Some artists channel a calm wisdom that is as comforting as a father’s voice. We listen because their words feel right and true, gifts that might help us through our own dark nights. Chip Taylor is such an artist.
The quality of Taylor’s music, and his kinship to the great Texas songwriters, was best expressed when critic Anthony DeCurtis said “if names like Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt mean anything to you, you should make a point of discovering Chip Taylor.”
Born James Wesley Voight to a Yonkers, New York family of diverse movers and shakers, Taylor has been a performing songwriter for over fifty years now. But that’s only part of this illustrious family story. Brother Jon became a renowned actor (and the father of Angelina Jolie), and Barry is a noted academic and volcanologist. Father Elmer was an ace golfer, and Chip initially intended to follow in his footsteps.
After professional golfing didn’t work out, Chip decided to try his hand at music, moving to Nashville to take a job as a contract songwriter, and he was a good one, writing such monuments as “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”.
But Taylor’s talents were too expansive to be cooped up in a Nashville writer’s room, and he continued to write and perform for himself. In 1973 he released Chip Taylor’s Last Chance, an important contribution to the burgeoning blend of folk and country, and ultimately a cult classic. Over the ensuing decades he would evolve into one of our most important songwriters, a world artist in residence, releasing over twenty albums of original music, to date, most recently 2015’s The Little Prayers Trilogy.
But even a life that rich wasn’t rowdy enough for Chip Taylor. In the eighties he took a break from songwriting to become a professional gambler, and was good enough to earn a ban from most of the east coast casinos.
By the end of the nineties he again felt the pull of his art. In 2001 he visited Austin for SXSW and discovered the lovely Carrie Rodriguez at a live performance. Turning his talents to the Texas tradition, Taylor made several stunning, critically acclaimed albums with Rodriguez, a virtuoso fiddler, singer and songwriter in her own right.
Taylor has since retraced his steps to the East Coast and across the Atlantic to the Emerald Isle and Scandinavia, continuing to write wise and achingly beautiful meditations that have as much in common with Hemingway and Faulkner as with Lennon, McCartney or Dylan. He has especially found his way into the hearts of Norway. In 2012, the patron songwriter of that country, Paal Flaata, recorded Wait By The Fire, an entire album of Taylor’s songs.
In 2011, he was preparing to play a festival there when a lone killer took the lives of seventy-seven, mostly children, in the capital of Oslo and on the island of Utoya. A week later, Chip wrote and performed “On This Darkest Day”, a stunning tribute to the victims, a powerful ode to love and humanity in the face of mindless hatred. In the light of the new morning, he reminds us, we still have each other.
While Taylor has clearly grabbed life and lived it, his words are often more illuminating than comforting, more questions than answers. Still, a father’s voice gives comfort.
Three things to know about Chip Taylor: (1) he has had a long association with guitarist John Platania, who played on some of Van Morrison’s best work, (2) his album Yonkers, NY was nominated for a Grammy in 2011, and (3) In 1980 he appeared in the film Melvin and Howard.
A|S Series (July 28, 2016)