Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tut Taylor Dies at 91

Robert "Tut" Taylor: 1923 - 2015
At Merlefest Tribute Organized by Jerry Douglas in 2011
Captures All the Joy of the Man

I first met Tut Taylor at Minton's Music and Pawn in North Wilkesboro, NC in October of 2007. Mike Palmer, now the owner, pointed him out to me, and I went up to him to ask whether I could interview him. He said, "Sure. Why don't you come by the house." I called Irene to tell her we were going to interview Tut at home, and she said, "Now we can only stay an hour; we don't want to tire him out." We showed up at his small ranch house at 11:00 AM and were greeted by Tut and his late wife Lee. I asked him some questions and we talked. At noon, Irene started to pack, shooting darts at me with her eyes. Tut asked, "Where ya'll going? Come on back to my study. I have some things I want to show you."

Lee Taylor

We walked into his Den at the back of his house to find a small room filled with computers, screens, boxes of tape, LPs, CDs, casettes, and more. But more important than the stuff, was the energy, imagination, planning, and humor of this wonderful, irreplaceable and irrepressible man. Three hours later we left. Tut never ran out of steam.

Tut Taylor in His Study

Tut was born in Milledgville, GA in 1923. When his brother left for the service in WWII, he left some instruments leaning against the wall, warning Tut not to touch them. Of course, as soon as he left, Tut picked up the Dobro and started to play it. Only he didn't know it was played with a thumb pick and finger picks, so he started playing the Dobro with a flat pick as he had earlier on the mandolin, and became known as the "flat picking Dobro man." He moved to Nashville to form GTR instruments with George Gruhn and Randy Wood, now known as Gruhn Guitar. He also played in John Hartford's band on the Steam Powered Aero Plane as well as other albums. A fuller bio of Tut Taylor can be found here. I'm sure there will be many more in the next weeks, but the tale of how he learned to play the Dobro is what he told us that day in 2007, and I'm sticking to it.

Steam Powered Aereo Takes
Norman Blake, John Hartford, Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements

Irene and I tried to visit with Tut at least once a year, even after we stopped going to Merlefest. During his last years, slowed by diabetes and saddened by Lee's decline into dementia and then her loss, Tut never lost his own zest for life. Whenever folks stopped by to visit, he was ready to jam. He had friends throughout the world in music.

Tut Taylor and Friends - Merlefest 2011
Front Row: Tut & Lee Taylor
Surrounding: Jason Carter, Ronnie McCoury Alan Bartram
Billy Cardine & Jerry Douglas

In 2010, Jerry Douglas drew together a group of the country's top Dobro players to record the music of Tut Taylor using contemporary instruments and styles. The result was Southern Fillibuster. Irene and I arrived at Tut's house, perhaps hours after he received his copy. He pulled out the CD, sliding it into the boom box he kept on his table and the three of us sat back to listen. Tut didn't say much, but the smile of fulfillment and , yes, wonder that people still knew his music and cared enough to record it, filled the room. It was the only day I neglected to bring my camera to his house. 

On Friday at Merlefest 2011, a session at the Walker Center was devoted to playing songs from this recording. Musicians and friends gathered back-stage to help, to visit, to be with Tut and Lee. The music was wonderful, the fellowship transported Tut to a world he no longer thought existed, and his joy in participating lifted everyone in the room.

Jerry Douglas

Tut & Friends On Stage

Tut Taylor with Ronnie McCoury and Jason Carter
Back Stage

Tut Taylor was a sign painter by trade. In his "retirement," he painted instruments, instrument cases, and more. His cases and decorations are already collector's items. A few years ago he invented a hybrid resophonic guitar he called the Tutbro. Here's a picture with his own decorations.

Tut & the Tutbro

Lynn Swaim and the Bass Tut Painted for Her

Tut formed the Dobrolic Plectrum Society. Here's the license plate he made for us. It proudly stands in the window of our trailer.

Papa Don't Play Dobro Any More
Recorded at a Jam in Tut's Sitting Room
Wilkesboro, NC - Uploaded February 12, 2011
By Cory Lee McQuade

Search YouTube for more examples of Tut's wizardry as well as the love and respect he earned from his legion of friends. There are more than any of us can count.

Tut died today in the hospital. Although he had been failing for some years, his heart, mind, music, love of fun, capacity for friendship, and productive life will live on as long as people find adventure in bluegrass music. We'll miss Tut Taylor, but it's hard to mourn as full a life as his. We can only celebrate him.