Peter Cooper,
Depot Light: Songs of Eric Taylor
(Red Beet, 2015)

Though I've heard the occasional Eric Taylor creation on albums by Lyle Lovett and possibly others, I have never heard Taylor himself. Thus, Peter Cooper, whom I have heard and whose recordings (sometimes with Eric Brace) I've reviewed in this space, introduces me to what Taylor sounds like in a concentrated lot of 12 songs.

Something of a cult figure, Taylor is less known than fellow Texas folk- and country-influenced singer-songwriters such as Lovett, Guy Clark and the late Townes Van Zandt. If the songs here are an accurate indication, Taylor doesn't sound a whole lot like his more immediately visible contemporaries. To my hearing, however, he is a tad reminiscent of a man John Prine, who would know, has called the "architect of the contemporary folk song," whose contemporary in that enterprise was fellow Greenwich Village composer/performer Bob Dylan.

I refer to Tom Paxton, noted for flowing, mid-tempo melodies and well-crafted lyrics, often devoted to storytelling. Probably nobody else has said this of Taylor, but it occurs to me that Paxton, still alive and writing (though no longer touring), is a bigger, if rarely acknowledged, influence, direct or indirect, on modern rooted songwriting than most appreciate. Though his songs have been covered often, Paxton has never had a hit under his own name, and from the beginning he stood in Dylan's very, very long shadow. Nobody could have shined in that shadow; yet it is effectively undeniable that Paxton has written, along with the inevitable throwaways, an abundance of enduring songs.

In fairness I need to stress that Taylor is far from a mere Paxton clone. Paxton is but one influence of many; that apparent influence is magnified, surely, by Cooper's smooth, Paxton-like tenor. Still, if you know your Paxton, you may think of the man in stray moments. Depot Light is a folk album of the old-fashioned singer-songwriter kind, and produced acoustically to sound like one. If Taylor sometimes comes across as dour and world-weary (not adjectives associated with Paxton), he shares Paxton's decency and compassion. Taylor's songs may not be sentimental -- we may be grateful for that -- but their sympathy for suffering fellow humans is manifest. Without preachiness Taylor conveys a distinctive moral intelligence.

Depot Light corrals a bunch of narrative ballads, laced with geographical references and wandering, troubled characters, searching for things they can't find or fleeing what (and whom) they've left behind. I have a deep fondness for songs of that nature, and in my songwriting days I wrote (or co-wrote) a few (e.g., "This is the Real Thing" on Robin & Linda Williams's 2013 recording Back 40). It's the oldest of American themes, present in such epic songs as tradition's "Man of Constant Sorrow" and the late Bruce Phillips's "Starlight on the Rails." Yet Taylor's stories are played out in modern landscapes and told in contemporary language. Rather miraculously, he resists every cliche of the ramblin' song. His geography is as much psychic as physical.

Taylor writes with admirable precision even when the song is confounding, as in "Charlie Ray McWhite," which is riveting but whose meaning is tantalizingly elusive. Maybe, I've speculated, it's "He Was a Friend of Mine" turned inside out. In any event, like Depot Light overall, it keeps me coming back to explore its mysteries. Taylor, who is worth getting to know, has an outstanding interpreter in Peter Cooper.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 January 2016

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