can be found at Train Wreck Records.

 

TERRY: How did a kid from New York become a renowned country singer-songwriter in the 60s?

CHIP: From the time I was a young kid in Yonkers, around 8 or 9, I was crazy about listening to the radio. I'd listen to country on WWVA radio. It changed my life. From then on I was totally nuts about country. In New York at that time there was no country music anywhere. There was one group called the Town & Country Brothers. When I was 16 they told me they needed a replacement in their band and I could have the gig if I could learn to play guitar. I literally learned three chords overnight.

TERRY: I understand your rise in the music industry was pretty fast from there.

CHIP: There was King Records, an all black record label. They decided to try some rockabilly and they signed us. That was the start. That got me into the business. We had some regional hits, I'm Moving In, and Here I Am. The record was big in Hartford, West Mass. From there we went on a tour with Neil Sedaka. From there I became a writer for other artists. I was pretty young and so I took one last shot and submitted a song to RCA. At that time, country songs were sent to Nashville for Chet Atkins to review. He took a liking to my songs. I remember a note was sent to Chet which said he was going to record the song, but it was hard to believe the writer was from New York City. But, he said he wanted to hear everything I wrote. In those days there was no love lost between Nashville and New York City. From there my songs were recorded by Floyd Kramer, Johnny Cash, Eddie Arnold and the Brown Family.  That established me and I became a staff writer in the Brill Building. I'd see all the writers of that day, Neil, Carol King, Leiber and Stroller. I was given my own room and all I had to do was write hit songs. So here I am with 20 something publishers ready to send my songs off to the best of country music.

TERRY: Wasn't that around the time when the early 60's folk movement was happening in Greenwich Village? Did you make it down there?

CHIP: It was a different movement down there. I was a family by then with a wife and children. Also, folk singers were not writing hit songs at that time. That was very important. No hit songs.

TERRY: That brings us to Wild Thing. Now you've answered how a kid from Yonkers becomes an important writer of country songs. How does the same kid end up writing an iconic song from the 60's that's still covered and recorded today?

CHIP: I had scheduled the studio to record a country song. The night before, I started playing this new kind of rhythmic chord pattern. It was natural. The lyrics came up and the song was written in a few minutes. I was just trying something new. It was kind of raw and like nothing I'd done before.

That was Wild Thing. I didn't record a country song that day. All of a sudden I became total anarchy. You know, most of what was done at the Brill Building was keyboard driven, so songs like Wild Thing were a departure from what was being done at the time.

TERRY: It was only few years later you were a part of the more country branch of the singer songwriter movement. It was around that time I first heard The Real Thing. When I heard the song, it felt unique because it was directly about the difference between real and radio-driven pop-country.

CHIP: That's right. In Nashville everyone was being encouraged to change to pop stuff. Real Thing was about putting your foot down. Just before that album, Last Chance, came out was the Outlaw era of Willie, Merle and Waylon.

TERRY: I've heard Last Chance had a unique story.

CHIP: Yes it does. I was signed to Warner Brothers for a solo album. I remember being in a roomful of the staff listening to the finished album. They said to me, we love the album but we have one problem. We have no country division. We don't know how to promote it!' The album has become an underground classic.

TERRY: Tell me about your songwriting process?

CHIP: Well, you know the gambling I do, the horse race handicapping is a lot of cerebral work. Songwriting is the opposite. I pick up the guitar and I get into a zone. I usually have a recorder around. I pick up the guitar and the player next to the recorder. I don't really think of things to say. I will just hum nonsense things to myself. I continue to noodle around until its not just sounds. Often, when the song starts to happen, I'll get a chill. I'll start thinking, "Ooo, what was that? I like that." I leave my brain out of it.

TERRY: How did you meet Kendall?

CHIP: She was at the Canmore Folk Festival in Canada. She asked me if I could help her to find some direction for her solo career. She had been playing fiddle as a back up musican and also had been playing with her brother since she was five. Since then she's grown as a performer.

TERRY: Anything coming up in the near future?

CHIP: We're planning on a reunion tour with Carrie and a best of album. Meanwhile, Kendal is bringing this wonderful music to the forefront. It's all good.

 

Chip Taylor is playing at McCabe's Guitar Shop on July 11, 2009.

McCabe's Guitar Shop

3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA

310-828-4497 • www.mccabesguitar.com

 

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude' at an early age.