In James Michael Taylor’s new album, Slaughter Mountain, the singer-songwriter persuades us to walk a country mile — and then some — in his scuffed work boots; through coal mines, rivers, and cotton fields; alongside ghosts, crippled miners, and living saints; and in the shadow of Slaughter Mountain itself, a cursed heap you won’t find on any map but that looms over every fruited plain and amber wave of grain. The blue collar, as we see, is a kind of noose. The people who wear it like to think they’ve chosen the humble, simple, virtuous life, but we all know differently.
The cover of Slaughter Mountain is a black-and-white photograph of two men in coveralls and lamp-lit hard hats, seated in a cross-legged position. They appear to hover slightly above train tracks. Each man has one hand on a pail, the other on the other man’s shoulder. One of the men, according to the liner notes, is Taylor’s grandfather, Fred Teeters, a coal miner in Oram, Tenn., where the photo was taken in 1925. A closer look reveals that the men aren’t floating but sitting on rail saddles, tiny, torturous conveyances used to ferry workers in and out of the mines. Like Teeters and the other man in the picture, passengers held on to each other for balance.
People born in hell share the common enemy of despair. Instinctively they know to stick together. Their peculiar dignity forms the thick of Slaughter Mountain. Taylor, who has lived and performed in Fort Worth for about 30 years, was raised poor farther West. Not 1925 Oram poor, but poor enough to be tattooed by family doctrine. “It wasn’t how many quail you killed, it was all about the bang,” Taylor sings on “California Christmas Memories,” one of several biographical songs on the album. “And once the presents opened, and living room’s all clean / The wrapping’s what it’s all about in that desert Christmas scene.” After unwrapping a can of pork and beans, the singer exclaims, “Holy cow!” When “John” opens a gift containing an old bow tie, Dad tries to stifle a snigger.
Slaughter Mountain inverts last year’s overly produced Counter Clockwise, a record credited to Jasper James and the Cowtown Boners. Reeking of piss and vinegar, and digitized to death, Counter Clockwise leaves no stone un-thrown. Stupid teenagers, ugly Americans, oppressive authority figures, politicos, corrupt states of mind — Taylor neutralizes them all. Slaughter Mountain is markedly less rabid, and better. Taylor wisely replaces his sermons with campfire reverie and trades in the plastic beats for the pounding of his own heart. The intimate music assumes the solidity of space. The listener’s left in a pickle, not knowing whether to wrestle free or surrender.
The album’s first two, weird tracks, “Big Fat Horse” and “Hoedown,” sound friendly and familiar, but, in lockstep with the rest of the album, they’re extremely toxic. Unlike folk music giants Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and descendants Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Taylor embraces novelty. To him, it’s a great way to make the shit easier to swallow. “Hoedown” openly harks to Appalachian tradition and Aaron Copland … as interpreted by Kenny Rogers in a rhinestone jumpsuit. However, the “hoedown” here is the placement of the common farming tool to the row:
Pick one bale, and I make three dollars
Oh, oh, bless my soul
Bolls hurt my fingers, and it makes
You got a june bug on your collar
I look at all the hungry people
I’m so hungry it makes me swaller
Hang it on the fence, it’ll dry by evenin’
Gotta get to town now
Bathin’ in the creek, and I think
“Big Fat Horse” churns to the methodical rhythm of a single, dissonant note banged on acoustic guitar. Taylor’s fresh voice, multi-tracked to approximate a small chorus, circles the song’s steady pulse. As sung in eerie unison, the melody achieves the incantatory momentum of a tribal chant. The suggestion of transcendence, though, is undercut by the sheer, wanton intensity of earthly desire. Along with a big fat horse, the singer also fancies: a pretty girl, a mountaintop, a buffalo, corn to feed his kin, and “a big fat frog” to fry in a pan. “Open up some pork and beans,” Taylor goes on, selling the hunger. “Eat ’em from the can.”
The album doesn’t truly start until the third track. More of a minor epiphany than a proper tune, “Prologue” still establishes the mood, somewhere between bemusement and regret. Over a gently picked progression, Taylor speaks in relaxed, even tones, his voice crackling and distant, as if he’s calling himself from the past on a pay phone. Taylor admits he remains fascinated by Tennessee, “a strange place that got lost somewhere” over time, the home of his mother and grandfather, and where family members fought, divorced, and became alcoholics. Pairing background music with speech also lends “Prologue” an intoxicating cinematic power. We can easily envision Taylor’s eyes dancing skittishly around the camera as he talks, with the faraway, twinkling score unfolding behind him.
Not that Taylor would entertain the thought, but with a fresh coat of paint, a few Slaughter Mountain tracks could cross over, into triple-A, mainstream country, or rock, especially “Coal Fever.” A fiery, tremulous allegory, the song distills Steve Earle down to just a gritty timbre and an addict’s defiance. As an acoustic guitar plinks and plunks, Taylor frantically spits: “I never told my mama I got the disease / I hid the black scars on my elbows and knees / You try to grab a boxcar when she’s starting to roll / And you miss the first step, you get a fist full of coal.” The fun part is the forward tumble of his mouth trying to catch up to the rhythm.
On the family-friendly side, “Lisa Makes Appointments” is a bona fide weeper. Taylor’s paean to a woman with a harrowing past who nevertheless lets friends cry on her shoulder would have been treacle in lesser hands. Instead, it’s a study in restraint. He manages to generate sympathy for Lisa by stressing understatement, by deferring to the words and music rather than gussying them up and ramming them into our ears.
As a man with an almost fetishistic preoccupation with destruction, Taylor indeed locates room on Slaughter Mountain for gospel. “I’m Still Here” is based on one of several recent cave-ins in the news. Like Springsteen’s bluesy “Into the Fire,” a 9/11 lament delivered from the point of view of a New York City firefighter on his way “up the stairs,” “I’m Still Here” also conjures a cruel place, where praying — for survival and, barring that, forgiveness — consumes every breath. The trapped miner’s dying wish is to be taken home. In both songs, struggling upward is a metaphor for ascending into heaven.
The album ends like it began. The title track lays a soft, uncluttered acoustic pattern over Taylor’s reminiscences. The speaker encounters the Great Beyond at the foot of towering earth, where he “[comes] to the end of that old dirt road … and the trail wanders down to the water’s edge / And the footprints of my old friends.”
Slaughter Mountain has its fissures and crags. Maybe to stress the seriousness of “Hickory Sticks,” a haunting ballad co-written by Lisa Aschmann, Taylor sings through his nose, a gratuitous homage to (or imitation of?) Dylan. A shame, ’cause old Bob might wish he’d written this song. Billy Mac and Don McRay are two young men who work in a factory that produces the lacquered handles for jugs and whatnot. The boys get high off the polish. “They don’t smoke tobacco / They don’t need no fix,” a cranky Taylor whines. “At night deep in their pillows, they dream about hickory sticks.” Thankfully, when the singer yodels solemnly during the chorus, he uses his own set of pipes, no one else’s.
Another misstep, “Frustrated Artist” just flickers, all banjo and jaw harp but no kick. The song, about Adolf Hitler and his failed painting career, works better as flash doggerel: “He overcompensated for his lack of compensation for the pictures that he drew / And he took out his frustrations on the gypsies of the nation and the occasional Jew.”
And what should have been a compelling yarn, “Someone’s Little Brother/Help” is marred by Taylor’s moral superiority. As the singer and other folks loiter by a river, a drowning boy cries out. The only person to respond is Taylor, who at song’s end looks down on everyone for “just standing there and talkin’ / On the shore / Just drinkin’ beer and gawkin’ / Smokin’ cigarettes and laughing / All the fun that they were havin’ / He said, ‘Help.’” The hero’s tale of adventure isn’t rendered any less gauche by his ticking off all he had to lose: “I got sunflowers and tomatoes / Castor beans and summer squash / I got roses piled with coffee grounds / But this summer is a wash.” Sorry to inconvenience you, James.
A last quibble: Taylor sometimes invites preciousness. By brusquely rubbing soot on his rosy cheeks, the songwriter unknowingly commits one of folksong’s cardinal sins: glorifying poverty and despair. In his defense, it is an occupational hazard in an art form about, well, occupational hazards. Some artists choose the right word over the wrong, prettier one. Others don’t. On Slaughter Mountain, James Michael Taylor gives in to the cute turn of phrase here and there. But when he does, it still verges on tastefulness. It’s not anything that his monumental opus can’t weather.