Kate Taylor, |
(Front Door, 2002)
Kate Taylor, sister of James, set a promising music career aside in the early '80s to raise a family. After creating a fruitful domestic and artistic partnership with her husband, Charles Witham, and raising three daughters now in their 20s, the couple began work on Beautiful Road, Kate's first album in 25 years. The record was almost ready in fall 1999 when Charlie became seriously ill; he died in the fall 2001. Beautiful Road is in many ways his legacy; more importantly, it's a beautiful reflection of a strong woman standing on her own, while supported through grief by others.
Witham wrote most of the songs on the album and co-designed (with Taylor and Joan Lelacheur) the Aquinnah Belt, a work of Native American craftsmanship featured on the album cover. His death makes the album extremely poignant. But even before his illness, the project was informed by loss. The Taylors lost their brother, Alex, when he died at 48 of a heart attack, and their father Isaac died in 1996. Also, the lead song, "I Will Fly," which Witham wrote, is an elegy for guitarist Arlen Roth's wife and daughter, who died in a car crash in 1998.
In addition to Roth, many notable musicians make important contributions to the project, including Levon Helm, Vance Gilbert, Mindy Jostyn, Chuck Leavall and Mavis Staples. James Taylor sings on "I Will Fly" and a contemporary version of "Auld Lang Syne," which he arranged. Although his voice is certainly recognizable and appropriate for both songs, his performance simply supports and does not overshadow his sister's. The fact that we know James' voice so well, and we barely know Kate's, adds another level of poignancy to Beautiful Road.
Despite, and because of, the losses that mark Kate Taylor's journey, Beautiful Road is a hope-filled record that celebrates life. I can't listen to the album without feeling connected to her and being aware of the difficult circumstances surrounding the creation of the album. Nor can I listen to it without feeling uplifted.
For me, the story behind the album adds depth to the work, just as deep shadows lend clarity to a painting. But it's a very good album even if you don't know the story. The musicianship is excellent and the production has a polished, professional sound. Tony Garnier co-produced the album with Witham, skilfully blending folk, country, blues and gospel influences. Kate's voice is elegant, mature and always in tune. Arlen Roth's guitars are excellent and very "Taylor." Garnier's bass, Leavall's keyboards and Jostyn's fiddle are also important and appropriate, and Mavis Staples (of the Staple Singers) is a joy.
The songs are well-chosen, paced well and with the right degree of diversity. Many of them (particularly the title track written by Erica Wheeler) bring out themes of hard-won wisdom, self-realization and courage. And of course, there is "Auld Lang Syne," which is bound to have personal resonance for every listener.
Behind many albums, there are profound stories we never know. We're privileged to know a bit more about this story and fortunate that Kate Taylor has chosen to share such an intimate project with a wider community. Thank you Kate (and Charlie) for reminding us that the road is, indeed, beautiful.