Thursday, October 18, 2007

Tut Taylor - Interview

I walked into Minton’s Music and Pawn in N. Wilkesboro, NC on Wednesday morning to chat for a moment or two with Mike Palmer, one of the owners, about a couple of questions I had. There sat Tut Taylor chatting with another customer. After a while I introduced myself to the legendary Dobro player and pulled up a stool beside him. Tut had chatted with me in a relaxed and pleasant way until Mike came over and mentioned he had read the blog and it was OK. I took out my notebook and Tut started spinning tales from his long life in Music. He asked me what I thought of Merle Haggard’s new bluegrass CD, saying he had really liked the video of “Holding Things Together” with Marty Stuart, Rob Ickes, and Carl Jackson. He was particularly complimentary of Carl Jackson as a player and song writer.

I asked Tut about playing with John Hartford, with particular reference to two pretty straight guys like him and Vassar Clements playing with two hippies like John Hartford and Norman Blake. He noted that Hartford was a very accomplished banjo picker and played as fast and accurately as anyone. Hartford had formed the Aereoplane Band in Nashville and then arranged a gig in England. They arrived to find a country crowd, dressed in cowboy gear including chaps and gun belts. Needless to say, this crowd of wannabee cowboys was not very interested in the band that inspired Sam Bush and others to create what became New Grass. Tut emphasized that the cultural differences between him and the hippies was less important than the bond forged by the music. The out takes of this band’s work were released in 2002 as “Steam Powered Aereo-Takes.” The cover picture of clean shaven and short haired Taylor and Clements standing beside bushy Hartford and Blake is almost as classic as the music. Tut commented that it was too bad that John Hartford and Jens Kruger never got a chance to pick together.

I asked Tut whether he had ever made a living from music. He laughed and shook his head, saying he was a sign painter by trade. As with his music, he says he was inventive and creative as a sign painter. “I’ve seen lots of fine artists who were broke, but I never met a sign painter who was,” he laughed. This from a man who has been an innovative force on the Dobro for half a century, inventing a flat picking method of playing the instrument because he didn’t know any better. “Music is a fun thing for me,” he said as he smiled and talked about the people he’s met and the times he’d had. Throughout his life he has been interested in technology, and has amassed a huge collection of tapes, films, and recordings of himself and those he’s played with, most of which have never been seen publicly. At age 84 he’s working on trying to catalog his collection and bring some order to it. He’s proud that an early recording of his sold on eBay recently for $146.00 and that his latest recording, “Shacktown Road” with Norman and Nancy Blake has recently been released. He says, “It’s nice to look at and watch, but the real pleasure comes when you share something.” He started making tapes in 1955.

Tut talked about his heroes. Bill Monroe, who “people say didn’t like Dobro. But you can’t be into blues like Monroe and not like Dobro. He just didn’t want one in his band.” Roy Acuff was a friend of Tut’s from way before Nashville days. As a kid, Tut had hitchhiked from Nashville to Macon, GA to see an Acuff performance. Afterwards, he went to the bus station to go home, but the station was closed. He started walk and got eight miles before getting to Cleo’s BBQ. Walking out back he found a black man turning the pig on a spit. He asked if it was all right to sleep there. The next morning he got up and caught the bus back to his home in Milledgeville, GA. Later, on the night of the last Grand Ol’ Opry performance at the fabled Ryman Auditorium, he asked Acuff if he could play mandolin chops in the background of his band on the final “Wabash Cannonball.” Acuff assented and then, during the performance introduced Tut to play a mandolin break, cold. Once he filmed Lester and Earl backstage with Flatt eating a piece of chicken, but the film seems to be lost, unless he can find it when he catalogs his collection.

At 84, Tut is old, but alert with a sparkle in his pale blue eyes. His ankles are swollen, but his ego isn’t. He’s open to meeting new people and sharing his world with them. His fingers aren’t as fast now as they were a while ago, but his taste and musicality are still very much there. Last year at Merlefest we heard him pick on the stage and at the Wilkes County Folk Society tent before the festival even began. Even though he retains his creative urge, he says, “I listen to some of things I did back then, and it scares me.” As we parted, Tut invited us to come to his home the next day.

At 10:00 AM on a humid and overcast Thursday morning, Irene and I pulled into the Taylor driveway in front of a modest ranch style home. A few years ago, Tut’s wife Lee fell and while she was in the hospital their son David remodeled a two car garage, turning it into an all purpose room and making it so Lee would not have to climb stairs any more. This warm and homey space contains Tut’s instruments and a selection of VHS tapes, as well as Lee’s collection of dolls and needlework, shelves of canned fruits, pickles, and vegetables, and plenty of room for friends to drop in, hang out, an pick. Tut also has a computer room towards the rear of the house where he can listen to old tapes, watch VHS tapes and CDs and remember the many people he has played with. Lee is a sweet-faced gentle woman who makes us feel welcome right away. She’s the ideal wife for a musician who has, no doubt, brought fellow musicians home, often without notice, for most of the 63 years they’ve been married. She also managed to have eight children. She’s trim and pretty, with a wonderful, warm smile. Tut plays some cuts from his new CD “Shacktown Road” made with old friends Norman and Nancy Blake. It contains narrative material from Tut’s childhood and youth in rural Georgia as well as other material. His gravelly voice, occasionally breaking into song, evokes the world of the long lost rural South.

After a while, Tut takes us back to their computer room. Lee, he says, plays games on her computer while Tut works to catalog his vast collection of audio tapes, VHS tapes, CDs, and DVDs. He plans to get them into shape so that he can find any performance or jam or studio tape he has at a moment’s notice. He sits and plays moments from the past, often commenting on them as they run. Some are scratchy recordings made over the air in Georgia from WSM in Nashville of Grand Ol’ Opry. We listen to Bill Monroe with Flatt and Scruggs as well as Roy Acuff. These were recorded from a radio hooked up to a twelve volt battery out in the country in rural Georgia during the 1940’s. Tut has been recording music history since he was a young man. He listens intently, heavy head lowered sometimes as if it’s hard for his neck to hold it up. His voice is always strong and his memory for moments, pickers, and detail phenomenal. We listen to a jam session with John Hartford, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, and Tut. He plays a tape of a studio recording with Jens Kruger of his song “Mist on the Mountains,” inspired by a trip he took to Switzerland to visit the Krugers. Another haunting song he plays is “Where Have the Buffalo Gone?” which he explains popped into his head as he thought about an Indian chief looking across the prairie and seeing no living thing. It is one of the saddest songs we’ve ever heard, full of loss and emptiness. Look for it on “Shacktown Road.”

He played the tape of his playing a mandolin break on the last Roy Acuff performance of “Wabash Cannonball” in Ryman Auditorium. Tut had lived in Nashville for a while, going into the instrument business with George Gruhn, selling out his share a year later. Gruhn now owns the finest place in the world to purchase vintage instruments. At one point, he plays a cut and then turns to us and says, “I guess no one’s alive who’s been as lucky as me to play with some of the people I’ve played with.” Later he plays another and says, “I’m the only person on that song besides Charlie Collins who’s still alive.”

Tut Taylor is particularly well known for being the only Dobro player who picks with a flat pick. Most Dobro players use a thumb pick and two finger picks, playing rolls much like banjo players and using a slide to select notes. Tut says he got his first Dobro when his brother went off to World War II. He picked it up and just started flat picking it, and never changed. “We wasn’t trying to be good or nothin’, we just played. Beyond playing Dobro, Tut figures he’s made perhaps several hundred on them himself. His son Mark continues in the business of making fine instruments at his company Crafters of Tennessee.

We moved back out to the sitting room where Lee had been patiently waiting while we listened and chatted in the computer room. Tut showed us a tape of a one and only Lloyd Loar A style mandolin he once owned, and then pulled out a mandolin that son Mark had made for him based on the Loar and played it, pointing out he no longer played mandolin. We asked him to pick a song on the Dobro, which he graciously agreed to do. At 84 he may have lost some of his speed, but none of the tone or taste that has always characterized his picking. He then asked Irene to bring him the Tutbro, a simple box Dobro made of plywood his David had made. While simple looking, it had marvelous sustain and, according to Tut, pickers who turn up their noses when they see it learn to love it. We had been fascinated guests in the Taylor home for more than four hours. As we took our leave, we thanked him and Lee for their hospitality, but our words were insufficient to express the gift we feel we’ve been given to spend a few hours with this marvelous man and his lovely wife. We hope that we’ve made new friends and that we see them again soon.