Eric Taylor, Poetic Texas Singer-Songwriter, Is Dead at 70


Eric Taylor, a relatively unknown Texas singer-songwriter revered by his more celebrated peers for his painterly lyrics and dexterous finger-style guitar playing, died on March 9 in Austin. He was 70.

Susan Lindfors Taylor, his wife and musical collaborator, said the cause was liver disease.

Steeped in the country blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi Fred McDowell, the poetry of the Beat Generation and the Southern Gothic of Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers, Mr. Taylor’s songs fused a brooding yet tender melodicism with evocative stream-of-consciousness narration, to hypnotic effect.

In the song “Comanche,” from his album “Resurrect” (1998), Mr. Taylor beguilingly juxtaposes a series of seemingly unrelated declarations to form a seamless whole. In the final stanza, singing in a measured baritone while accompanying himself with filigreed acoustic guitar work, he asserts:

I think there’s a place there in West Memphis

That’s just crawlin’ with the cops

And I think that poetry and jazz are lies

I think it’s wrong that all good whiskey

Costs more by the shot

And I think you ought to hold on one more night.

In a testimonial that appears on Mr. Taylor’s website, Nanci Griffith, a literary Texas singer-songwriter who was married to Mr. Taylor from 1976 to 1982, said, “If you miss an opportunity to hear Eric Taylor, you have missed a chance to hear a voice I consider the William Faulkner of songwriting.”

Ms. Griffith has recorded several of Mr. Taylor’s songs, including “Ghost in the Music,” which they wrote together. Lyle Lovett has also recorded Mr. Taylor’s compositions and written with him.

“I’m always the opening act when I’m around Eric,” Mr. Lovett wrote on his website. “I love his voice, and he has a great narrative quality and sense of detail.”

“Your God,” a denunciation of racism and the slave trade included on the album “Scuffletown” (2001), is one of many songs in Mr. Taylor’s catalog that find him empathizing with the oppressed. In the song’s opening passage, intoning over a roiling gospel-inspired arrangement, he asks:

When the boatmen stole the Africans

Did your God ride or row?

When they roped them and they shackled them

Was he with them in the hold?

Was the ocean moon so beautiful

That it brought him to his knees?

What did your God see?

“I hope my music makes people uncomfortable and makes them laugh and makes them think,” Mr. Taylor said in a 2014 interview with the magazine The Southern Rambler.

Besides Ms. Griffith and Mr. Lovett, a host of other distinguished songwriters, including Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, have championed Mr. Taylor’s music, which mixed elements of folk blues and jazz.

Eric Taylor was born in Atlanta on Sept. 25, 1949, the youngest of Charles and Betty (Phillips) Taylor’s two sons. He had an unhappy childhood in Georgia but found solace in the guitar. His first instrument was a battered Silvertone model from Sears that he bought for $2.50 from a friend.

While in high school Mr. Taylor was a member of a racially integrated band that played soul music, a pursuit for which he was punished in the bigoted household in which he grew up. He left home after that, renting a room in a boardinghouse until he finished high school.

He briefly attended Georgetown University in Washington in the 1960s before dropping out of college to pursue a career in music in California, only to run out of money upon his arrival in Houston on his way west.

While in Houston, Mr. Taylor worked as a dishwasher in a club called the Family Hand and, after seeing Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Van Zandt perform there on consecutive nights, decided to stay. (Mr. Clark, Carolyn Hester and the Texas songster Mance Lipscomb were also living or performing regularly in Houston at the time.)

In 1977, after a decade of honing his songcraft, Mr. Taylor won the “new folk” competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. In 1981 he released his debut album, “Shameless Love,” but he did not record another album — he struggled with substance abuse for much of his life — until his second, called simply “Eric Taylor,” which appeared 14 years later. It was named album of the year at Kerrville in 1996.

In addition to Ms. Lindfors Taylor, Mr. Taylor, who was married four times, is survived by a son, Nathan, and a daughter, Alexandra Taylor.

Mr. Taylor released many well-received albums and toured widely, earning a reputation as an enthralling performer. He received numerous accolades in his adopted home state of Texas — and even appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and on “Late Night With David Letterman” — but his artful, passionate music, rich in Southern colloquialisms and imagery, never achieved anything remotely resembling mainstream success.

“The music business and I met 30 years ago,” he observed, with characteristic directness, in a 2007 podcast. “And we’ve been running in opposite directions ever since.”

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