For more than two decades, session guitarist/producer Joe Taylor lived in Manhattan and worked with famous music industry figures such as Ahmet Ertegun and Keith Diamond. He was also a go-to musician for Donna Summer and Al B. Sure. His guitar work echoed throughout television and film.
Eventually, Taylor decided that it was time to focus on his own music and moved to a little island off the coast of South Carolina to develop the Joe Taylor Group, who locals may recognize from their appearances at BayFest. Currently, the band comprises Taylor, bassist Sean O’Bryan Smith (Lady Antebellum, Billy Joel, P. Funk) and percussionist/native Mobilian Blair Shotts. Taylor took time out of his visit to the mainland to talk about fronting his own band and living in his version of paradise.
SC: So, tell me a little bit about where you live.
JT: After being in Manhattan for 25 years as a session guitar player and an artist on RCA/Victor, I decided to build a house and a studio back down in my native area, which is the low country of South Carolina. We live on a little island just south of Charleston, and it’s called Bennett’s Point. They’re only 32 permanent residents on the island. It’s a little shrimping village, if you could call it that. It’s not even a village, really. It’s a bunch of shrimp docks on a nice piece of water. Blair said it reminds him of the way home used to be in Mobile. It’s in the middle of a wildlife preserve called the Ace Basin. It’s a really nice area to be in, because there will never be any development. I built a house and a separate studio that emulates my favorite studios in Los Angeles and New York. We put a 48-channel Mead console in the control room. Now, everybody comes here when I’m doing a project. It’s great. Blair loves it. I bring in all my guys from New York and LA and Nashville.
SC: What’s it like running a studio on the island?
JT: The purpose and mission of the studio is not to be a retail room. I only do my projects as a producer. I don’t depend on any local talent pool or anything like that. When I’m ready to produce a new artist or produce one of my records, I just bring my guys in. The last three records that I’ve done, I brought Blair in to play drums. Sean O’Bryan Smith, who’s an amazing bass player out of Nashville, comes in too. That’s the Joe Taylor Group. For keyboards, I will generally use Randall Bramblett. Randall plays with Widespread Panic. He lives in Athens, and I bring him in to do Hammond or piano or what-not. We have a really sweet deal. Even though I’m a guitar player, I have a relationship with Yamaha in New York. The head of artist relations, Bonnie Barrett, is a good friend of mine. She kindly sends down a grand piano when we need it, courtesy of Yamaha Corporation, of course.
SC: Randall is a regular around here and very well-known.
JT: Yeah, he’s great, and he’s certainly done a lot for us. He loves coming out here hanging out and playing. He’s actually a featured artist on a big charity even that we do at Christmas each year. He blew off Warren Haynes’ Christmas show and played mine instead. It was really nice having him there.
SC: How did you go from being a session guitarist and producer to fronting your own band?
JT: It’s a long, convoluted trip. When I was signed to RCA as an artist in the ‘90s, I was put within a genre that was classified as “contemporary jazz.” I hate to use the j-word, because I’m not a jazz player. It just so happened that I was doing instrumental pop music. So, RCA decided to sell it through that genre. They had to put me somewhere. I’m really more of what the “Village Voice” called me: “the redneck Jeff Beck.” That’s really more of my thing. I was on the road throughout the ‘90s with my records on RCA. I had a record called “Spellbound,” which was actually a hit and charted in the top five. In the second half of the ‘90s, I concentrated more on television and film. I did Stephen King’s “Golden Years” on CBS and did a bunch of shows like “Roger Moore’s Spy Tech” as a composer and scoring these television shows. That took me away from a career of fronting my own group on the road. After I made the move to this island here about 10 years ago, I started turning my attention back to my thing. We put out a record that was called “Accidental Sugar,” which charted in the top 20 in 2010. Now, I’ve got a new record coming out on March 24.
SC: You mentioned the nickname “The Redneck Jeff Beck.” What do you think about that nickname?
JT: I actually love it. Jeff Beck is one of my favorites, and I do play with a twang. I also talk with a twang. Even though I was in New York so long, I still talk with a Southern accent. Some people might see it as an insult, but I love it! Hell yeah! I’ll take that all day long.
SC: Tell me about the new album.
JT: The new album is called “Sugardust and the Devil Wind.” It is the follow-up to “Accidental Sugar.” It’s a little bit of a departure for me, because it’s a little hotter. It’s a mix of Jeff Beck and Chet Atkins. I’m a finger-style player. I don’t use picks. The record is a collection of material that I started writing three or four years ago. Sean helped write some of it, and Tommy Thunder was a co-writer on some of it. It represents me breaking out of the genre of that contemporary jazz idiom. It’s more rock. A lot of people are saying it sounds like (Joe) Satriani with a twang. There’s some smooth stuff on there, but we try to rock it a little bit more.
SC: How do you shape your guitar parts?
JT: The solos are spontaneous. As an instrumentalist, the guitar becomes the vocalist. So, it’s a real challenge to create a piece of music that will compel the listener when there is no singer. I have to treat the guitar like a voice. I try to play nice, simple melodies and establish a groove there. That being said, the stretches in between, we’ll go nuts and play spontaneous solos and improvise. That’s a jazz influence that I got from being in that jazz genre, but it’s a rocking thing. I’d hate to say that we’re a jam band, but live, we don’t know where we’re going to go.
SC: You introduced yourself to Mobile at BayFest. Now, you’ll be playing The Brickyard, which is a smaller place. As far as returning to Mobile, what are you looking forward to the most?
JT: The town is so special. My wife and I just love strolling Dauphin Street. It’s just such a lovely area to be in. We’re so thankful to Bobby Bostwick for bringing us back to BayFest each year. I think without the hustle and bustle of Mobile that we’ll be able to taste more of Mobile.
Joe Taylor Group, Shelly Waters
Date: Friday, March 13, 10 p.m.
Venue: The Brickyard, 266 Dauphin St., 219-6488
Tickets: $5 at the door