Jesse “Guitar” Taylor

Ponty Bone told me one time, slightly paraphrased, “Jesse Taylor always did the exact thing you wished you had done, be it help a little old lady across the street or tell the cops to fuck off. No matter the situation he always took the most fearless and honorable route.” We were overdubbing his accordion on a song I’d written, not really about Jesse so much as inspired by a piece I’d read on a Lubbock music website’s memorial page. The remembrance was written by a childhood neighbor of Jesse’s who recounted hearing him practice guitar across the alley while the other kids played baseball. He said Jesse was dedicated to becoming a great musician because his absent father was a guitar player and he wanted to be ready if he ever came across him. Those words deeply struck my imagination and I wrote the first verse about the runaway father waking his kid to impart some final wisdom before hitting the road.

I first heard Jesse Taylor, like most everyone else, in the Joe Ely Band. They were the opening act when Linda Ronstadt played the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, NM sometime around 1981. I was too young to remember much about the show but I do recall them playing a balls to the wall version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” so it had to be around the Musta Notta Gotta Lotta album. Joe told me he actually first met Jesse in Venice Beach, California. He woke up from a night of sleeping on the beach to the sound of some guys talking in the unmistakeable Lubbock dialect. He walked over and introduced himself. He already knew who Jesse was from his tenure in Krackerjack, the great, mysterious, unrecorded blues rock band formed by Johnny Winter’s rhythm section which featured a slew of pre-fame guitar heroes including Gary Myrick, Robin Syler, John Stahaley and even Stevie Ray Vaughan. A few years later Joe began his band in Lubbock with a different guitar player but when Jesse settled in next to steel guitarist Lloyd Maines the group created innovative and tightly arranged instrumental trade offs that set them miles apart from any other country-rock combo. Ely had been all over the place on his folk singer trip and he knew if he were going to tie himself down to a band, it would have to be something very special, and this certainly was.

When I first moved to Austin, maybe because of my stocky build, people often asked me if I was related to Jesse Taylor. By the time I arrived in mid 1990 the Sunspots, the powerhouse band that backed Butch Hancock in a West Texas styled approximation of circa 1965 Dylan and the Hawks, had run it’s course and I didn’t see him much in the clubs until he and Billy Joe Shaver began playing happy hours together at the 311 Club and the Hole in the Wall. A little later Brad Brobisky formed the Keepers with Jesse, Ponty and the Waddell Brothers and played consistently around Austin. Though I attended a lot of these gigs, I was a very shy kid and would only occasionally get my courage up to ask him dumb questions from time to time. In 1999 I began making my first record at Don McAllister’s studio at the same time Jesse was recording his Texas Tattoo album. Don formally introduced us and we became pals. The first ever “Eric Hisaw Band” gig was opening for Jesse at Cibolo Creek Country Club outside San Antonio. I’m sure we were a total disaster but Jesse was very encouraging and inscribed a copy of his Last Night CD “to my guitar pal”.

Around the mid to late 90’s Jesse and Lloyd got back in the Ely Band and probably made the best recorded example of their magic with Live at Antone’s. It was a good run that included some national TV appearances and videos and the 2nd Clinton presidential inauguration. In a lot of ways though Jesse was not a career oriented musician, he was really a bluesman. There aren’t many real bluesmen left. I’m talking about the kind of players who were doing it back when no one had parents or society encouraging them to listen and learn from Lightnin’ Hopkins or Muddy Waters. Black or white it was an outsider way of life and a way of life that has taken its toll on it’s practitioners. Not too long ago I saw an ad for a gig at Evangeline Cafe featuring Denny Freeman, Gene Taylor, Gil T, Hook Herrera and Mike Buck. I remember thinking if a bomb hit that night, a good portion of the remaining bluesmen would be lost. It’s a different mentality, a different set of rules and a lot of time these guys don’t stay in one gig for long. They fluently speak a musical language and can get on any stage any night and give an audience something special. Maybe the blues in Jesse’s DNA drove him out of that version of the Ely Band and in time he was gigging with Calvin Russel in Europe and playing some with Billy Joe Shaver around Texas before he backed off gigging to focus on his visual artwork until he passed away in 2006.

I ran in to Jesse’s daughter Chelsea a few months back at a fundraiser for photographer Bill Leissner. I had played acoustic guitar backing some songwriters and I told her that when I do that, I never take my guitar out of it’s case without thinking about how her dad would go about it. Jesse was a monumental influence on the way I approach a lot of things as a musician and as gentleman. Truth be told though, I don’t play guitar anything like Jesse Taylor. We draw from a lot of the same influences, Freddie King and Roy Nichols most obviously, but I don’t ever play particularly fast and those tricky lightening speed licks are what set him apart from other players. What I did learn from Jesse was that as an accompanist it is your job to get inside the song and support the singer’s intention and emotion, no matter what kind of licks you draw on. At least fifteen years ago someone told me that Chelsea could play just like her dad but chose not to pursue it because it was his thing. Lucky for us she is playing now with Texacala Jones in a band called Pony Island Express.

Last month my wife Angie and I decided to ditch the SXSW festivities and go see my family in New Mexico instead. I do have a fairly new record out and may seem crazy for not trying to catch up with the limited number of people who are concerned with such things while they are concentrated in my backyard, but festival time is miserable for day to day living in Austin, in particular since I do a delivery job downtown. So we headed west and spent time with family and driving around Southern New Mexico. I did take time to stop in on two DJ friends for two very different interviews. In El Paso I visited Dan Alloway who has been playing my records on his KTEP radio show Folk Fury since the beginning. Dan has the same Oklahoma Indian roots that I do and standing next to one another we look related. In Las Cruces we stopped in on my friend and former bandmate David Wheeler who owns and operates a very cool recording studio in an old rock house his grandfather built. Dave connected with a radio station KTAL in Cruces who put him on the air for an interview show. We talked about old times and old friends, many of whom have passed on. (Listen to the full interview here.) Dave sent me this recording which I thought came out really nice so I pieced together a slide show video. His studio with it’s Spanish style ceiling and rock walls has a lot of character. So here is a song very loosely telling a story about a great lead guitar player performed solo acoustic with no guitar leads. I recorded this song originally in a kind of JJ Cale meets Johnny Cash fashion on an album that came out in 2008 called Nature of the Blues. It kind of got left out of the setlist back then but has been a staple of our setlist in recent years.