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The Dead Songwriters Society

Eric Taylor, 1949-2020.

Kenny Rogers died on Friday. I didn’t know the man, of course, but I know the music. He recorded a song by my friend Bat McGrath, and seemed like a nice guy. In an interview some years ago, I asked if he’d ever been in a bar fight. Short answer: No.

Eric Taylor also died last week. I interviewed him twice over the last two decades, and it never occurred to me to ask if he’d ever been in a bar fight. But he’d been in plenty of bars, that seemed obvious.

The first time I saw Taylor was 2001 at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin. I’d never heard of the guy. He blew me away. His songs were deep and troubled. That southern Gothic triptych of whiskey, murder and the Bible. And he did two songs by Townes Van Zandt. Before starting each one, Taylor pulled a hip flask from the inside pocket of his jacket and took a long swig.

I was pretty excited, about 12 years ago, when My Friends Rick and Monica announced that they had booked Taylor for their first house concert. Rick called and asked if I knew where he could get some beef jerky. That was one of the things in Taylor’s tour rider. Beef jerky.

And bourbon. A bottle of bourbon was in the rider as well.

I called Taylor before the show, and recalled for him how I had seen him that night in Austin, and noticed he had taken a drink from his flask before doing the two songs by Van Zandt. Was that a silent tribute to his old friend, who died in 1997 of cardiac arrhythmia, driven by his substance abuse?

No, Taylor said, in a business-like tone. “I like to drink.”

The house concert was a success, the room packed with 50 people. The deeper into the show, the deeper into the bottle of bourbon before him, the deeper Taylor went into his songs. Then it was like someone flipped an unseen switch, and Taylor was gone; now he was a guy with a pocketknife, cleaning his fingernails on the courthouse steps, waiting to drive Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe away from their marriage and on to the next metaphor.

Then the bourbon was gone, but the show wasn’t over. Rick had to scramble, but found a bottle of Chivas Regal. And the show continued.

Taylor hung out with Van Zandt for years, haunting the Houston clubs. Good times, hard living, stunning words. Writers who invented great characters that say true things. Fellow writers, like Lyle Lovett, know what a good song sounds like and smells like. Lovett’s recorded a few Taylor songs. Joan Baez, too. And Nanci Griffith; you’re writing weapons-grade material if your ex-wife records your songs.

Taylor came back to town a couple of times more, playing Abilene Bar & Lounge. He looked a little different. More at peace, perhaps? He filled me in on his long and erratic medical history. The heart attack he’d had years earlier, the triple bypass, the rehab. Even the time he’d spent counselling addicts. That might sound like asking Satan advice on curbing your sins, but Taylor was speaking from experience.

So there was Taylor again, onstage at Abilene, gently strumming his guitar, like you would pet an old dog, talking about his friend Bill Morrissey. Telling the story about how Bill, an intense songwriter in his own right, had stopped at a motel for the night in Dalton, Georgia. And later someone heard Bill’s dogs barking, he often traveled with his dogs. And they went to go look, and you knew this story would end badly.

Then Taylor kind of slipped into the background, and Bill Morrissey took his place. “I oughta stop drinkin’, but I don’t know why,” Morrissey moaned/sang. “Yeah, I’ve been through this town before,” he said, looking around Dalton. “It’s got a four-way stop, and a liquor store.”

Before the show, Taylor was telling me about how no one was surprised when Van Zandt died. Or when Morrissey died. The struggle. The sadness. The introspection.

A few of years ago, I asked the Nashville songwriter David Olney about Taylor. They ran together for years, raised hell. Olney was another guy who crawled inside his characters when he sang about them. “His music is so much him, I think he pays a price,” Olney said. “I think anybody pays a price to write music that stark.”

That price tag hangs on a lot of songwriters. The Dead Songwriters Society.

Van Zandt, Morrissey. Just a couple of months ago, Olney. Scroll back not too far in these blogs, back to Jan. 22, and you can read about Olney. He died onstage, in mid-song.

And now, Taylor has died, at age 70. On the same day that songwriters in Nashville were playing at a tribute to Olney. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Taylor’s heart that finally gave way. Or, maybe not surprisingly, it was liver disease.

I remember what Taylor said to me the last time we talked. “Sometimes, the most interesting people in the world will break your heart.”

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Bat’s advice on life from a Tennessee mountaintop: Keep it simple

Bat McGrath: The early years.

Bat McGrath is coming back to Rochester, with a gig Friday at The Little Theatre. I can use a little Bat right now.

The signs are all around me. Yesterday, with my hands full of coffee cups and jackets, I put a set of keys on the roof of the car. Just for a few seconds, I thought. And then drove off. A mile down Lake Avenue I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw something sliding past the window, and onto the street. I turned back but, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at how bent-up a set of keys gets when 40 cars drive over them.

A minor problem. Four keys, I’ll get new ones made. But it’s nevertheless an irritation. Big things, little things go wrong and you realize it’s time to simplify life. So you can pay attention to details, not let dumb things happen.

McGrath’s songs are often like that. He sings about “re-arranging the change” on the bar in front of him. I understand that image, I’ve sat in bars idly re-arranging thousands of dollars in coins over the years. He sings about using wire to put a rebellious muffler back on your car. I used to do that kind of thing all of the time, years ago. Use a coat hanger, rather than pay a mechanic $100 to do the job.

He writes lots of love songs.

Bat today: Ethan Porter, left , and Bat McGrath.

As most Rochesterians know, McGrath and Don Potter were the music scene here, back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They had a great band, The Showstoppers, and a late-night coffeehouse, Hylie Morris’ Alley, where young musicians like Chuck and Gap Mangione, and Steve Gadd, would show up to play.

I wonder what happened to those guys?

Good things, I guess. For Potter and McGrath, too. Potter found God and The Judds, and has done well for himself. McGrath and Tricia found each other, and moved to a mountaintop home in the woods just outside of Nashville. You can usually find them up there with the dogs. And the copperheads. Living a quiet life of creativity. Tricia was on The Young and the Restless for years. Now she makes quilts. McGrath, who gave up writing and performing for a while to work as a bodyguard for Van Halen, before returning to being a musician.

McGrath’s been riding a real creative surge, writing songs, cranking out new albums. The parts wear out; he had a triple bypass a couple of months ago. But he and Tricia keep things simple, and manageable, with few distractions. And the creativity flows on that Tennessee mountaintop.

Friday’s show starts at 8 p.m., tickets are $15 advance, $20 the day of the show, and available at The Little and thelittle.org.

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The Critical Mass

Bat McGrath, right, explains to me during a visit to his Nashville home last summer how an AK-47 could be your last line of defense between your women and a band of wild-eyed hillbillies who are storming up the driveway.

Bat McGrath, right, explains to me during a visit to his Nashville home last summer how an AK-47 could be your last line of defense between your women and a band of wild-eyed hillbillies who are storming up the driveway.

It’s a beautiful thing to see TV personalities lose their dignity. So I very much enjoyed watching Channel 13 TV anchor Doug Emblidge scrambling to snatch the family dog, Hannah, as she hid behind the guitarist’s legs in mid-song. But that’s the charm of a house concert, as the Emblidges played host on Saturday night to one of the guys who smelled like Woodstock to Rochester, a confused era when the Vietnam war raged and Chuck Mangione roamed the Earth. Yeah, we still remember Bat McGrath.

McGrath, who’s lived in Nashville for years now, makes the 16-hour drive here every few months for a benefit show or a house concert or cocktails. Now 64, in the last few years he’s turned up the amps, so to speak, as a songwriter and a performer. McGrath sometimes apologizes for songs that he worries may come off as sappy, but they’re merely reflective of where he is today, and they feel like the truth: He’s a grandfather, a flawed guru who celebrates simple things like swimming in the nude, while also confessing he can drink too much and argue with his wife.  No one in this crowd was fooled into thinking the old rowdy has changed too much.

Margaret and I visited McGrath at his Nashville hilltop home last summer, and he made several  references during the show to that trip, a harrowing drive up a gravel road to where he and Tricia Cast live with their three dogs. Bat thinks its funny that I’d never before eaten breakfast in a hardware store, or held an AK-47, but I’m on this planet to learn. One of their dogs, King, has pulled off a miraculous and complete recovery after getting bit by a copperhead. Bat was telling me before the show that he’s now installing a set of St. Patrick-like antennas around the property that are supposed to emit a vibration, out of the range of human ears, that drives away the snakes. Some kind of strategy must be employed in placing these things I figure, lest you trap them on the wrong side of the perimeter and end up with a bunch of irritable copperheads on the porch.  But those antenna probably come with instructions, and guys always read that stuff carefully before proceeding.

Bat did two sets on Saturday before most of the houseload left, sometimes accompanied by the elegant electric guitar of his ol’ compadre, Ethan Porter, then returned for what was accurately labeled “The Drunk Set.” Maybe my mood had improved significantly by then – our dog, Abbie, had gotten skunked the previous night – but these seemed to be some of the coolest songs of the evening. Bat always chats as much as he sings, but the stories seemed even funnier as it got later. He told one about settling down in a bar many afternoons throughout the early ’90s with Earl Thomas Conley following their Nashville songwriting sessions. Conley was a wild one, but also a wily one. At one drinking session, McGrath asked Conley why he’d had a Christmas tree  tied to the roof of his truck for days.  “Nobody,” Conley told him, “would pull over a guy bringing home a Christmas tree to the family.”

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