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Buy Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez's 'Let's Leave This Town' (2002)

Buy 'The Best of the Troggs' (1994), which features the most famous version of the Chip Taylor-penned 'Wild Thing.'

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Fiddlesticks: Chip Taylor is hooked on the talent of his new touring and recording partner, Carrie Rodriguez.

Taylor Made

Once best-known as the rock genius behind 'Wild Thing,' Chip Taylor returns to music to discover he's the darling of alt-country

By Steve Palopoli

It's not everyone who gives up a successful music career to become a professional gambler. OK, actually it's not anyone except Chip Taylor. The hit-machine writer of songs like "Angel of the Morning" and the towering rock anthem "Wild Thing" simply walked away from it all in the late '70s to count cards and play the ponies, and it would be almost two decades before he returned to music.

But when he did, he got a hell of a welcome back.

Strangely enough, it wasn't from the rock gods who had turned "Wild Thing" into one of the most covered songs of all time (Jimi Hendrix and Roy Orbison at least had an excuse, being dead), or from any of the '90s Alternative Nation hipsters who had just ridden into the mainstream on the three-chord anarchy pioneered by artists like Taylor (and the Troggs, whose version of "Wild Thing" is the very definition of proto-punk).

Nope, the big fuss came from Americana singer/songwriters like Lucinda Williams, who idolized Taylor's work in both rock and country music.

"Lucinda took me to this place called the Sutler," says Taylor, "and she got onstage and said something like, 'The best goddamned songwriter in the world is here tonight, and he's back, and he's on the charts next week for the first time in 30 years, and we're gonna rock this house.' And we did a version of 'Wild Thing' that they're still talking about."

It turned out that, even more than his famous pop work, Taylor's small but revered output of maverick country albums in the '70s had been extremely influential on the "new" genre of Americana. Of course, it wasn't new at all, really, but whereas in Taylor's early years "rebel country" or "redneck rock" or whatever you wanted to call it was the art of a few brave souls with the guts to buck Nashville trends, there was now a whole movement of up-and-coming musicians walking in their footsteps. Particularly influential was Taylor's 1973 album Last Chance; its lead cut "(I Want) The Real Thing" was a sort of unofficial theme song for KPIG forerunner KFAT.

"Last Chance was against the mainstream, and all the records I made back then, I was having running battles with the Nashville companies, because they wanted me to play by their rules and come down and play with those musicians, and I wanted to have my own band and do it my own way," says Taylor. "When I came back to making music six or seven years ago, it was like I didn't care about playing by any rules. Whereas before I was signed to the major labels and had to have those running battles, when I came back, I knew I wasn't going to have any battles. Not that the majors would have wanted me anyway, but I knew that I was going to come back and do it my way, absolutely, and find some way to get my records distributed."

Payback Time

Ironically, Americana has also been an inspiration to him--in fact, his awareness of the movement was partially what inspired him to give up gambling in 1996 and record Hit Men--a collection of the hits he'd written for other people but for the most part never properly recorded--and The Living Room Tapes, a record more true to his quirky singer/songwriter style. He found he was quickly taken in by Americana icons like Williams and Guy Clark--and Steve Earle, who had been regularly covering his work for years.

"There's been all these wonderful friends and people I admire, because I think the group of people that are making this kind of music are the real poets of the day, and they're the ones that are the most inspired, and they're taking the chances," says Taylor. "So it's wonderful to be in that group, to be hanging around with Steve Earle and John Prine and everybody. You can't wait to hear their next record--what they're thinking, what they're feeling--because you know we're all in this together."

What Taylor is feeling recently is that he's damn lucky to have discovered fiddler Carrie Rodriguez, with whom he's been recording and touring for the last year. Rodriguez is being hailed not only for her instrumental talent, but for her vocal ability, which has put her at the top of several "Singer of the Year" polls.

"I really think she's the story of the year," says Taylor. "She's a brilliant fiddle player."

Together, the two are touring behind their acclaimed Let's Leave This Town, and Taylor is finding that things are much better the second time around than they were back in his wild years.

"I was hooked on gambling and I didn't want to tour. I did only two or three tours in my life in the '70s, and they were short ones. I needed to stay by the racetrack in New York, 'cause that's what I was addicted to, and I was good at that," he says. "So when I came back, I gave up gambling and decided to come back with a full heart, just making music, and I didn't give a damn about anything except for playing for people and somehow getting my records out on my own label or some little label. It was something that filled me with joy, just the thought of it, from the minute I decided to do it."


Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez perform Saturday, March 29, at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, with Tex-Mex sister act Sisters Morales opening at 7:30pm. Tickets are $19, available at Etc. Etc. Etc. Antiques or by calling 479.9421.

A Brief History of 'Wild Thing'

By Chip Taylor, as told to Steve Palopoli

I was at the point I was writing mostly country songs, and I was somewhat successful at it, because I'd just been signed to a publishing company as a staff writer, which was a wonderful thing for me, because before that I was having to jump around from publisher to publisher to make $30 a song. I was signed by April Bachman Music, which was CBS's company, and they said I could write whatever I wanted. At that point, Chet Atkins was the head of A&R--not just a great guitar player--and he had taken a liking to my songs.

"I was doing another demo for Chet that day when I started chugging away at this thing that became 'Wild Thing.' I wasn't sure what it was, and I wasn't sure whether to do the country song or the new thing I was fooling around with. I decided to take a chance with the new one, even though it wasn't quite written--I thought maybe I could let it feel itself out live as I sang it. Like the old blues singers, they used to say lines a couple of times and just repeat 'em until they could figure out something to make it rhyme. I thought this thing was having that organic quality that might sound good if I said something that I felt rather than something my brain was thinking. So I said 'Oh, the hell with it, I'll try it.'

"I had some of the lines, but I wasn't sure exactly how it would go, or where it would take me, or what form it would be in, or where I would stop, or where I would not stop. I just wanted to go with what felt right, so 'Wild Thing' was a very organically recorded demo. Then I overdubbed a couple of things on it and made it sound as juicy as I could. It was me and the guitar, and me stomping on the floor, and my friend doing a little thing with his hands that sounded like an ocarina. My demo sounded exactly like the Troggs' record, except my demo was done with a big fat old Kay acoustic guitar, and the Troggs record was done on an electric guitar. But other than that, it's so close, it's scary.

"It was very simple, just that little groove that I played on the guitar that was just my own little thing. I was not a great guitar player, but I had this way of manufacturing a groove in certain ways that was--I don't know how to explain it, but when I used to make my demos that was part of my thing. The way I would play guitar would capture a certain sweaty groove that would be integral to that song, and none more than 'Wild Thing.' My hand just went that way and caught those extra little sixteenth notes. I didn't even know what I was doing, I just did it and it sounded juicy and sweaty. And there were just those dumb three chords, but they were played like it was an important as a Beethoven suite.

"I think there's been three great versions of 'Wild Thing.' The Troggs' version--and Reg [Presley] is one of the unheralded great punk rock singers of all time. Jimi Hendrix's, which was an amazing version of it, and so true to the groove of the song. And the X version, which to me would have been a monster hit if they'd ever promoted it as a single. They just promoted it as a dance single--to me that was so silly. They would have had the biggest record of the year."

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From the March 26-April 2, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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