The Bottom of the River Haw

By  |  September 9, 2014
"Alamance County - Haw River" (2009) by Holden Richards "Alamance County - Haw River" (2009) by Holden Richards

It’s exceptionally difficult to talk about Haw—the newest record from Hiss Golden Messenger, the songwriting alias of M. C. Taylor—without talking about death, and Sunday morning seemed like as good a time as any for Taylor and me to get into it. We were seated outside at Durham’s Geer Street Garden, and in between forkfuls of grits I was trying to tell him about an interview I’d read with the Sri Lankan monk Bhante Gunaratana, in which Gunaratana suggested that death is constant, omnipresent (“In fact everything in the body and mind is dying every given moment, and it is renewing—being reborn”), but it was sunny and my breakfast tasted good and there were children running around, and I didn’t especially want to feel slack-eyed about my own mortality. Instead, I told Taylor that I empathized with his aspiration to be mindful, always, of the fact that our presence is temporary, but that it could be a paralyzing feeling, too. He nodded and quoted the writer George Saunders: “If death is in the room, it’s pretty interesting.” We chewed our eggs for a minute. Then we gave up and drove to Home Depot to buy a can of wood stain.

These particular tensions—being aware of your own impermanence versus being cowed by it; trawling the darkest corners of existence versus the fulfillment of a rote domestic requirement—are central to Hiss Golden Messenger, the country-rock band Taylor has led since 2007, when he left California and his former outfit, The Court and Spark, for North Carolina. As Hiss Golden Messenger, Taylor writes lucid, often heartbreaking songs about God and frailty and the passage of time. He is not a trickster, but I am continually surprised by how his songs work, by the potency of their emotional and rhythmic shifts. I feel both protective of and protected by them. The tensions that animate his writing (the dualities that guide and destroy us: darkness and light, our pasts and our futures) feel particularly germane to a cultural moment in which our collective understanding of goodness has been scrambled by war and technology and underemployment and a vague but indisputable pessimism. He understands the weight of it all. “If I’m gonna sing this stuff, it better mean something,” he told me. “Because what’s the point of writing a song just to sing it?”

 

In 1666, in one of the earliest published descriptions of the chunk of earth that eventually became North Carolina, Robert Horne wrote of its rivers: “Here are as brave Rivers as any in the world.” The Haw rises in Forsyth County, just northwest of Greensboro, where it briefly curls upward before looping back down; around a hundred miles later, it merges with the Deep River and helps feed the Cape Fear River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean a few miles south of Wilmington. North Carolina’s Piedmont region—the wedge of land in the middle of the state, flanked to the west by the Blue Ridge Mountains and to the east by the coastal plain, fed, in part, by the Haw—is imbued with a certain insularity, a temperance. Those rivers give it gravity. It seems like a place where you could get a little thinking done.

On a clear-skied, late-winter Saturday, Taylor picked me up at my hotel just before 8 a.m., and we started south from Durham toward Pittsboro, through the base of the Haw River Valley. He’d promised to show me the house where he wrote most of Bad Debt and Poor Moon, the third and fourth Hiss Golden Messenger records, before following the river northwest to the city of Graham. The musician Tamara Lindeman, who records as The Weather Station, was working on a new album there, in the back of a local luthier shop called Fret Sounds. She’d invited Taylor to come by with his guitar.

I’d never seen the river Haw was named after, but it felt right, going there with Taylor. Place is paramount in his work, as are what he calls “internal landscapes”—the facts of how we exist in the world, in relation to those around us. While we waited for coffee at a roastery on the outskirts of town, I asked Taylor, who was born and reared in California, if he ever self-identified as a Southern artist. “I would never call myself a Southerner,” he said. “I don’t think I’m allowed to do that. But I definitely think that Hiss Golden Messenger is drawing on Southern music. That’s the music that I listen to. It’s the reason, basically, I moved to the South. Everything that I love the most is Southern. And I felt like it was important for me to live here and start to develop at least a tiny understanding of the South as a crucible of ideas.”

Weeks later, after I’d left North Carolina, I pushed Taylor to unpack those ideas. “I think I was trying to say that it is good and important to understand the South as a dynamic and variegated place that is home to many worldviews, some of which seem to work directly in opposition to one another,” he replied. “In that respect, it’s not so different from anywhere else, but it does run counter to what the international party line on the South seems to be: God-fearing, hysterical, and simple. To begin to understand what the South has to offer, culturally speaking, it helps to consider the complexity of the place. It’s easier to grasp the Southern kitchen-sink approach of, say, Link Wray’s Three Track Shack recordings when you understand that Link was an expert in all Southern vernacular music, and was drawing from it all equally—gospel, blues, country and western, Native music, circus music. And I feel like the most important Southern music—or the music that I’m most drawn to, anyways—is happening at those cultural nexuses where things are not yet crystallized and a little hazy.”

Taylor has a masters in folklore from the University of North Carolina, and I’d assumed the impact of his education was clear, that he’d been granted access to sounds and dialects and stories that had then burrowed into his work in obvious ways, giving it dimensionality, rooting it in place. There is truth in that—you can hear all those influences in Hiss Golden Messenger, the acquiescence of gospel, the boozy raucousness of country—but Taylor understood the benefits as broader, more extra-musical. “My job was to be the best listener that I could, and to extrapolate from these conversations the most meaningful parts,” he explained. “Doing so much of that, I started to understand the commonalities between people, the regional themes of our workaday lives, the beauty in the unspectacular way we live day to day. What’s beautiful isn’t the big flash. It’s the small things.”

Specificity—a smallness that can be broadened—is at the crux of almost every successful narrative, and Taylor employs it judiciously. First names appear frequently in his songs: Isobel and John and Karen and Nathaniel and most often Elijah, Taylor’s four-year-old son. There is also an earnest embrace of tiny pleasures, of the seemingly trivial ways we mediate darkness and tedium. In Haw’s “I’ve Got A Name for the Newborn Child,” a sweet paean to the earth’s perpetual cycling, Taylor sounds especially free: “Throw off the yoke and drink a few/The Peacock Fiddle Band’s in town, and summer’s on its way,” he announces, and what could have been a goofy Friday afternoon mantra is suddenly positioned—is understood—as the entire point of being alive. To sit somewhere warm with the people you love and to buy them beer, and to let them buy you beer back.

When we got to Pittsboro, Taylor and I stopped for breakfast at the Chatham Marketplace, a cooperative grocery store and café housed in a former mill (“the largest producer of woven labels in the world”), and met up with the actor and playwright Mike Wiley (in 2012, Wiley and Taylor collaborated on a stage adaptation of John Sayles’s Matewan; Taylor performed a live score comprised of Hiss Golden Messenger songs). Huddled over coffee, the three of us dipped into the problem of monetizing art, and how best to combat the specter of hubris that (wrongfully) colors those transactions. “We have very similar ideas about how art works in our lives,” Taylor said, nodding at Wiley. “Making art that’s really soulful and personal but also having really clear boundaries about what’s needed to perform that art in front of people, that’s not crass. That’s not cynical.”

In the mid-1990s, when Taylor was an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, he and Scott Hirsch (later a partner in The Court and Spark, and now his primary collaborator in Hiss Golden Messenger) comprised two-fifths of a brawny hardcore band called Ex-Ignota, and while it’s hard to locate that precise sonic dissonance in Taylor’s present output, its ideology—of earned righteousness, a kind of populist integrity—lingers. It filled Taylor’s eyes when he spoke about the valuation of his work, and is evident in the ways he’s shielded it from exploitation, preserving and nurturing its rawness. He doesn’t tour frequently or for long stretches, and is fond of issuing his albums on limited edition, hand-numbered vinyl. “I don’t know if people realize that all the copies of Bad Debt, Root Work, Country Hai East Cotton, all those, every single part of them was touched by me. Every piece in every package.”

After we’d gotten back in the car, I inquired about Taylor’s hardcore past: how he thought it related to his mission as Hiss Golden Messenger, what the through-line was. “There was such a visceral, physical, emotional, cathartic thing that happened onstage when Ex-Ignota played,” he said. “And I feel like after almost twenty years, I’m having that feeling again when I play. I’ve seen some filmed performances, and the way that I move onstage reminds me of playing hardcore. And that makes me really happy, because that was a very emotional time for me then, and it’s a very emotional time for me now. And to see my body moving in the same ways, even though I’m much older—it’s sort of beautiful.”

We drove for a few more miles before pulling off onto a side road. Taylor narrated the geography, his voice softened by a wistfulness that was more appreciative than nostalgic: “At the end of that road lives the foremost expert in the Southeast on heritage apples,” he announced. “His name is Lee Calhoun. He wrote a book called Old Southern Apples.” (Later that night, Taylor would find a hardcover copy of the book amidst the unpacked moving boxes in his new home, and show it to me, proudly.)

Taylor moved from Chapel Hill to Pittsboro with his wife, Abby Martin, in 2009, and left for Durham a couple years later. The wooden house they lived in was encircled by tall oaks and cedars; the air around it smelled wet, bountiful. “Sometimes when it would get really rainy, this creek, it’s called Brooks Branch, it would flood and we couldn’t really get out or in,” Taylor said, unbuckling his seatbelt and climbing out of the car. He stood near the mouth of the driveway with his hands stuffed in his jacket pockets. “Bad Debt was made in this house, at the kitchen table, while Elijah was sleeping. He was still taking two naps a day at that time. I would wake up with him, we would hang, and then I would put him down for his morning nap and I would start writing. Then he would get up, we’d hang again, and he’d go back down in the afternoon and I’d finish the song and record it and that was it.”

Bad Debt—rendered, as it was, in a drafty kitchen on a portable tape recorder—is vulnerable and immediate, featuring only Taylor and his acoustic guitar. There are times, listening to it, when I am splayed by its intimacies, made fully prostrate by them. Although Country Hai East Cotton and Root Work, the two records that preceded it, are indicative of Taylor’s aesthetic sensibilities (they are brooding, complex albums), Bad Debt feels like an apotheosis, almost. It is unadulterated in its portrayal of a person desperate for peace. “If you could come to me, if you could take away my mind/If you could fill me up, like an empty cup, that would be fine,” Taylor sings on “Balthazar’s Song,” the album’s opener.

Since Bad Debt, fatherhood has become a pervasive theme in Taylor’s songs. Its agonies and raptures are communicated most explicitly on “Devotion,” a track from Haw that features one of the more emotionally ruinous bits in my entire record collection: “Hey now Elijah, don’t you know me?” Taylor moans, letting the question hover, unanswered. “That was a really hard one to sing,” he said of it later. “I did not want to sing that.”

At various points in our time together, Taylor and I will mutually acknowledge the darkness palpable in his work (“It’s a really dark record,” I’ll say ofHaw; “It’s a really dark record,” he’ll say of Haw). It seems almost impossible for either of us to move past that shared recognition, and the darkness goes mostly unparsed. But on “Devotion,” its presence is nearly literal. Listening, all I can think about is unlocking a front door in the middle of the night and creeping onto a wet lawn: it contains a darkness that pulls. The song’s title, which is also its only refrain, implies submission—the same willing, dutiful subservience that sustains religious faith (and parenthood, and love). Every time Taylor repeats it (and he’ll sing it loudly, then softly, then loudly again), it feels like both a declaration of defeat and a point of pride: he has been subsumed, but to what end? The song was recorded in one take, and originally conceived as just bass, vocals, and drums. A frugal, melancholic guitar line and some strings were added later, bolstering the vocal. “It almost felt indulgent to leave it that stark,” Taylor said.

Rolling away from Taylor’s old house, we passed a cluster of mailboxes, their posts jammed crookedly into the ground like candles on a birthday cake. He stopped the car. “Look at that mailbox,” he said, pointing. “Thank God we had a large mailbox, because I was always getting records delivered, and that was a concern of mine: What was the mailman gonna do with the records if the mailbox was too small?” He paused. “That was a major concern. But we happened to have a mailbox that records fit in.”

I stretched my neck to look from the passenger’s seat. “What if you hadn’t?” I asked.

“We wouldn’t be talking right now,” he replied.

 

On the drive up to Graham, Taylor and I spent a lot of time discussing what it means for an artist to be “honest,” a term (mine) that felt supremely dumb until I started to think there might be some purity in its dumbness—that its limitations might also be why it applies. If you think about art long enough—what’s good and why, how it works on you—it becomes clear that every argument for or against a work is predicated on the notion that we’re all capable of saying something true. The best pieces are inspired and conjured by our shittiest and most ecstatic selves (also our simplest and most genuine selves), and in the process of accessing those vantages—the deep and thorough excavation that songwriting requires—unknowables become not only known, but broadcast. If the root is disingenuous, if it’s too performative or aspirational, if it metastasizes on its way out, if it becomes shielded or mediated or compromised, the results are flaccid, inessential. Taylor is intensely protective of that pathway: where his art comes from, how it manifests. He is not interested in producing any other kind of music.

That unwillingness (or inability) to negotiate around his feelings—to temper them, even momentarily—can sometimes yield surprises. In “Sweet as John Hurt,” Taylor catches himself arbitrating, and he stops: “To pacify my jealous mind, the rage in my heart/I took to wandering—now I cannot sing this part,” he declares. Whatever that unspoken bit is, it feels like Taylor’s denial of it is important, indicative of some compromise he is preternaturally opposed to making. Does he stop singing because it was too honest, or not honest enough? Because he can’t sing it properly, or because he doesn’t want to? The question felt unseemly, so I didn’t pose it; the bruise Taylor spends so much of his time pressing was self-inflicted, and his songs can seem like very personal conversations between Taylor and himself. I believed him when he said he doesn’t think much about audience. “The fact that it has appealed to other people is kind of incidental to what this project is about, which is just me learning about myself and my relationship to art and the people that I live with, my friends,” he said. “There’s a concentrated core of very personal information that’s at the heart of Hiss Golden Messenger. I understand now that that’s why people like it.”

In 2011, Taylor signed to Paradise of Bachelors, a Chapel Hill–based record company co-run by his close friend Brendan Greaves. Taylor and Greaves met in 2006, in the folklore program at UNC. “It was a friendship about records—our mutual love of ’60s and ’70s rock & roll and reggae and country and country-rock,” Greaves said. “What Mike does that fascinates me is that he writes these country songs—these folk songs, these rock songs, whatever you want to call them—which articulate a spiritual perspective in a way that a lot of other music that sounds acoustically similar does not,” he said. “He’s drawing a lot from reggae and Jamaican music and African-American r&b and soul music. There’s an underpinning of spirituality that’s filtered through some other lens. It’s not dogmatic. But it’s questioning and rearranging doctrine according to contemporary and personal issues. There’s a searching there that’s not normative, and goes beyond the superficial.”

Those distinctions aren’t purely narrative; Taylor’s reliance on groove is also anomalous within the genres he frequents as a performer if not as a listener. When I met Hiss Golden Messenger’s electric guitarist and bassist Scott Hirsch for a rye whiskey near his apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, he reiterated that mission. “It has to be funky and it has to be groovy,” Hirsch said. “It’s really important. Some of our biggest heroes of the genre, of folk and country, are the dudes who did that. Waylon Jennings was dialed into his rhythm section in a major way. And that was an inspiration for a lot of Haw—how can we make this more Waylon? How can we make this more 
J. J. Cale? Those Waylon records are as rhythmically intense as reggae records. The downbeat’s on a different beat of the bar, but it’s as deep and as funky. We were really keyed in to that.”

Taylor also spoke about the biological appeal of certain rhythms: the way a human body, when confronted with certain meters, can’t help but move. The idea that a rhythm could be that undeniable—could function as a kind of imperative, almost—was provocative to him, in that it represented a powerful mode of access. “I’m interested in stuff that swings because if the rhythm section is moving the song in a certain way, people will find it compelling—even if they can’t articulate what they like about it,” he said.

Our next stop was the Haw River Ballroom, a music venue and gathering space in the repurposed dye house of an old cotton mill abutting the water in Saxapahaw. We bought more coffee and a bottle of Scuppernong grape juice, and, cups in hand, we stood outside and watched the river for a couple of minutes. The Haw is shallow, rocky, and slow-moving here: brown and shiny, like a roasted chestnut. I told Taylor I sometimes felt panicked by containment, as it exists both literally (try sitting next to me on an airplane) and metaphorically (that it is possible to get trapped inside yourself). The fight for self-liberation, spiritual or otherwise, is central to Haw, and while Taylor has seized upon and cherishes certain comforts (North Carolina, his family), Haw isn’t without expressions of entrapment and fury (“The darkness in my mind,” as he surmises in “Sweet as John Hurt”). In Taylor’s hands, those struggles feel not just universal, but conquerable. I tried to think of a way to tell him that I got it, or thought I did—what George Saunders calls “a powerful thing to know: that one’s own desires are mappable onto strangers.” Instead, I put my sunglasses back on. We all want to think we are different, and we are all exactly the same.

We spent the rest of the afternoon cruising Chatham County, pausing briefly to trawl a thrift store for worn-out LPs, before arriving in Graham and watching The Weather Station record a handful of new songs with help from Terry Lonergan, who plays drums in Hiss Golden Messenger, and Phil Cook of the band Megafaun, who guests on Haw. Greaves was there with a tub of homemade guacamole, and Cook’s brother Brad (who was playing bass), and Jenks Miller of the band Mount Moriah, and his girlfriend, Elysse Thebner of Some Army, and there was a palpable sense of communal optimism: that loving, well-intentioned people could gather and make something beautiful together. That whatever feelings of alienation might be lurking in our guts weren’t insurmountable, not even close.

 

Late on Saturday night, I pulled up alongside Taylor’s house in my rental car, and he ran outside. “Hey dude,” he said, climbing into the passenger’s seat. We drove down the street, bought a six-pack of beer, and returned, settling in on opposite ends of his living room couch, facing each other. Abby and Elijah had retreated to bed. The green paint on the wall behind us was still wet; they’d just moved into the house a few days earlier. Taylor’s record collection and most of his books remained taped up in boxes in his basement, and we talked about the ones he cherished most: Barry Hannah, Ronnie Lane, A Fan’s Notes, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Blood on the Tracks. “This is a refrain we’ve gone back to all day today, but the most important work is the stuff that has less control on it,” he explained. “So it’s getting to that raw place and just harnessing it—conveying the thing, but not bridling it so much that it becomes defanged. I’m using all kinds of weird metaphors,” he said, shaking his head, smiling his half smile. But I understood. I think what we were both trying to articulate—to describe and maybe unravel—was the mystery behind the art-making impulse, and the ways in which it could get garbled.

I wondered aloud if that charge—whatever alchemical flash incites a song or a poem or a drawing—wasn’t also a function of God. It was certainly a function of faith. Maybe more than anything else, Taylor writes and sings about God, and while the imagery he employs is often Christian, he wasn’t raised religiously, and Christianity isn’t a defining presence in his life. Songwriting is a way for him to clarify his relationship with larger forces. He’s not sure how he would do that work otherwise. “That’s the big question for me. It can be a frightening thought, because if you think of the puzzling out of your relationship to the world and to God, whatever God means to you, as a sort of pressure valve in your life—a lot of people don’t have that. They haven’t discovered what that is yet, and that’s dangerous.”

Still, when Taylor sings about God or Jesus or Yahweh (as he does on songs like “Jesus Shot Me in the Head,” which appeared first on Bad Debt and later on Poor Moon) he’s not necessarily singing about an abstraction. “I think I do believe, or I want to believe, in an emotional state that’s so transcendent that it can feel like God. And not necessarily just heterosexual love, but this feeling of fellowship and fraternity-of-man-style love: family. We are together here doing something. We can’t do it separately. That sort of love is . . .” He trailed off. “That I can understand as God. But that’s not the God that a lot of people in church on Sunday morning are talking about.”

Hours later, on the dark drive back to my hotel, I played one of my favorite Hiss Golden Messenger tracks: “O Little Light,” another Bad Debt song reinvented for Poor Moon. The later version features a full band, including a spooling bass line and some sprightly bits of mandolin. The earlier version—the one I chose—is musically spare, but imbued with the same sense of gratitude. Taylor sounds nearly buoyant: “O little light, now I’m not afraid to die/But look at what I got,” he sings. “I’d like to stay just a little while.”


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Amanda Petrusich is a contributing editor to the Oxford American and the author of three books about music, including Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records. She is a staff writer at the New Yorker and a professor of writing at New York University.