Artist Spotlight #1: James Michael Taylor and Garrett Owen

I felt like all this train ridin' was a good opportunity to listen to the music I've collected over the years. So little by little and without further ado I present to you the first installment.

I crossed paths with a living legend, James Michael Taylor,  the other day at Magnolia Motor Lounge in Fort Worth. If you don't know who that is, go hang out in Fort Worth for a while and become a collector of the albums he's been putting out every week or two for over ten years now. 
While on the trains across Spain, I've given repeated listens to one of his latest CDs, Cushions. 
The first track, "I can't tell",  features a root-five country beat and the glorious return of the Jasper James one man gospel choir.  The tune is a study on the anxiety and confusion one feels in the collapse of a serious relationship; indeed, the song invokes the feeling of helplessness as the world seemingly falls out from under you. "There was a time, we had the time, we took the time, we made the time / and at that time I didn't know our time was running out," sings Taylor with a tone of angst as he seems to relive the bitter experience in order to cope sincerely with it.  The vibe of the tune calms down a little-- it sounds like the song has given him some peace but that he still reaches back to the past for something to try and fill the void of lost love that music  cannot fill. 
In "How" JMT brings a country song alive with a double time chorus. The lyrics are a razor sharp crossover from the tear in your beer. The line "You're probably expectin' to find that I'm projectin' but I'm not / I've got my life in order, just tryin' to help a brother like we're taught" wouldn't have surprised me if it was from a lost Gram Parsons song buried away somewhere. 
"Kaweah" is an environmentally conscious meditation and a journey back in time.  JMT talks through a story about his role as an unwitting actor in causing the Kaweah River to run dry.  
 "There, I said it" has the dirty kind of guitar solo you might hear on a Tom Waits record.  "I wake up, I look around / Ted Cruz is a goddamn clown," sings the pissed off Taylor defiantly. 
"Svetlana" is the closest thing I have heard to a song about a Baltic Peggy Sue.  JMT's Buddy Holly influence shines in full shimmer here. 
"Bicycle Eddy" is a fun tale filled with irony which shows that sociopaths exist on all rungs of the economic ladder.  Here, rich people act as the instrument of the asshole's downfall and the homeless Bicycle Eddy embodies a role reversal of the typical depiction of the rich committing injustice against the poor.   The song puts forth (in my mind) the idea that Robin Hood sucks and that anyone who's enough of an asshole to steal from the rich is enough of an asshole to steal from poor, hard working people too. JMT asserts reality by showing that in order to have a just society, even rich people deserve justice too. Or as he says in the previous track, you ain't gonna sell JMT no pie in the sky. His lines have a bit of a 3rd grade tattle-tale tone to them in this one. I guess you'd have to be in 3rd grade to not already know what an asshole Bicycle Eddy is. James riffs,
"Bicycle Eddy don't take a bath / Hides his bike down by the path / he steals candy to trade for smokes / clothespins face cards to his spokes."
Track 7, "I'll never say I love you again",  ironically reflects on the timeless struggle between the heart and the rational mind. It is delivered sparsely  and hauntingly in a minor key. The tag line at the end is a surprising detail, and closes the song nicely, perhaps even triumphantly: "what they say may be true about me and you / but I'll never say I love you again".  
"For a Penny" is the eighth track and the speaker deals with his grief over the loss of a child by engaging in delusions that the child has survived a terminated pregnancy.  it's too personal and heavy to warrant a further comment from me. You need to hear it yourself.  This song will make you cry (ok just that further comment). 
"Loser" is an upbeat blues tune that tries to reach out to listeners who may have yet to make their peace with the humble side of life. Though he plays the part of the "loser" narrator, I don't think he's beating himself up here; like I said, it's a trip to the humble side of life. In the world, you win some and you lose some. This is a good one to play a few times if you want to think about how you'd avoid an identity crisis. 
"The couch" features Brown-eyed girl -esque guitar licks and a midi tin whistle. The lyrics deal with objects as a (sometimes unhealthy) means of bonding with our past and our loved ones. 
"Voices" is part mantric meditation and part doo-wop wet dream. Jasper James comes back with the One man choir.  The song shows the strange torment of life with the lines "There is something deep inside/ wants to laugh and wants to cry".  The doo wop is a substantial piece of creativity. 
The closing track "See ya" is a great example of JMT the melody master.  This one has as catchy a melody as any Beatles tune, or more. He puts a cheap sounding 80's midi banjo on it, which nonetheless works nicely to give it that down home feel.  It's a sincere, hopeful farewell but without any of that sentimental cheese that you find on the other side of the line that separates authentic feelings from  bad vibes. The chorus "It has been a lot of fun listening to everyone / but for now I'm out of here. / hope to see you all next year." is not only catchy but, with the first track, forms the bread that sandwiches the album between two different voicings of the idea that our time here is finite. The moderately attentive listener (who knows the difference between Blaze Foley and Toby Keith) will not be fooled by the cheap production. JMT's music is teeming with soul, humanity, and artistic merit.  
 
 
JMT also gave me a copy of Circle
of No Regrets,
another recent album of his. 
On the 7th track "Water" I realized that one of my favorite things about JMT's music is his versatility. He is a sponge for a remarkably wide range of styles, absorbing them and making them distinctively his own. His take on the straight ahead outlaw sound conjures up the sonic image of an environmentally conscious Billy Joe Shaver-type persona. "Now there's candy in the puddle, meltin' in the piss / who'd have thought an m&m would ever come to this?"  It's a fun song about a Failed rescue attempt of m&m's from a puddle of his own piss. 
 
The same night, I played a show with Garrett Owen and picked up a copy of his EP Slightly Foreign. 
Track 1, "Weakling Skin" exposes the speaker's attempt to confront his weakness, an inner darkness that preys on the pain of others.  "Inside I am weaker than you will ever be / I only came to hurt you cause the feeling sets me free".  He pretends he's running from his lover's tears but he knows he's only running from himself and so he confronts himself:
"I don't need the country cause I'm not gonna hide / soon enough I'll shed my weakling skin".  He sounds like he is using the song as a tool to do what all too often is an insurmountable object: confronting oneself in the world and changing.  The song is a lesson in sincerity and growth. It is bare emotion and pure folk music. 
Track 2 is called "Razorblade Family". The song has a catchy chorus that nonetheless casts a shadow over the listener's heart. The song deals with depression and the accumulating heap of issues that get covered over and ignored in a relationship. 
"So why don't we stare at ourselves in dirty mirrors? / one way to avoid my reflection getting clearer," sings Owen. The two lovers are lost in the world and the relationship. In the chorus, Garrett cries out for sadness to wake his partner up to the reality of their co-existence: "you got a Razorblade family / I got a shotgun story / we got what you call sadness / it ain't sad enough 
The third song, "Mary Read", details the loss of a friend or possibly lover-- displaced geographically or perhaps otherwise absent. The singer is acutely aware of the finiteness of time and the effects of this on the heart. 
Track 4, "Instrumental", is A Leo Kottke / Merle Travis-influenced minor key song showcasing Garret's fingerpicking style and tremendous ability to make the guitar sing.  
Garrett is a talented songwriter with no pretense. He evokes your emotions with his guitar, his voice, and his thoughts about the world. 

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