On a recent family road trip, I took a turn at the stereo and cued up Hiss Golden Messenger’s 2016 release, Heart Like a Levee. Mere seconds into the title track, the Bob Dylan comparison was made. It’s an obvious, eye roll of an analogy, but MC Taylor’s thin, reedy voice bears an immediate similarity to Dylan’s. And like the Bard, Taylor’s delivery steers the rhythm while the lyrics spin poetic tales.
“I work really hard at that, to make it feel effortless and to make it sit in a sort of relationship to the meter,” says Taylor, on the phone from his home in Durham on an unseasonably warm January morning. “It’s important to me that my music swings, even if it’s slow.”
But if listeners come to Hiss Golden Messenger for the rhythm, they stay for the existential ruminating. With the release of Heart Like a Levee, Taylor’s poetic songwriting style has drawn attention from outlets as far flung as Southern Living and The New Yorker.
His path to cultural relevance is an unconventional one. Raised on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Taylor performed in punk bands and the early-’00s Americana group the Court & Spark. By 2007, Taylor shifted his focus and opted to enroll at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to study Southern folklore, followed by a stint as a folklorist employed by the state to capture field recordings in the Carolina Piedmont.
“Since my late teens, I’ve been a student, loosely speaking, of Southern cultures — music, literature, and food. But as someone that lived in California, there was only so far that I could go,” says Taylor. “I felt like I was looking in on something but that I was never close enough to touch it.”
Had the folklore program been in Pennsylvania, Taylor says, he likely wouldn’t have made the move: “The geography was calling me.”
In 2010, settled in North Carolina with his wife and their newborn son, Taylor sat down in the evenings and put to tape softly sung recordings of his latest songs, with no pressure to push them with publicity emails or to book a tour. That collection, Bad Debt — recorded for the sole purpose of fulfilling Taylor’s need to document the songs — found ears, and Hiss Golden Messenger was on its way to reclaiming songwriting and performing as Taylor’s chief pursuit.
By the release of 2013’s Haw, HGM was a full band, back on the road. After the following year’s Lateness of Dancers, Duke University asked Taylor to put music to a collection of William Gedney photos of a rural, coal-mining family in Kentucky, taken in 1964 and 1972. Although Heart Like a Levee’s geographical references range from Biloxi to Plaquemine, Vicksburg to Cincinnati, their emotional root stems from his time absorbing and contemplating the Gedney images of a Southern family at work, rest, and play. Like the Wendell Berry poems that he so admires (another Kentucky-bred influence), Taylor tends to ask more questions than he answers in his songs.
“I don’t step onto stage as a teacher,” the 41-year-old is quick to clarify. “Questions, to me, are more important than the answers. It’s OK to admit that we don’t know the answers and that we’re struggling with them. I’ve always been more enthralled with the journey than with the endpoint.”
Still, the ‘Golden Messenger’ aspect of his moniker implies an overall positivity that listeners may draw from, even in Taylor’s darker lyrical moments. In the post-election days of November, as many progressives took to Facebook to express their despair, Taylor signed in and wrote, “Wallow. I might wallow a little bit. But not for too long,” adding that that night, playing to a crowd that may be “confused and scared, like I am … we’ll all see if I am any good at my job: bringing hope and light out of darkness.”
That’s a tall order for a career musician whose motivation zeroed in on writing songs for himself, only to suddenly find a growing audience who wanted to hear them all and hang on every word.
“I don’t buy the argument that art is going to be better or more profound because we are in a politically dark time,” says Taylor. “I do believe that my music speaks to what it means to be an American adult trying to figure out what our obligations are to ourselves and to other people.”
For Taylor, that obligation is to keep observing and writing, always balancing his roles as a father and husband with his need to create and perform and earn a living. He freely admits that he feels a constant undulation of guilt and joy and confusion, just like anybody else who isn’t also the subject of questionable comparisons to the luminary songwriters that came before him.
“I’m going to try my damnedest to put beautiful things into the world,” says Taylor. “I’m also going to be pissed and say really dumb things and disrespectful things and I’m going to not understand the other side. But I still feel pretty strongly that the light is more powerful than the darkness, and I just need to keep that close. You know what I mean?”