[6 March 2007]
Sandy Bull plays oud in two of This Side of the Big River‘s songs. If you only know Chip Taylor for emerging in the 1970s as Warner Bros.’ first charting country artist and recording recently a series of skillful (and at times overly mannered) bluegrass-flavored albums with up-and-comer Carrie Rodriguez, you might be surprised to find that he recruited a psychedelic iconoclast like Bull to spice up this 1975 outing. But Taylor followers who caught Big River when it first came down the pike would have known to expect from him unforeseen and even jarring turns.
In fact, Taylor’s decision to play twangy music even jolted listeners. He had come to fame first in the 1960s by writing songs for rock artists, penning chartbusters like “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing”. When he made his solo debut in 1971, Taylor continued to deal in accessible rock. After signing the following year with Warner, however, he decided to experiment with country music, a genre he loved as a child. Living in the north, working for a label without a country division, and incorporating into his style a number of non-Nashville influences made it difficult for Taylor to break into the country market, though, so 1972’s Last Chance tanked. His next release proved more successful, yielding a minor hit called “Me As I Am”. Taylor still operated as a country music outsider, but he was popular enough to receive funding to record one more album for Warner. Big River, his most personal and stylistically varied early work, resulted.
Let’s turn back to Bull for a moment. One of the songs to which he contributes, a string-snapping live-recorded cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River”, finds Taylor and his bandmates interjecting a couple of unlikely elements—the droning Oriental folk of Bull’s oud and the (in hindsight, laughably) futuristic quasi-jazz fusion of Joe Rends’s electric piano—into a raucous country rock stomp. Taylor didn’t set out here to make easily classifiable music. From the richly resonant soft-rock of “Getting’ Older, Lookin’ Back” to the minimal, largely spoken-word 1950s country throwback “John Tucker’s on the Wagon Again”, Big River‘s songs bear only scant resemblance to one another. These tracks betray Taylor as an artist unwilling to attach himself to a single genre or aesthetic program—as long as an idea exhibits formal beauty, he’s willing to back it. You could even argue that he voices his aestheticism in “Same Ol’ Story”, an ambitious protest song that indicts everyone—Vietnam supporters and opponents, outlaw country musicians, hypocritical Christians—within its reach. Taylor’s frustration comes to a head when he beseeches that “God damn the ones that keep this world insane”. It’s not the side you take that matters, but the degree of sanity and harmony that you seek to maintain. Politics is in this song a problem of form, not content.
Taylor’s lyrical concerns are often more provincial, though. In his romantic songs, he seeks not to court, but to make amends—in other words, there are no wild oats to sow, only long-standing relationships to repair. Cuts like “Sleepy Eyes” and “Holding Me Together” express longing for the comforts of a settled, domestic love life. The album’s great hero is a guy named Charlie, and he earns this distinction not by slinging a gun but by fixing the hall light. For all its odd musical detours and sweeping political swipes, Big River works best when Taylor sticks close to home.
Country audiences aren’t opposed to juxtapositions—cheatin’ and churchgoing have always been two of the genre’s chief preoccupations, and all of the music’s luminaries seem to have done their fair share of both. But they do want their juxtapositions to feel familiar, which might explain why Taylor’s blend of righteous indignation and domestic contentment found no wide audience in America (now Holland’s another story: he became somewhat of a sensation there). Big River quickly sunk into obscurity, and Taylor took thereafter a lengthy hiatus from music and sought his fortune as a professional gambler. The album’s recovery won’t land Taylor in the Country Music Hall of Fame anytime soon, but it does bode well for lovers of untold stories and unexplored sounds, as it packs plenty of both.