Jesse Taylor

When legendary Texan Jesse "Guitar" Taylor toured Australia in 2002 he chanced his fragile health by diving into Sydney Harbour from a yacht hired by famed journalist and TV personality Piers Akerman.

Taylor, flirting with fate, was easing the road stress on the idyllic harbour cruise in the middle of a long hot February.

Akerman organised the escapade as a tribute to his long time famed former housemate - singing Texan crime novelist Kinky Friedman - Billy Joe Shaver and their bands.

The Kinkster often cast Akerman, with whom he lived in the seventies, as a character in his popular novels.

The duo shared digs while Piers was New York and Los Angeles correspondent for News Limited newspapers and magazines.

On this occasion Akerman invited photojournalist and Nu Country TV video camera person Carol Taylor and this writer - also tour chauffeur and columnist - on board.

Shaver, travelling on one artery, did not join the cruise - he was saving his energy for his courageous nocturnal stage shows.

So he was not on board when Jesse and fellow band members plunged into the cool but challenging depths of the harbour.


For Jesse it was obviously the break he needed from the gruelling touring, driving and performing in the wake of the sudden death of fellow Texan Waylon Jennings just a week earlier at 64 on February 13.

Jesse had earlier joined Shaver, The Kinkster, band-mates and this writer at a Waylon wake in Billy Joe's room at a Canberra motel.

Taylor's namesake Carol - a Western Victorian born Sydney Daily Mirror journalist from 1980-85 - photographed the Texans' harbour frolics and concerts for posterity, diary and maybe a book.

And former Nu Country treasurer Kip Karpik also photographed the artists and bands for the colour slick of their collectors' CD Live From Down Under.

The album was recorded live as The Basement in Sydney, from February 19-21, 2002, and featured the hot picking of Jesse and was released on Texas Jewboys pianist Little Jewford's Houston record label Sphincter.

Taylor, a latter day artist and illustrator, painted this historic Australian bushman for Austin poet Alyce Guynn's book Deal Me In.


And Shaver, now 66, made the right decision not to join the cruise - he needed all his energy for performing and recording.

It was towards the end of the tour and Billy Joe performed each night like his life was on the line.

And it was - he had quadruple heart by-pass surgery on his return to Austin and a long convalescence before wedding the second of two women whom he became engaged to in latter day hometown Waco.

Shaver and The Kinkster encouraged Taylor, then 51, to undergo rehabilitation for a long-standing alcohol abuse.

Taylor took his touring mates' advice with successful rehab that enabled him to return performing live but not the rigours of long road tours.

He once again became an in demand guitarist in Austin and way beyond in the Lone Star State.

But after being diagnosed with hepatitis three years ago the tattooed Texan diverted his talent to the less physically demanding but equally creative and therapeutic talent as an artist.

However, late Tuesday March 6 the gregarious gaucho, just 55, died in South Austin Hospital of complications from Hepatitis C.


Ironically, Taylor died on the eve of being inducted into the Texas Hall Of Fame the next day at the Austin Music Awards.

Jesse Taylor was the son of a Lubbock labourer, weekend guitar player and alcoholic who left the family when Jesse was only 10.

His mother supported her three children on the salary of a legal secretary.

Jesse has a faint memory of seeing Buddy Holly and an entourage of pretty girls driving around Lubbock in a pink Cadillac in the 1950s.

Taylor began playing guitar at 12 and spent part of his youth hopping trains between Lubbock and Venice, California.

He joined Ely's band in 1976 for an eight-year hitch, a period that saw the group criss-cross the globe and open for the Clash, Tom Petty, and Rolling Stones.

"Musically, he just kicked everybody's ass, but in the kindest, gentlest way," says former Ely drummer and Austin booking agent Davis McLarty who met Taylor in 1978.

"He was this ferocious player, but he never stepped on anybody. When it was his time to step up, he would just knock it out of the park."

Taylor played with numerous other musicians before and after Ely's band, including the T. Nichol House Band in Lubbock, Kracker Jack with alumni of Johnny Winter's band, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, the Maines Brothers Band.

Taylor also won renown with his own band Tornado Alley.

He played every major Texas venue included the famed Antone's, Armadillo, Soap Creek Saloon and Continental Club.

He jammed with the Vaughan brothers and Tommy Shannon, toured with Billy Joe Shaver, Butch Hancock, Kinky Friedman, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Townes Van Zandt, jammed with Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.

He released a solo album, Last Night, in 1987, and played on many other albums.

The included Marcia Ball's Gatorhythms, Jimmie Dale Gilmore's After Awhile, and Kimmie Rhodes' West Texas Heaven.


Last April, his many friends organized the Jessefest benefit at Threadgill's World Headquarters.

And Taylor sat in with most bands on the bill, including Ely, Billy Joe, Reckless Kelly and the Texana Dames.

"He hung out and played the whole day, and talked about it afterward for weeks and weeks," says McLarty.

Three years ago, Taylor learned he had hepatitis C and cirrhosis.
As his stamina waned - and a life on the road became impossible - the musician turned to drawing as a way to keep his creative energy alive.

Taylor was survived by his girlfriend Kim and daughters Nicole, Carrie, and Chelsea.
The funeral services were on Saturday March 12 at Resthaven in Lubbock.


Austin American Statesmen journalist Brad Bucholz wrote this evocative tribute on the guitarist's latter day career as an artist on February 17, 2006.

It was less than a month before Taylor died.

We share it with Taylor's vast galaxy of friends, fans and admirers - especially those who were privileged to catch him live in Australia in 2002 and on the live CD with Kinky and Billy Joe.

AUSTIN, Texas.
Jesse "Guitar" Taylor feels closest to his art in the hours after midnight.
It's the solitude that inspires him. The musician works best when his house is asleep, everything dark except for a desk lamp in a windowed alcove, the silence of the night broken only by the heavy groan of a freight train rumbling past, a block away, on the Missouri Pacific line.

On the best nights, Jesse Taylor - long renowned as one of the most intense, push-it-to-the-limits guitarists in town - will jam inside his house 'til dawn. With coloured pencils.

"Drawing has become almost like an obsession for me," says Taylor, dozens of super-sharp pencils laid out in wooden boxes on the flat drawing table before him. "Sometimes, I don't start 'til 10 o'clock at night. And I'll say, 'I'm going to do this for one hour.' Then two hours later, I'll say that again. And the next thing I know, the sun is coming up."

Taylor's drawings have the primitive feel of folk art. They're notable for their whimsical juxtaposition of colours - cream and pastel set against peach, or electric oranges and reds against a bold ocean blue. He riffs on images of lotus blossoms and sunflowers. The sun. The moon. Quarter notes and guitar picks. Taylor is, after all, a man of music. Nothing will ever change that.

Does the name stir a memory?


Jesse Taylor Painting - Bushman
Jesse "Guitar" Taylor has been a rambunctious presence in Texas music for close to 40 years now.

A native of Lubbock, he's probably most famous as the original guitarist in the Joe Ely Band - the man who made it his job to splash rock 'n' roll paints over the band's cool country canvas.

A longtime Austinite, Jesse has played Antone's and the Armadillo, chummed with
the Vaughan Brothers and Tommy Shannon, toured with Billy Joe Shaver, Butch Hancock, Kinky Friedman, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Townes Van Zandt, jammed with Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.

As a player, Jesse Taylor's signature is his energy - or at least it was, until his liver went bad.

Three years ago, Taylor learned he had hepatitis C and cirrhosis.

As his stamina waned - and a life on the road became impossible - the musician turned to drawing as a way to keep his creative energy alive.

Although Taylor hadn't touched a coloured pencil or acrylic paints since his childhood, his very first pieces were featured in two local gallery exhibits.

An Austin poet, Alyce Guynn, was so inspired by his work that she suggested an artistic collaboration.


A new paperback book, Deal Me In, features Guynn poems, with original black-and-white illustrations by Taylor.

"It's phenomenal to me that Jesse had what it took to keep going when he had to put the music down," says Guynn, a music fan who first met Taylor in the 1980s.

"A lot of people just couldn't have done that; they would have knuckled under. The artistic drive in Jesse, the need for self-expression, is what has triumphed."

The young Jesse Taylor was a tattoo guy when tattoos meant tough, not trendy.

He hopped his first cross-country freight train from Lubbock at age 16 - and continued to ride the rails that way deep into his middle age.

Taylor knew what it was to stand jaw-to-jaw with both bikers and cops. His friends say Jesse wasn't the type to start a fist-fight, but he knew how to finish one. He lived hard, drove fast and played guitar the same way.

Taylor would be the last man to brag. For the sake of context, however, he recites a few lines from an old review.

"Jesse Taylor plays guitar as if he were running down a blind alley as fast as he could until he crashes head-on into a wall. Then he gets up and he runs in another direction."
Taylor is 55 now, and the miles show.

He's gained some weight and lost some colour in his kindly face. Taylor's hair is turning gray, and he wears it longer now than in his youth - combing it straight back behind his ears. His body clearly hurts him, but he'll never tell you that. In the gentle light of late afternoon, Taylor scratches at his gray goatee, tugs on a longneck and talks for hours about music and art, late nights and bar fights, always upbeat. He laughs, a lot.
Jesse Taylor was the son of a labourer, a weekend guitar player and alcoholic who left the family when Jesse was only 10.

His mother supported her three children on the salary of a legal secretary.


Jesse has a faint memory of seeing Buddy Holly and an entourage of pretty girls driving around Lubbock in a pink Cadillac in the 1950s.

Yet it was the sound of live electric guitar - a band of neighbourhood Hispanic kids, playing Ventures tunes in a garage - that stuck with him more deeply.

"It was magic. That sound captivated, took me to another place. Almost like another planet or something," says Taylor.

The man with the tattoos speaks softly, with a High Plains drawl. "It changed my life for real. Playing guitar was never a hobby, like 'give this kid a guitar, so he'll have something to do.' No. Literally, from Day One, I became another person entirely."

The boy jumped out of school and into music.

As the teenage lead guitarist in Angela Strehli's first blues band, he lived on beans and rice, played the old Vulcan Gas Co., led the wave of white musicians who found a spiritual home in East Austin bars such as the I.L. Club in the late 1960s.

A little later, he met a scrawny, pimpled kid with a Beatle haircut named Stevie Vaughan. His first impression: "This town is gonna eat this kid alive."

Jesse's mantra with the Ely band in the 1970s and 1980s - when his guitar was the muscle behind songs like Musta Notta Gotta Lotta and Johnny's Blues - was "Let's get on stage and kick some (behind)."

It seemed he never played a solo the same way twice, even when a band required it for a studio recording. He was both sensitive and reckless, forever impulsive.


He once hopped a Missouri Pacific freight headed out of downtown Austin while on a set break, in the middle of a show.

"I saw that train roll by and realized how much I missed it," he says.

Taylor didn't jump off until the freight pulled into San Antonio.

"Jesse used to say to say to me that music wasn't big enough to contain all his energy.

The good energy, as well as that self-destructive energy," says writer-actress-musician Jo Carol Pierce, who has known Taylor since he was 16 and once hopped a freight with him from San Jose, California to Tijuana, Baja California.

"He loves to fight, you know, to protect the people he loves. He's also one of the kindest, most gentle-hearted people I've ever known.

"I love Jesse's paintings; they're like manifestations of the pure Jesse spirit. All that good-hearted fire, and the darkness, too - treated with such a light touch. He's always light, in any kind of darkness. I keep one of his drawings - of a wild horse, standing upright - next to the computer where I write. I see Jesse in all of his images, images of things he's loved his entire life."

Jesse Taylor didn't so much take up coloured pencils as crash into them - at an art class in a rehabilitation facility, where he was recovering from substance abuse. "Have you done this before?" the instructor remarked upon seeing his first sketches. "You have talent."

Last fall, Jesse sold $5,000 worth of artwork during an exhibition of his drawings at the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture.

"It's much the same thing, actually, the drawing and the music," says Taylor.

"The notes on the guitar are colours in my head. You know? And the colours on the paper are like notes on the guitar."

In the waning light of a winter's afternoon, Jesse Taylor turns away from his drawing table and grabs a caramel-coloured acoustic guitar - a trusty Fender - that he keeps next to his desk.

Taylor doesn't play much in public anymore, and he can't find a guitar pick among all these boxes of coloured pencils.


Yet Jesse plays with confidence as he breaks into a loose, happy version of Don't Give Up - a rousing get-off-your-seat instrumental that opens his last studio album (South Side Guitar, in collaboration with John X. Reed).

Jesse penned the song himself, about the time he learned he was sick.

"Whenever anybody says to me, 'You're dying' or 'You're going to die,' I think to myself, 'Well, you're dying too. We're all dying. We start dying from the day we're born," says Taylor.

"As far as my own thoughts on mortality, well, it's a bummer. Because I've got so much I want to do. So much I need to do. And I get afraid, sometimes, that some of it is going to get cut short."

So many poems and the pencils remind Jesse Taylor of all he has to live for yet. Taylor and Guynn have already begun a second book - this one in colour, called The Other Side - in which the poet is writing poems in response to Taylor's finished pieces.

He clearly likes Guynn's poetry.

One of his favourites is Freight Train to Forever, which begins with the image of the approaching train, "coming in on dragon's wings," rumbling closer and closer as children pitch pennies beside the tracks: "The plaintive howl, now near/as the desert coyote/interrupts our play,/reminding us of choices, chance and circumstance."

"I like that one," says Taylor. "It takes me back." And within seconds of the words, a loud, flat horn blows in the distance.

"Here comes that old freight train," says Taylor, still sitting at his drawing table. He sits silent for a while, waiting in anticipation of a second whistle. But the engineer holds back. All that lingers is the long, low hum of the slow train heading west.

Brad Buchholz writes for the Austin American-Statesman.

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