Jackson Taylor: Bad Juju Album Review

Jackson Taylor and the Sinners: Bad Juju (Self-Released)

Over the first eleven CDs of his career (yep, count ‘em, 11 before this record), Jackson Taylor blazed a fiery trail and distinguished himself from his peers as an artist with one hell of a lot to say.  His personal story’s unique in this modern world, and the stories he’s told come straight from experience, heartache, joy, and everything else life has unleashed on him.  Nothing from Taylor is ever made up or out of left field, and up to this point, every record brought the heat accompanied by sensational studio work that rocked up the country and brought home the hillbilly blues.  That big sound that Jack was known for, though, apparently managed to hide the horror, the humanity, and the world-weary wisdom in his lyrics from many of his fans.

Taylor’s been a hell-raiser of the first order, no question, but his music’s never been about anything that simple or common.  Still, he wound up with a host of followers who thought any JT show was all about taking the whiskey and the women.  They missed the point, and Jackson got tired of hearing people tell him what a badass he was when it was clear they’d missed the meanings of all of his songs.  So he made a bold move and cut back across the field, stripping his band down to a three-piece and going for a raw, largely acoustic sound with album #12, Bad Juju.  His idea, plain and simple, was to put his lyrics first and make it clear to people just what it is he’s all about.

Jackson will tell you up front his music is his therapy, the only outlet he has that allows him to fight his demons and have a chance to win his struggle for a better life.  So it hurt him on a number of levels that people weren’t actually understanding his songs, and that the crowds at his shows were too often just there for the party.  As rousing as Taylor’s catalog has been, his is definitively not a party band.  He’s too smart for the frat boys, too rough and rowdy for the straight country crowd.  But perfect for anyone who’s lived a little hard, learned the tough lessons, won the staredown with the man in the mirror.  And the reasons that’s true are showcased on Bad Juju.

This is nothing like the polished, throaty, fully realized sound you’d associate with any number of Taylor’s songs you’ve heard all over the radio.  That duet with Boland on Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain” a few years back sounds like a sonata compared to what’s on this record.  And that’s a good thing.  If Taylor is a new artist to you, you’re likely to appreciate the raw power and brutal honesty of this album simply because it’s so different from anything else out there right now.  If you’re a longtime fan of the Sinners, there’s a chance you’ll hear this and wonder what the hell’s going on.  But if you just stop and listen, it’ll make sense.  This is Jackson Taylor and the Garage Band Sinners, just a trio of guys tearing out their soul strings and laying everything on the line.  And in this setting, the power of Taylor’s lyrics and the truths they contain simply can’t be overlooked.  That was the goal, and it was a booming success.

If you know Jackson’s work, you know there are always covers on his records – old songs you’ve loved forever that get revisited in a way that breathes vibrant life into them.  There are more of those than usual here, which is a bit of a surprise, but as usual they tend toward the exceptional.  First cut on the record, in fact, is a cover:  “Stripes.”  Yeh.  The Johnny Cash tune you heard growing up.  That really came from Leadbelly’s “On A Monday.”  If you’re an artist looking to re-stake your claim as someone who’s passionate about being authentic and real, this is a pretty damn good flag to plant right off the bat.  And Taylor rips this song up and spits it out like rounds from a .50-cal on Guadalcanal.  It’s a rush.  He follows it up with a couple of his own originals, “Humboldt County” and “Goin’ Down Swingin’,” and the latter is a revelation.  It’s better than the version on the original CD where it served as the title cut, just brimming with passion and fire and maybe, out on the tattered edges, just a few hints of sincere oh-shit regret.   Inspired second take on what’s always been a terrific song.  Then, as if to prove he ain’t afraid to swing for the fences, Jack cuts loose with covers from Elvis and Willie Nelson.

The first is Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama,” and Taylor gets into it with a growl and a cool that would’ve done the King right proud.  This version is sped up, sort of a Von Erichs punk take on one of rock and roll’s early and timeless classics.  Not easy ground to traverse, but Taylor does it with ease and a sense of aplomb.  Almost as if he’s tossing off an aside noting that the Cash/Leadbelly intro cut wasn’t a fluke.  And then, as the final furious notes fade, it’s straight into Red Headed Stranger territory without missing a beat.  “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way” is one of the most beautiful, most strikingly poignant songs ever written.  Jackson did it justice on his Easy Lovin’ Stranger record, but this stripped down, bareknuckle, balls on the table take just steals a listener’s breath.  Willie’s Willie, and nobody will ever touch him or duplicate what he’s done.  But it’s eminently possible that when you’ve taken in this one particular song, you won’t want to hear Nelson sing it again.  Jack’s that good, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in Steve Earle’s faux cowboy boots and say so until Townes Van Zandt comes back to play Lollapalooza.

Red Steagall told me in a recent interview for this magazine that he’d advise artists to avoid covering others because the inevitable comparisons can’t be fair either to the original or the newcomer.  And generally he’s absolutely right about that.  But not this time.  If there’s ever been a consistent exception to all the rules, Jackson Taylor’s it.

The standout track here is “Cocaine,” a perfect example of a song whose meaning many of Jack’s fans missed on the first go-round.  It was an uptempo, roof-raising rocker on 2009’s Aces ‘N Eights.  On Bad Juju, it’s something else entirely.  Remember when Springsteen released “Born In the USA” and everybody, politicians included, thought based on the driving rock beat and anthemic sound that it was a patriotic song for the ages?  Then remember when the Boss put a re-mastered and pared down version on the 18 Tracks record and showed the world what the song was really all about?  This is that, revisited.  “Cocaine” was never a party song, no matter what the sweaty crowds hopped up on Lone Star and PBR ever thought.  It was a brutal self examination of all the things a man will look to hide in when his world’s caving in on his head.  And here, it’s as stark and almost terrifying as anything Bukowski ever penned.  But it’ll get down in your soul, and it’ll help you understand what it is that fundamentally drives Jackson Taylor.  When he says his music is his therapy, he isn’t kidding, and there aren’t many examples better than this track.

The one core truth separating Taylor from his peers in today’s music world is that he never, ever pulls a punch.  Including the roundhouses he’s prone to throw at himself.  “Cocaine” is both a confession of weakness (when I’m on this cocaine, I don’t have to think about you) and a mandate of self-admonition.  Jackson genuflects at the altar of temporary failings, calling out the wonder of the short-term relief they can and do provide.  But then he calls himself out for a weakling and a fool, publicly flagellating himself for having succumbed to the weakness to begin with.  Somewhere in all of that, an inner strength emerges from a cauldron which breaks most men.  Somehow, by confessing his sins and his shortcomings, Jackson finds the strength to get back up and take another step forward.  To never quit striving for the day when he’ll look in the mirror and recognize a good man in the reflection.  In that sense, he’s always been the very best of all of us.

Bad Juju is just one more notch on his musical belt, just one additional proof that none of us are alone in our fears and our worries and our failings.  But also that none of us will ever be alone if we get up on our hind legs, say fuck it all, and shoot for the stars.  As long as Jackson Taylor’s out there on the highway, we’ve got an ally.  And all the bad juju in this world can’t stop a train fueled by truth.

www.jacksontaylorband.com for more info.  And it’s more than worth your time to follow Jack on Facebook, too.  Much of the wisdom and hard won experience that fuels his songs is showcased there, as always, without filters.


~ Dave Pilot

Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.

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