[Liner notes included in reissue of Dennis Taylor’s Dayspring guitar album, originally released in 1983. Reissue was put out by Grass-Tops Recording in 2015 and has since been reissued again, on vinyl, by Morning Trip Records.]
Eric Clapton once came close to facetiously titling one of his own albums The Best Guitarist in the World – There’s One in Every Crowd. While that’s true to some degree – every town and city has at least one great guitarist – there are a limited number of really unique ones. The kind that transcend their geographic location and whose music has staying power. And while some of those guitarists will always remain unheralded, it seems like the music of the truly exceptional ones always manages to find a larger audience, even if it takes over 30 years, as in Dennis Taylor’s case.
Primarily an acoustic player, Taylor released Dayspring in 1983 in an edition of only 300 copies. On it, he merged the earthiness of traditional folk guitar and the fleet-fingered style of the Takoma Records artists with the quieter, ethereal soundscapes of what would soon become known as New Age music. “Dayspring was my attempt to capture that driving, bouncing style of John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Peter Lang, tempered with the more laid back and pianistic approach of some of my newer songs…less rhythmically driven and more floating, with more space to immerse yourself in.” He adds, “I was also trying to capture all of the elements that make a piece of music complete, but within the limitations of a solo guitar piece: melody, harmony, bass lines and rhythm…the guitar as a six-string orchestra.”
The road to Dayspring was a long (and winding) one. At the age of nine, he acquired his first acoustic guitar and had a few lessons with local TV performer Marty Martin, a.k.a. “Boxcar Willie”. However, these were cut short when Martin disappeared from town one day. The guitar was put aside until Taylor saw the Beatles debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. “I knew at that moment there was only one career that made any sense to me…musician”, he recalls.
He soon co-formed a band in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska called The People. They were literally a garage band, “playing our few songs for the neighborhood in my parent’s garage with the door open. The police soon came to join the crowd in our front yard and made us shut it down at 10:00 p.m. For the next year or two, that became a pattern – the police coming just before 10:00, politely listening to us and saying encouraging things, but then ‘time to shut it down.’” He continues, “First paid gig for The People was for our mom’s Bridge club luncheon at the Cornhusker Hotel. Total price for the band was $12.00. But getting paid anything makes you a professional!”.
It was seeing Leo Kottke live in the early 1970’s that set him on the solo acoustic guitar track. “I’d never seen anybody actually not only fill the room with sound from just one acoustic guitar, but almost blowing the walls down with sound. Not with volume, just with a huge sound and propulsive rhythm.” Taylor had already been listening to other players like John Fahey and Robbie Basho, incorporating what he heard into his own style. He soon began writing what would become “Reflection of the Dayspring” – the title track of Dayspring, still ten years down the road.
Sometimes performing in schools and churches, he developed a following among an even younger generation. “The name that the little Sunday School kids called me, when I was playing for their sing-a-longs and had just grown out my hair and beard, was ‘Jesus Man with the Guitar‘, a nickname I quite enjoyed. On the other hand, when I played for a class of first graders, afterward one little boy came up to me with a big scowl on his face and said ‘My dad doesn’t like hippies and I don’t like hippies either!’ So it goes…”
In these early years, Taylor was still searching for his musical direction. He played in a variety of rock bands, in a duo modelled after Seals & Crofts, and as a solo artist (opening for Fleetwood Mac and Wishbone Ash on one occasion). The focus he was looking for came late in 1975, when he saw two bands, Oregon and The Paul Winter Consort, just a few months apart. Their fusion of jazz, folk and world music had a profound impact on him. “With Oregon, I came to the concert only knowing Ralph Towner, the guitarist. By the end of the first set, though, I was suddenly jerked out of an altered state by their intermission announcement. The music had so completely taken me away to another place, that I had totally forgotten where I was, until the house lights came up and hit me like a splash of cold water. Then in the spring of 1976, I saw Paul and the Consort turn a small hundred seat auditorium full of strangers into an African village, singing along and howling like wolves by the end of the evening, due to his ability to connect with an audience and turn strangers into friends. That was it for me. No more wasting time on delusions of pop stardom. This was the kind of music that I had to write and play for the rest of my life. There was no turning back.”
While continuing to compose the pieces that would eventually end up on Dayspring, in the summer of 1979 he joined local world/jazz/folk band The Spencer Ward Quintet. With the Quintet, he played fretless bass, his other main passion. The band developed a devoted following in Nebraska, but by the following summer decided to relocate to Portland, Oregon. Taylor soon joined them there, but when things didn’t work out, headed down to Eugene. His short time in that health conscious town resulted in the bright and engaging lead track from Dayspring, “Bicycle Town”, inspired by the preponderance of bicyclists on the streets. He remembers, “I was amazed at how many people rode bicycles there. Having my own bike with me, I literally parked the car for the entire three months I was there.” Another musical encounter, this time with a record, helped decide his next move. Hearing Alex de Grassi’s solo guitar album Slow Circle on the fairly new Windham Hill label, as Taylor says, “clinched it for me. I would move back home to Lincoln where I was already established as a solo guitarist and I would cut my first record of my own guitar music.”
Nowadays anybody can relatively easily create an album using home recording technology and make it available to the world with a few clicks of a mouse. In 1981 it wasn’t so easy. One had to have a lot of determination and belief in their own abilities. Studio time had to be booked and physical copies of the music had to be manufactured, all of which required an investment of time, money and energy.
Once back in Lincoln, Taylor arranged for a one day recording session at a new studio called Spectrum. Each of the songs that made up Dayspring feature Taylor’s custom-modified Martin D35-S, and were almost all first takes. He says, “I had already planned out the order of the songs on the album and rehearsed them that way before I went into the studio and I think it really helped to shape the overall tone of my performances and of the album itself.” Engineered by studio co-owner Tommy Alesio (a childhood friend of Taylor’s and a musician himself), the recording conditions were very relaxed and positive. Taylor remembers it being “almost like a living room concert”. Above all, Dayspring is not mired in technique, though technique is certainly there. It’s not a guitar album made to impress other guitarists and show off. His love for the sound of the acoustic guitar and a finely honed ability to communicate his ideas and feelings through his playing is always at the forefront.
The aforementioned “Reflections of the Dayspring” is alternately pastoral and a rushing, rapid river of notes. “Going Nowhere Fast” is a similar fast-picking tour-de-force and is the track that shows a Leo Kottke influence the most. His exposure to the music of other cultures is most evident on “Spanish Dancer” and “From the East to the West”, which seems at times on the verge of venturing into the modal, drone territory common to Indian classical music, but always returns to the strong guiding melody at its core. A confident optimism shines through on all the cuts, with “Bicycle Town” and “Heartfull” being additional highlights.
Alesio was enthusiastic about the music and did a remarkable job engineering the recordings. The results were of such high sonic quality that in the transfer from the master tapes for this reissue very little audio tweaking or improvement using current technology was necessary.
With the record completed, Taylor submitted it to Windham Hill, the label he felt was the best fit for what he was doing. He remembers, “As it was going through the mail, I just happened to read a Guitar Player article, in which [Windham Hill label head] Will Ackerman said he was wanting to keep the label to a manageable size and that his guitar stable was pretty full, with himself, his cousin Alex de Grassi, and he had just signed Michael Hedges. Plus a couple of other guitar players had already been on the label. Then he said that now that the label had begun to surface, that he had approximately 100 to 200 tapes a month coming across his desk from people wanting to be on it. He said, ‘So I’ve had to resort to the 15-second test. If you don’t knock me out in 15 seconds, it’s on to the next tape.’ I got my tape back a couple of months later, with a nice ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ letter, wishing me good luck with the music and my tape rolled out to exactly 15 seconds. It was then that I decided that I would just do it like Ackerman (and Fahey) had done in the first place…just do it all myself. And a little over a year after that, armed with the big oversized How to Make and Sell Your Own Record book I had ordered from Guitar Player, I had 300 copies of Dayspring in the local stores and was on the local listener supported radio station.”
This local radio support, as well as two performances filmed for local public access cable TV, led to a busy gig schedule, both solo and with tabla player Dave Novak. With Novak he formed the Dennis Taylor Consort (a tip of the hat to the Paul Winter Consort), which was eventually renamed Om Boys.
Even though he had a strong regional following and was teaching private guitar lessons, by 1986 he got back into the classic rock cover band business to help pay the bills. With Novak, he was also asked to take up what turned into a 25-year residency playing at pair of Indian restaurants. Some attempts were made to do a follow-up recording to Dayspring, which would have featured additional musicians, but they never came to fruition. “A couple of times in the ‘90s Dave and I had offers to record, but for whatever reasons, it just didn’t pan out and I was determined to do it ourselves at home, without the pressure of being on the studio clock. But so far, that hasn’t come together.”
It may have turned out for the best that Dayspring was self-released. Many well-known instrumental and New Age musicians in the ‘80s found themselves dumped from their record labels and with legal nightmares getting the rights to their music back when the genre slipped from popularity in the later part of the decade. Taylor has no regrets about the album not coming out on a major label. “I’m really glad I never got entangled in all of that. Much better to just do well on a local level, as I did, and be rediscovered years later, when I can really enjoy and appreciate the renewed interest.”
Decades after its first, limited, release, we can now all share in this long missing link between traditional folk, “the Takoma sound” and New Age guitar music. Ten songs of solo guitar magic, each one polished and poetic. Each one full of heart.