Before Taylor mccall left his home state of South Carolina to attend Montana State University, he rushed all summer to trade in his flat-bottomed fishing boat for a dinghy he would transport to the ‘Where is. As an avid outdoorsman, a fishing guide seemed like the next logical step. As he descended waist-deep into the crystal-clear waters of fly fishing – a dream for many – another call tugged at his sleeve.
Accompanied by his father on the 28-hour journey home to South Carolina, McCall recalls his father asking, “What’s next? His parents knew he played the guitar because it had been given to him by his grandfather when he was only seven years old.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to do an album,’” McCall told American Songwriter over the phone. “And that’s not the answer everyone would want to hear – he thought I was crazy.”
In a token exchange, McCall sold his drifter boat to fund what would become his debut album: The heat of summer (2017). His parents had never heard him play outside his bedroom and were surprised by the posed artist who first performed in January 2018. In September of the same year, the young artist signed a contract editing with BMG. “It was very fast,” he shares. “I guess my first stab hit landed at a good grade.”
Humbly low-key, the 24-year-old artist’s Music City story feels more like a fairy tale when contrasted with the often harsh reality of chasing musical dreams in Nashville. Still, his confidence carried him well into the scene. “Even a gamer would not say the right thing to do here: quit school to pursue a musical career without ever having sung in front of anyone in my life, not even a cover,” he laughs. “I had to write all the material, it was all so new and fascinating because until then I had never even thought of doing it.”
Moving to Nashville as a performance novice took a bit of warming up. Even now, when releasing her second album, Black powder soul, McCall admits that part hasn’t gotten any easier. He’s established some meditative guidelines to ease his anxiety as he approaches the scene, but when he’s up there he feels like he’s in another world. “It took a lot for a shy, shy guy like me who didn’t even want to read aloud in class at the time to say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be the center of the room,’ McCall says. “It’s a wild dynamic.
McCall credits his astonishing breakthrough to the supporters who supported him along the way. One of them is wanted producer Sean McConnell who McCall calls “a complete bargain.” He adds, “I don’t take this lightly, meeting a soul like his.”
After signing with BMG, he wrote systematically alone, and sometimes with a small circle of trusted collaborators. His manager recommended that he enter the room with McConnell. “As distraught as I am, I had no idea who he was,” McCall laughed. The first time they sat down together, they wrote “So Damn Lucky,” which would become the penultimate track in the collection of 14 songs produced by McConnell. After two long years of meeting talented people with different approaches, McConnell’s demo for this track confirmed that McCall had finally landed in the right place. “When I heard the demo, I knew this was exactly where my soundscape was in my head,” he shares.
For McCall, Black powder soul looks like a fully realized point of arrival. Previous EPs including his eponymous version 2019 were a step in the right direction but failed to satisfy his artistic appetite. Although this LP is not his first, the artist considers it to be his first album. “The other two projects looked like a fast food fast food meal, and it’s like a steak dinner,” he laughs. “If you’re going to go out once, you want to eat as much as possible.” “
Black Powder Soul is not necessarily a concept album. But the intentionally crafted project brings together hidden legacies that paint a fuller picture of the artist and the legacy that brought him here.
The album begins in the same place as his art, with his grandfather, who gave him his first guitar. McCall remembers him as a “good old country boy who wore overalls and chewed tobacco.” Shortly after sending in the guitar, the Vietnamese vet was diagnosed with terminal cancer, possibly from Agent Orange which was absorbed into his brain and lungs overseas.
At a family funeral, an old Slavic Gospel song sounded and McCall’s ears pricked up. “I didn’t know these recordings of my grandfather existed,” he says.
He rediscovered a family history that featured a collection of 12 songs. Only one song featured his grandfather singing. Halfway through the making of this record, McCall played it for McConnell who started crying on the first listen. “Then of course I started to cry,” he says. “I was like, ‘Do you think this is the right option? It took me two years before I could even listen to this little sound clip and show it to him. And he was like ‘Dude, that must be on a record.’ “
Because his grandfather passed away when McCall was still young, he never would have known his grandson would become a musician. “Old Ship Of Zion” is both a thematic tone and a touching tribute to McCall’s early musical influence. “I felt his presence there one day and thought, ‘If the world hears this first draft, then my grandfather will be the first person they hear. “
The music video of her grandfather singing “Old Ship Of Zion” became the opening prelude to Black powder soul. Vintage-style, gravelly vocals haunt the listener as they begin their journey through the album. “I’m proud to have made it into a work of folk art,” says McCall. “The art itself represents the soundscape. It is the frame and the arch that surrounds it. But the middle part of this record is not my grandfather.
Conceptually, McCall placed the track list as a Biblical timeline. “It’s almost like being born, being thrown into hell, then going to heaven,” he explains. “Then this intermediate music is like all the changes you have to deal with to get on the boat, as they say. “
The slow burning rock ballad “Hell’s Half Acre” is the start of this descent. Coming from the depths, “South of Broadway” exhibits the advantages of McCall’s lack of classical instrumentalism. Mixing the banjo with a shrill eclectic guitar can be seen as out of place. Still, it evokes the chaos of McCall’s “crazy circus vibe”.
From the depths of hell, McCall’s dark “Highway Will” displays expressive vocal breadth and wisdom far beyond his years. Bless my heart, I can’t stand still /
The devil don’t kill me, so the highway will, he sings.
Having this record in my hand shows me and I hope the world someday that in three years – it doesn’t matter if it’s 11.12 – but you can go from knowing nothing about anything to releasing an album that you’re really proud, ”says McCall. “If you really give yourself up and are really obsessed and passionate just for the sake of something, it can happen. But it’s also if you’re lucky, first and foremost, because today I consider making music an incredible discipline and privilege.
Whether it’s wading in a cove or recording original music in an air-conditioned studio, McCall’s winding journey is just as unlikely as it is fortuitous. With equal respect for inherited musical traditions and a pioneering spirit, McCall has created a unique Southern soundscape, yet transcendent.
“I’m just blessed that when I’m dead and gone, someone will someday have my projects sitting on their record collection on their mantle,” McCall says. “You can’t take me.”
Listen to Taylor McCall’s new LP Black powder soul, here.
Photo credit: Laura Partain