BETWEEN HERE AND BEALE STREET: Heber Springs native Charlotte Taylor is hooked on the blues.
Given the tenure and pace of Charlotte Taylor's performance schedule, it's amazing that people are still discovering her, but that seemed to be exactly what was happening at Cajun's Wharf on a cool Thursday evening by the Arkansas River earlier this month. Cajun's, Google Maps says, is 138.4 miles away from Beale Street, but you wouldn't have known it that night. The riverside icehouse was lit up in red, Dave Williams II was peeling out a blistering saxophone solo and Taylor, dressed in black and sporting crimson lipstick, was ringleading the entire affair from center
stage. Or, as she'd put it in an interview earlier that week, directing the ensemble "when to get lower, when to get higher, when to slow down, the endings. It's sort of a language within the blues," she said. "Or like an orchestra. I'm not big on a super-rehearsed band. I want them to know the songs, but I want it to be organic enough that we can go somewhere that's in the moment."
The band ended a feelgood mashup of KC & The Sunshine Band's "That's the Way (I Like It)" and "Get Down Tonight" — and eased into a greasy "Hound Dog" with sparkling passages of unison between the sax and Matt Stone's guitar. A couple perched on barstools along the dance floor's perimeter was dancing as much as they could from a seated position. The group of twentysomethings behind me, evidently in the throes of the riverside hangout's signature rum punch, "Play-de-do," hooped and hollered after each saxophone solo. One of them threatened to quit his job and "just be a roadie for this band."
Taylor, a Heber Springs native, Little Rock resident and longtime staple of the Central Arkansas bar scene, tends to sprinkle a little Beale Street wherever she plays. Her take on the blues is decidedly Memphian,
but informed by all the rock, ragtime and electricity the genre's picked up along its scattered history: jug band rhythms, heavy harmonica, explosive vocals. Her voice is enormous and remarkably elastic: It's big and brash enough to do justice to "Chain of Fools" and "Bobby McGee," and sultry enough to turn on a dime for "Pretty, Pretty," a song Taylor wrote after a Beale Street bystander tipped his hat to her as she passed. "I just always remembered the way he said it," she told me. "Pretty, pretty, keep on walkin
Armed with the music she'd absorbed from her mother, also a singer, and her grandfather, who played the banjo, Taylor cut her teeth singing in clubs and resorts around Eden Isle on Greers Ferry Lake: the Red Apple Inn & Country Club, the old River Ranch Resort, the Thunderbird Country Club. "The long story," she said, "is that when I was 3 years old, my sister taught me a song in Russian, to the tune of "There Is a Tavern in the Town," and she sort of paraded me around with it. That's when I realized singing would get you
attention." It turns out the Russian was a less necessary component of the mix, though,
than the deep-seated, declamatory voice in the making. Taylor saw KoKo
Taylor and Buddy Guy play, studied the canons of Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, and caught a blues festival in Little Rock in the 1980s where, she says, she got "hooked on the blues. ... They blocked off the street, and there were just people of all cultures and ages dancing and having a great time together. I was so intrigued by that — how loving and fun it was, and how this music was bringing people together. So I decided that I was gonna start a blues band." She did, and with guitarist George Martinez, Taylor scored a contract to record on Memphis' esteemed Hi Records label. "They put studio musicians like The Memphis Horns and some great players in there. One track was even produced by Willie Mitchell at Royal Studios," she said, referring to the man responsible for many of Al Green's recordings and arrangements. A few iterations later, Taylor formed the band Gypsy Rain and became a familiar presence at festival and bar gigs in Central Arkansas, where she blends her original songs with dance covers. "It's just a party thing," she said. "I like to entertain the crowd, and I feel like if you throw in some songs that they know, they feel a connection to you, and then they're gonna feel open to hearing your songs." You can check those songs out at Taylor's Bandcamp site, and keep an eye out for her in North Little Rock at Parrot Beach Cafe on Thursday, Dec. 14; at Cregeen's Irish Pub Friday, Dec. 15; and at Core Public House Saturday, Dec. 23.