When writers, like myself, criticize Music Row’s stewardship of country music, it’s usually with the best interests of artists like Brit Taylor in mind. It’s never been about “pop” country. It’s about a business model that tells pure hearts and great voices to adapt or die, to fake it until they make it - and thereafter. The title of Taylor’s debut album Real Me rebukes this coercion at several levels, but the one that comes through the speakers is a voice of uncompromised grace, a voice The Biz couldn’t or wouldn’t let be.
“With other producers, I had been told, you know, raise the key, push harder,” Taylor said in the conversation presented below. The goal, among these specialists in “talent development” was conformity to the diva model. When a young woman is attractive and raised with a love of country music, it is decreed that she will live for money notes because, well, money. “And I never really enjoyed that in the studio. You know, I love Carrie Underwood. I think she's fantastic singer. But I don't sing that way.”
Indeed, Taylor’s real voice on Real Me is velvety, wine-soaked, low and luxurious - not to mention playful and assured. She identifies with Patsy Cline, and that’s fair, while fans may also hear echoes of Allison Moorer and Kelly Willis. Throughout most of her 20s though, between her MTSU music business degree and her hard-won independence, the infrastructure of country music’s publishing and record deals told her there was a program - one with a contradiction at its core.
“It's funny. But one thing I heard over and over again, from people on Music Row was, you have to be an individual and you have to stand out,” she says. “But then you'd stand out too much. And they'd say, well, why don't you sound more like this? And I'm like, I thought you wanted me to sound different.”
It happened with songwriting too. “I'll never forget, I wrote a waltz and turned it in. And everybody emailed back right away. And I was like, oh wow, a response! But all the responses were: Man, I love this. Too bad it's not 1967! And I was just like, dang, come on, like why can't we do this again? I love a good waltz.”
For some, certainly, mainstream country is a superhighway, but for Taylor it was a suburb full of culs-de-sac. And the way out came from a referral to wizardly roots producer/engineer Dave Ferguson, famous for his work with John Prine, Sturgill Simpson’s recent bluegrass foray and much more. That conversation led to Dan Auerbach, the indie rocker turned production guru, a modern day Owen Bradley if Nashville has one. And there, writing and singing with Dan and producer/musician Dave Brainard, a new path began to open up.
“I remember Dan said, ‘Hey, let's lower this key a half step. And I just want you to sing really soft and easy. Do what comes the most natural and the easiest to you.’ And that just blew my mind. It was just the first time that I heard myself sing that way back in the control room. I was like, whoa, I didn’t know I could do that. Or that I was allowed to do that. And that was the moment I found my voice for sure.”
Brit Taylor is part of the new vanguard of country artists coming out of Kentucky, a cohort of rural-raised standouts as individual and exciting as their legendary forbears. The hills, hollers and highways that delivered Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless have in recent years ushered forth Sturgill Simpson, Kelsey Waldon, Tyler Childers, Leah Blevins and Angaleena Presley. For her part, Taylor does not answer to the standard bio of coming from a musical family. She latched on to the sound on her own (along with her country-loving papaw) and cultivated it as a youth artist on the Kentucky Opry, an independent theater in the southeastern tip of the state. She remembers that when she was in the sixth grade, she was one of a number of youth selected to take a charter bus to Nashville to perform at a star-studded event celebrating the next generations coming from around US-23, the famed “country music highway,” and that ignited the dream.
MTSU led to a song publishing internship and then a writing deal and the long unfolding of events that would lead her to an existential crisis and the turn of events that led to Auerbach’s island of misfit toys. On parallel track, she realized her marriage had been a big mistake and unwound that even as she rehabilitated her artistic outlook. So if a lot of nested emotions pour forth on Real Me, there are true life stories to back them up.
It opens with “Back In The Fire,” a sultry, southern self-examination in the vein of Bobby Gentry, embroidered with luminous strings and Taylor’s sprightly phrasing. The title song tracks Taylor’s yearning to trust in love and open up her “gun shy heart” in a romantic sense, but one hears the professional and artist asking to be taken seriously as well. A hallmark of any fine country album is a nimbleness in style, and this one bops easily from the groovy dobro-dragging shake of “Wagon” to the defiant and witty divorce anthem “Married Again” to the lovely and blue “Raggedy Heart,” which is, heaven forbid, a waltz. Taylor caps it off with “Go Down Swingin’,” a song whose dance hall bounce is true to its title. The record was released in late November, during a highly distracted time in our lives, so don’t think of it as one of 2020’s last fine albums but rather as one of 2021’s first.
To watch Taylor’s unfolding is also to be ushered into the growing career of her life partner and musical collaborator Adam Chaffins, a fellow Kentucky native and a bass player and songwriter who’s shifted his focus from years of band and sideman work (The Deadly Gentlemen, Susan Werner, Town Mountain) to an impressive debut in early 2020 with Some Things Won’t Last. He plays on her projects. She sings on his. Which suggests that those with the courage and revelation to put their honest selves tend to find rewards in all kinds of places.