Depot Light: Songs of Eric Taylor
Red Beet Records
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
To some, Eric Taylor has been a Texas songwriting icon since the seventies. A contemporary of Ray Wylie Hubbard, an admirer of Guy Clark, and hero to Lyle Lovett, Taylor’s sparse catalogue of recordings are cherished, coveted by those few who have encountered them.
Peter Cooper has long been an admirer of Eric Taylor. He wrote a stark, insightful piece about Taylor in No Depression back in 2001, the one with Billy Joe Shaver on the cover, and wrote a song about him for The Master Sessions, the album he and Eric Brace did with Lloyd Green and Mike Auldridge.
For his latest recording, Cooper has elected to present a dozen of Taylor’s songs. Given that Cooper is an amazing songwriter in his own right, this decision carries with it considerable weight: these are amongst the songs that gave Cooper direction, in his words songs that “shaped and changed the way I think and feel about music.” Like Taylor, Cooper has a bit of a cult following.
Taylor’s few recordings are marked by three features, all of which are apparent within Depot Light: Songs of Eric Taylor.
The first is the expressiveness of Eric Taylor’s guitar playing. Unlike many singer-songwriters who do little more than strum a melody to accompany their words, Taylors’ playing is crisp and clear; his distinct notes underscore the provocative, resonant qualities of his voice.
Cooper turns the guitar over to co-producer Thomm Jutz, and his contributions offer ideal framing to Cooper’s vocal artistry; the bluesy effects of “Carnival Jim & Jean” have stayed with me through numerous listenings. Cooper has an ideal voice for these songs. He doesn’t sound like Taylor, of course, and neither should he. Through a slate of recordings, Cooper has developed a voice and approach to Americana all his own. Vocally, Cooper might always remind us a little of Rodney Crowell, but he is equally individual. Smoother, perhaps.
The second feature common on all Eric Taylor recordings encountered has been the unfailing accuracy of his seminal phrasing and rhyme structures. Words in the hands of Taylor are never contrived as he constructs a lyric to tell a story (“Happy Endings,” from 2000’s Scuffletown and which closes this disc, or “Jail Widow’s Walk” from the more recent Hollywood Pocketknife) or provoke discussion (Scuffletown’s “Your God” and an earlier song, “Mission Door,” previously covered by Cooper—with Taylor’s ex, Nanci Griffith, on the self-same named album.)
Third, when performing his songs (and infrequently those of others) Taylor has the exceptional ability to breathe vibrant life into each piece such that it seemingly becomes biographical—his ability to identify individual description and details transcends an inventory of facets of which he has observed or envisioned: he gives shape and density to characters, events, and stories deserving of enduring legacy.
Cooper does that, too. “Nice Old Man.” “That Poor Guy.” “Elmer the Dancer.” Thompson Street.” “715 (For Hank Aaron.”) “They Hate Me.” “Opening Day.” “Quiet Little War.” If you don’t know them, you might want to fix that. Soon.
Interestingly, when Eric Taylor has chosen to cover songs by other writers, it has usually been Townes Van Zandt. When Peter Cooper chooses to cover others, it has as often as anyone been Eric Taylor. Well, Taylor and Tom T. Hall, which—taken together— pretty much gives you Townes Van Zandt.
Without knowing it before listening, it is obvious that if anyone was ever going to record a non-tribute album of Eric Taylor songs, it should be Peter Cooper. (See Cooper’s liner notes for an explanation of why this isn’t a tribute album.)
There is no little measure of pensiveness here, the pain and passion of the common (and decidedly uncommon) wanders of life, a combination of grit and honesty that should see us through many an evening. Not every situation depicted will endear listeners to the characters—they are as flawed as reality, as blessedly unaware as the rest of us. But, you will remember them: the panhandler (“Dollar Bill Hines”), the lonesome carnie hustler and his (perhaps) wiser partner (“Carnival Jim & Jean”), the desperado whose train never came (“Charlie Ray McWhite”), the convict who sees himself as Johnny Cash (“Prison Movie”), and the hopelessly lost romantic (“Two Fires”).
“Deadwood,” recorded by Griffith many a blue moon ago (a line I’m reacquiring from Cooper ’cause I stole it long before he did,) is likely this set’s most familiar song. Less mysterious than when heard almost thirty years ago, it is no less stunning a set of observations.
These are really great performances of memorable songs, most of which lots of folks haven’t heard. Justin Moses (formerly of Kentucky Thunder) colors “More Storms” with mandolin trills that add dimension to an already incredible song. “Depot Light” is powerful, even if I get lost in its tale. “The Great Divide,” which may have been modeled off “Stuff That Works,” is just as clever if darker.
Depot Light: Songs of Eric Taylor will appeal to Eric Taylor devotees whether they know Peter Cooper or not. Not surprisingly, it will be welcomed by fans of Peter Cooper who may never have encountered Eric Taylor.