Taylor McCall Steps Into the Country Shadows on ‘Black Powder Soul’ Sounds Like Nashville
Emerging in recent years as a young singer-songwriter with an old soul — maybe even eternal — Taylor McCall is no stranger to the darker fringes of country … and his new album takes listeners beyond the pale.
With his full-length debut set, Black Powder Soul, the South Carolina native digs deep into the explosive potential of everyday life, exploring the highly reactive elements that make each of us tick. From good times to (more often) bad, he chips away at our everyday facade with an edgy and blues-soaked roots-rock hammer, and Sounds Like Nashville is here to pick up the pieces.
Speaking with SLN about Black Powder Soul’s release, Taylor McCall helps explain where his inventive, otherworldly art is coming from, and how he made it sound like nothing else in country.
Sounds Like Nashville: Listening to the very top of the record here, you’ve got your grandfather right at the opening. What’s that mean to you to get to have that family connection on your first full length like this?
Taylor McCall: Man, it’s everything. … He still lives on in my heart, but for him to always be here on this Earth instead? When I found that audio file, even I didn’t know it existed for years and years and years, and now it’s like cemented in vinyl that will be hopefully around the world now, that’s the greatest honor. I can pass this torch on. You know, he never got to see me in these stages of playing music, and it’s a beautiful thing man.
It sets the tone, the whole packaging, the artwork, the production and the lyrics I feel like go together so well to set such a distinct image for what this is. Did you have this kind of image for coming out of the gate like this with this kind of record?
I’ve had it for about 2 years. … I was thinking, when I get the chance to make my debut project like, what is the statement piece of art? Like, you can have the Mona Lisa, but it’s like what kind of frame are you going to put around the Mona Lisa? For me I look at my art and my record as it’s just as important to get that visual across and not just cheese ball something or not do it justice, just fit the sonic landscape, and I just kind of looked up one night late “Cowboys From Hell,” which is actually a Pantera song, and this piece of art popped up in Google images. I couldn’t find the artist for like 2 years and when it came time for like 2 days before we had to have our record art submitted, I was turning everybody down because I wanted this piece of art in particular, but I couldn’t find the guy, and nobody could get a hold of him. Then finally somehow I found this number somewhere and I just called it and got him. It’s all kind of like how I feel my music career has been so far, the quickness of the last couple three years it’s like everything is in perfect timing and it’s always what it’s meant to be.
I truly try to tap into divine things, not religion, not necessarily God, but the universal like what am I supposed to be here for, what am I supposed to make and if there is a higher being to bestow, if I can just be the antenna that I know I am sometimes. Like when I’m creating things it’s like “What is that thing trying to say through me?” And when I try to align myself — not always great at it — but get my life right and try to be like would it be meditation practices, breath practices, just getting my mind right. Everything seems to fall into place. … So the full package of this record, it really even still blows me away because it was more than I could have ever imaged when I went in.
It was like, I want to make a masterpiece here you know? It goes back to the Mona Lisa thing — “What would you put around that? And it goes even deeper with having my grandfather involved and my mom singing harmonies on that track with him, and she’s like 13 or 14 years old, it’s pretty freakin’ crazy.
If you have to define what the tone of this is, to me it’s very American through and through. What is it to you? What are you trying to communicate to people?
I like that statement. I haven’t really thought of that’s American. That’s very, very cool as I sit here and lift my shirt up to blow my nose in my shirt and l have a full American belt. My whole belt is American flags like, repeated, and a lot of people would take that as you’re not supposed to wear the American flag, but I thought it was just a cool belt. I love America and I wear this a lot now and it’s a pretty bad ass belt and … you’ve kind of sparked this … but say maybe an alien came down from space and was like “Show somebody what an American is.” I feel like I’d be a pretty good representation of that or my music. It’s very blue collar, it’s very hands on, hard-work based.
There’s a lot of things in my music, maybe the ruggedness was experienced through hard work you know, growing up busting my tail and then coming to Nashville, and making music is the essence of the American dream. So, tone and sonically I feel like it’s this hellish landscape, this kind of Red Dead Redemption 3 landscape towards like what life really is about. It’s like maybe you get dropped off when you are born off the old ship of Zion, and you get picked back up when you die, but everything in between, no matter how good or glorious or redemptive, it’s going to be hellish, you know what I mean? It’s not an easy life we have.
I think that’s fascinating and such an interesting way to put it. … Did you have any sonic touch stones, is there anybody that you look back to, any tracks or artists that you said “Oh yes, I want to make a record like that, I want to make it sound as close to this as possible”?
I think if anything, just having that Jimmy Hendricks mentality: We can go in here and make whatever we want to, there are no rules here. We can get weird like, we have everything in our access. … When we were in there on the second day, we didn’t know we were making. I hadn’t even picked up an electric guitar yet, and we didn’t know what kind of record we were making. I had all these songs, but until this point, I’ve only created on an acoustic guitar because that’s all I’ve had, so I feel like I’ve campfire tested a hell of a lot of my material. When we brought the electric guitar in on the third night, the record really revealed itself to us when we got tracks like “Black Powder Soul,” “Hell’s Half Acre,” “Crooked Lanes,” these really driven electric things just took it to another level, and the sonic landscape is totally like the full representation of where I’m at, who I feel like I am, my branding as they say. Not in a shallow way, but if I had to rip out my insides and put them in an audio file, that’s where I’m at these days.
I think that’s so cool and so rare for an early-stages artist like you. So often people are kind of corralled and pushed in a direction, like market tested to death, and it doesn’t really have a feel. But this has such a kind of a gutsy feel to it to me.
Thank you, that’s how it makes me feel. … I look at my art and music as first and foremost my therapy, so why would I let someone tell me as the therapist how to help myself as my own patient?
I noticed looking through your bio and notes, it talks about your unique guitar style. You are self-taught, how does that form your understanding of putting a song together? Did you do everything by ear like Stevie Ray Vaughn, who didn’t understand anything and just played in the closet kind of thing?
All these years in the bedroom by myself, I maybe knew your cowboy chords of like G, C and D, but I wasn’t really using that. I was detuning the guitars to weird things. I didn’t know what I was doing in standard tuning, really. … Now I think of how all those years I wished I could have played with someone, or had someone show me some things, and I’m glad that never happened. Because I can show up in a room these days with some pretty incredible bad ass guitar players and to hear them compliment some of the things I’m doing, and I’m not even knowing what I’m doing. It really means a lot to me and it goes to show anyone can do this thing. A lot of the times the rule benders, the people that don’t know all these things, that’s kind of like the essence of of like improv jazz — and I’m not a jazz player for damn sure, but everything I play is kind of like improv jazz.
For you, the legacy from your grandfather and your mother getting a guitar at a young age, being in a self-built home it seems like a family lineage of this self-reliance and the self-expression, would you say that that’s true?
I’ve never really thought of as well, but it’s a great point. A very independent, strong-willed family, just real good country people built up right. My dad has seen some s***, and my mom has seen some s***, and they raised me in a very self-reliant way — but also with the wisdom of silence. I love being around my pops and it’s like we don’t have a to say a word to each other and just have a great time.
What is it like to go from playing in your bedroom on your acoustic guitar or around the campfire entertaining friends or family, to being in a studio setting having to collaborate with producers, other musicians and stuff?
From day one, I just jumped right in. I just jumped right in and all these days of working hard, it’s like that’s all I ever wanted was the monetary freedom to be able to create my music and not to maybe having to work the day job. I spend almost every other day in the studio these days and it still hasn’t got old. I don’t take it for granted that’s for sure, because I know I could go back tomorrow and be working construction in 100 degree weather.
How do you think that informs your world view in your work ethic knowing that that’s the work that you came from and the world that you kind of represent?
If I’m being completely honest, I have this saying about my work flow it’s all driven by passion, but I’m a hustler. I feel like I’ve won the lottery here man, and I’m trying to win it again and I’m okay if I never win it again, because I’m breaking even at the last here. I’m getting to do my dream every day and it’s one of these things I will outwork [anyone], in the most purest form. It’s like Jimmy Hendricks, in that very short lifetime he got to that level putting in the hours, so I kind of say I work these Elon Musk hours.
Your music, your lyrics even your song titles have an earthiness to them, a very connected kind of primal sort of sense that they make. Is that something that you work on?
I like words or phrases that hit my ears like a dang freight train or how a line may read. I feel I’m a very earthy Appalachian guy, I tend to wear earthy tones, a lot of my music gear is earthy. I’m looking at my vinyl record … and it does read off very earthy in the sense of more serious matters. Not in a fatal way, but I think about death a lot. I think about what happens after life, and it’s like, maybe my subject matter would not connect or feel as authentic if it was talking about maybe 21st century things. I hide a lot in my lyrics, there are so may ways these lyrics mean to me that no one will every know. These songs really mean so many things the more you sit with them, and it’s a pretty beautiful way of making art.
You mentioned that you did a lot of this tested them on your own with your acoustic guitar, do you have a go-to guitar, one that is your trusty companion?
I’ve got like about eight Martin guitars and then I’ve gotten myself a custom built Peter Robson acoustic. He’s a very high quality dreadnaught builder, and it’s only the 28th guitar he’s ever built.
Does it inform and inspire you when you pick it up to play or to write with it?
One hundred percent. I always say it’s like wearing my favorite pair of Air Jordan’s to go play basketball, and I don’t play basketball these days, but it’s like if you’re going to have a shoe or tool to do the job, you want that one that makes you want to go to work every day. I’ve played it a lot of times and it still inspires me every time. The acoustic properties of the tone of the wood, like a lot of the acoustic songs on the record I played a fiddle bow on these open drone tunings on the guitar and I call it the pyscho choir cello, and it’s nuts! Me and Shawn made this whole thing ourselves and that’s how weird we got with it, and that’s how weird I am on a daily basis, so it was important that the world wants the first bite of what I have to give on my first debut record, that it be me. Adding a banjo part to a rock & roll song? that’s me playing the banjo on there. I don’t know how to play banjo, I don’t know how to play any of these things! It’s so me and if anyone else was in the room and doing the other part it might sound really cool and on time, but I feel like my obscurities make my madness some kind of cool mixture these days.