Record Review - 4 September 05 2001

Eric Taylor was the least conspicuous third of a potent Texas singer/songwriter triumvirate that thrived in the unlikely folkie hub of Houston in the 1970s. And while contemporaries Guy Clark and the late Townes Van Zandt were held up to varying levels of hero worship in the ensuing decades, Taylor subsisted on handouts from famous friends to nourish his underdeveloped reputation while he spent some hard years getting his personal life in order. Even today, his verdant, Faulkneresque vision and skilled blues-based acoustic picking seem fated to resonate from the wings, filtered, in one form or another, through the likes of Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and ex-wife Nanci Griffith.

Despite a slick promotional nudge from Emmylou Harris' Eminent label, Scuffletown isn't likely to up Taylor's profile by much, it's acutely focused slice-of-strife imagery offset by blotches of restrained instrumental color — saxophone, piano, delicate fret work, spare percussion.

The album's 11 tracks shun instant gratification, their revelations coming in gentle, unhurried waves as loosely coiled melodies constrict and unravel along with the lives of Scuffletown's disenfranchised denizens. There's Bone, a colorless freak of nature "raised on penny candy, black molasses, sugar cane and beer." There's Delia, gunned down by her scorned lover, Curtis, "with his faithful .44," and the Rooster, who'd be more than happy to "straighten out your business no matter what you call it."

For them, tragedy and redemption run hand in hand — the potential for the latter is slim indeed. Taylor has always been a master at transforming overtly preachy, issue-oriented material into the stuff of internal strife. And just how much of the man himself went into these shady characters is a mystery worth savoring. As with all the great storytellers, everything's personal when you feel too much.??