Before Taylor McCall left his home state of South Carolina to enroll at Montana State University, he hustled all summer to trade in his flat-bottom fishing boat for a drifter he would haul out west. As an avid outdoorsman, a fishing guide seemed like a logical next step. While waist-deep in crystal clear fly fishing waters—a dream for many—another calling was tugging at his sleeve.
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Accompanied by his father on the 28-hour drive back home to South Carolina, McCall remembers his father asking “What’s next?” His parents knew he played guitar, as it had been gifted to him by his grandfather when he was only seven years old.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna make an album,’” McCall tells American Songwriter over the phone. “And that’s not the answer anybody would want to hear—he thought I was crazy.”
In a symbolic exchange, McCall sold his drifter boat to fund what would become his first album: Summer Heat (2017). His parents had never heard him play outside of his bedroom and were surprised by the poised artist who performed for the first time in January 2018. By September of that year, the young artist signed a publishing deal with BMG. “It’s been very fast,” he shares. “I guess my first stab at it landed at a good mark.”
Humbly understated, the 24-year-old artist’s Music City story is more like a fairytale when contrasted with the often harsh reality of chasing musical dreams in Nashville. Yet, his confidence carried him well into the scene. “Even a gambling man wouldn’t say the right thing to do here—leaving school to pursue a music career having never sung in front of anyone before in my life, not even a cover song set,” he laughs. “I had to write all the material, everything was so new and fascinating because until then, I had never even thought of doing this.”
Moving to Nashville as a performance novice took some warming up. Even now, upon the release of his sophomore full-length, Black Powder Soul, McCall admits that part hasn’t gotten easier. He has established a few meditative guidelines to ease his anxiety as he approaches the stage, but when he’s up there it feels like another world. “It took a lot for a shy bashful guy like me who didn’t even want to read aloud in class back in the day to go ‘Hey, I’m gonna go be in the center of the room,” says McCall. “It’s a wild dynamic.”
McCall credits his astonishing breakthrough to the supporters who propped him up along the way. One of those is the sought-after producer Sean McConnell whom McCall calls “a complete Godsend.” He adds, “I don’t take that lightly, meeting a soul like his.”
After signing with BMG, he wrote consistently on his own, and sometimes with a small circle of trusted collaborators. His manager recommended he get in the room with McConnell. “As clueless as I am, I had no idea who he was,” McCall laughs. The first time they sat down together, they wrote “So Damn Lucky,” which would become the second-to-last track on the 14-song McConnell-produced collection. After two long years of meeting talented people with varying approaches, McConnell’s demo of that track confirmed McCall had finally landed in the right place. “When I heard the demo, I knew that’s exactly where my sonic landscape was in my head,” he shares.
For McCall, Black Powder Soul feels like a fully-realized arrival point. Previous EPs including his self-titled 2019 release were a step in the right direction but failed to satisfy his artistic appetite. Though this LP is not his first, the artist considers it his debut. “The other two projects felt like getting a quick fast food meal, and this is like a steak dinner,” he laughs. “If you’re gonna go out once, you want to eat the maximum.”
Black Powder Soul is not necessarily a concept record. But the intentionally crafted project pieces together hidden heirlooms that paint a fuller picture of the artist and the legacy that led him here.
The album begins at the same place as his artistry—with his grandfather, who gifted him his first guitar. McCall remembers him as a “good ole country man who wore overalls and chewed tobacco.” Not long after he sent the guitar, the Vietnam vet was diagnosed with terminal cancer, likely from the agent orange that was absorbed into his brain and lungs while overseas.
While at a family funeral, an old Slave Gospel song came on and McCall’s ears perked up. “I never knew those recordings of my grandfather existed,” he says.
He tracked down a family history who presented a 12-song collection. Only one song featured his grandfather singing. Halfway through making this record, McCall played it for McConnell who began to cry upon first listen. “Then of course I started crying,” he says. “ I was like, ‘Do you think this is the right option?’ It took me two years before I could even listen to this sound bite and show it to him. And he was like ‘Dude, this has to be on a record.’”
Because his grandfather passed away while McCall was still young, there is no way he would have known that his grandson would go on to become a musician. “Old Ship Of Zion” is both a thematic tone-setter and a touching tribute to McCall’s earliest musical influence. “I felt his presence in there one day and thought ‘If the world is going to hear this first project, then my grandfather is gonna be the first person they hear.”
The clip of his grandfather singing “Old Ship Of Zion” became the opening prelude for Black Powder Soul. Vintage-styled, the graveled vocals haunt the listener as they begin their journey through the album. “I’m proud to have turned it into like a piece of folk art,” says McCall. “The art itself represents the sonic landscape. That’s the frame and the bow around it. But the middle part of this record is not my grandfather.”
Conceptually, McCall placed the track listing as a Biblical chronology. “It’s almost like being born, getting thrown into hell, and then going on to heaven,” he explains. “Then this in-between music is like all the shifts you’ve got to deal with to get the ride on the boat, as they say.”
The slow-burning rock ballad “Hell’s Half Acre” is the beginning of that descent. Checking in from the depths, “South of Broadway” showcases the upside of McCall’s lack of classically trained instrumentalism. Blending banjo with screeching eclectic guitar may be considered off-kilter. Yet, it evokes the chaos of McCall’s intended “crazy circus vibe.”
From the depths of hell, McCall’s brooding “Highway Will” exhibits expressive vocal breadth and wisdom well beyond his years. Bless my heart, I can’t stand still /
Devil don’t kill me, then the highway will, he sings.
To have this record in my hand shows me and hopefully to the world one day that in three years time —it doesn’t matter if it’s 11,12 years—but you can go from not knowing anything about anything to releasing an album you’re really proud of,” says McCall. “If you really give yourself to something and really are obsessed and passionate just for the love of something, it can happen. But it’s also if you’re lucky, first and foremost, because I look at making music these days as a discipline, and an amazing privilege.”
From wading in a creek to recording original music in an air-conditioned studio, McCall’s winding journey is just as unlikely as it is serendipitous. With equal parts reverence for inherited musical traditions and a pioneering spirit, McCall created a uniquely Southern, yet transcendent soundscape.
“I’m just blessed that when I’m dead and gone someone will have my piece of projects sitting on their record collection on their mantle one day,” says McCall. “You can’t take me away.”
Listen to Taylor McCall’s new LP Black Powder Soul, here.
Photo Credit: Laura Partain