It was midnight the first time Charlotte-based folk/rock band Time Sawyer stepped through the gates of Echo Mountain Studios. They had been invited by engineer Jim Georgeson to tour the studio after performing at IBMA Bluegrass First Class in February of 2015. The studio, a repurposed old brick church on the edge of downtown Asheville, has drawn artists like The Avett Brothers, Widespread Panic, Band of Horses, Dawes and Zac Brown Band.
The first studio room they walked into was the sanctuary, with stained glass windows stretching up to the ceiling. Maybe it was the beauty and unique acoustics of the room, combined with the state-of-the-art equipment, or maybe there were some remnant vibes from the artists who recorded here before and the gospel music from even earlier, but it’s understandable that the band saw this place as the next step in their musical journey.
It would be a year before the band returned to record here with Mike Ashworth of the Steep Canyon Rangers as producer, and another year before they returned a second time to complete the record, but the resulting album was worth the wait. The appropriately titled Wildest Dreams is a taut collection of eight artfully realized songs, ranging from breezy folk to bluesy rock to moody, atmospheric offerings. Musically, the album covers a lot of ground, but the threads running through all the songs are engaging melodies and honest, introspective lyrics.
Lead singer Sam Tayloe’s voice has an appealing open quality that particularly shines in the upper part of his range, and banjo player Houston Norris’ harmonies add a new dimension to this album. The two band mates and long-time friends are joined by a number of other musicians, including, among others, bassist Zach Smith (Town Mountain), guitarist Luke Mears, veteran pedal steel player Bob Barone and drummer Jordan Nelson.
“Oak and Pine” uses the metaphor of two kinds of trees to pose the question “Can we get along even if we’re very different?” but its answer is ambiguous. It was inspired by a picture Tayloe saw of two different kinds of trees intertwined.
“It was one of those memes,” he says, “but not one of the funny ones. It was like, we’re all different… but maybe we’ve all got the same roots. I looked up the comparisons and differences between oak and pine. The color, texture, what you make out of them.”
You’re an Oak and I’m a Pine / Your bark is strong but so is mine
You build the ships that ride the sea / And I frame the bed that brings you home to me
You’re an Oak and I’m a Pine / Our differences ain’t hard to find
In relationships, though, it’s rarely so easy, and by tweaking just one word in the bridge, he changes the nature of the relationship of the two people in the song.
It takes some time to grow your leaves / But you’re the prize of all the trees
They’ll ship me up and they’ll ship me out / Just to be an end table at your boyfriend’s house
In the acoustic demo of the song (which is available as a bonus song to those who purchase the album from Bandcamp) instead of “boyfriend’s house” the lyric is “neighbor’s house.”
Explaining why he changed it to “boyfriend,” Tayloe says, “The more I kept pushing and playing with the song and checking it for ticks, it just seemed like it fit more. Is it not a love song? Were you in love with this person and now they don’t care about you? Or maybe they do and they’re still somewhere else. I changed that one word, and it changed a lot of what you thought might have happened in the first two verses.”
Replacing “neighbor” with “boyfriend” changes the relationship status to “It’s complicated.”
One highlight of “Oak and Pine” is Luke Mears’ electric guitar work, which adds a playful quality to the song.
“Luke sounds like Duane Allman on that song,” Tayloe says. “It’s crazy. Luke is 25 years old and plays, talks, lives like he was born in 1970. And that first solo he plays is about as blues as it gets in a song that is a folk song at the core. Someone might say ‘that’s a folk song but it sounds like there’s a blues run in there.’ But I think that’s exciting. I think that carves out what you sound like.”
Back in 2012, Time Sawyer was recording an album at Chris Garges’ Old House Studio (then in Gastonia, North Carolina, now in Charlotte) and Tayloe wanted a pedal steel player for one song. He asked Garges for a recommendation.
Tayloe recalls, “Chris says, ‘If you’re gonna call somebody it’s gotta be Bob (Barone.) He’s the only one to call. ‘ He showed me his business card and it said ‘It ain’t the real deal unless it’s got steel.’ And I was like ‘Sounds like the guy!’ So he shows up and, it’s funny, we never talked about it for months, but all we could do in the studio was laugh because he was so good. It’s so good that you can’t comprehend it. He did not like us laughing. We were young enough at the time he was probably like ‘You don’t even understand what pedal steel is.’ Later he was like ‘I thought you guys hated it and you were just laughing at me in the background.’”
In the last five years, Barone’s nuanced pedal steel playing has gradually become a more important part of Time Sawyer’s sound, and on Wildest Dreams, it steps from the background to a play a principal role in many of the songs. Its melodies are alternately light and mournful, and, on “Queen City on Fire,” they create a sense of foreboding.
“Queen City on Fire” was inspired by the wildfires that ravaged Tennessee and Western North Carolina in the fall of 2016. At their worst the effects of the fires could be felt in Charlotte, miles to the east.
“I had knocked a hole in my guitar and had to go get it fixed. I went downtown the day after it was at its peak and the smoke was at chest level,” Tayloe says. “You could smell it, you could taste it, you could see it. It shouldn’t take something like that to make you feel like we’re all connected. It’s a smaller world than we think, especially in a civic way. In a way that’s how selfish we all can be. Why does it take you or someone where you live to be affected, before you say ‘This IS bad’?”
He also uses the wildfires as a metaphor for the kind of fires we start in our relationships as well.
The Queen City’s on Fire tonight / No, it’s not the city lights this time / It’s the long pines in the hills
Oh there’s nothing that we can do / The wind is moving with the strength of two
I just sit alone, and I think of you, and what I’ve done.
Just some matches and some gasoline / One man’s thoughts can kill our dreams
I can’t help but to feel the same with you / Trouble ain’t here yet, but it’s coming soon.
The lyrics describe that period of time after you make a mistake but before you feel the effects. It’s a singular moment in the chronology of a self-inflicted disaster.
In addition to the pedal steel, Houston Norris’ muted banjo work also contributes to the ominous feeling in “Queen City on Fire.” Throughout the album the banjo plays versatile roles. It propels “There & Black Blues” forward with well-placed blues licks, it offers a melodic response to the vocals in the chorus of the upbeat romantic ballad “Sea Green Eyes,” and it ratchets up the energy level in “Anyway, All the Way” by racing forward, double-time, under Ian Wagoner’s electric guitar solo.
Although he grew up in a prominent music family (his mother and stepfather, Cindy and Terry Baucom, are accomplished and well known in the bluegrass world) Norris didn’t learn to play banjo until he was in college, when Tayloe, a childhood friend, was starting to play music.
Norris says, “As Sam was starting to play more and there was a potential band forming, I realized I was way behind on the guitar from everyone else so I needed to pick up something different if I was going to join. The first banjo I learned on, and gigged with, was one that was handmade by my grandfather.”
On stepping outside of the bluegrass paradigm he says, “I was raised around a lot of traditional bluegrass, which is a very straightforward way to play the banjo. However it seemed like you either played it the right way or the wrong way and it was a bit intimidating very early on in my playing to grasp the concept of mixing various styles of playing. It was really when I first saw the Avett Brothers that I realized there’s more than one way to play and it opened up several basic techniques that fit well in songs I hadn’t considered using before. That really caught my initial interest and now I feel that I’ve evolved to better recognize the spots for the strumming, Earl Scruggs style licks, and melodic style within songs.”
Along with “Queen City on Fire,” another song thick with atmosphere is “One House Down.” It’s masterful in its musical imagery, painting a scene that’s wistful and haunting, as it talks about the necessity of, but also the fear of, making big changes, rather than incremental changes.
“It’s a lot of pedal steel,” Tayloe says, when asked how they achieved the moodiness in the song. “And Mike Ashworth plays the organ on the second half of that song to add some more of that same droning type of thing.”
Then at one point (listen for “The neighbors / They fuss and they fight / The bottles they throw / They bust through the night”) an unusual feedback effect echoes the violence in the lyrics.
“There’s three of those amps in the world,” Tayloe says. “One is in a museum, one is in Echo Mountain, and one Eric Clapton has. It’s a Marshall prototype. We only used it for that one feedback thing.”
Perhaps the most interesting vocal melody is in “How Long.” The melody sounds more like an early 1960s pop song, dreamy and romantic, than it does a folk/rock song.
The lyrics, too, hint at a longing for the past, or, if not that, at least an acknowledgement that people treat relationships differently now, with less patience. The song asks “How long do you wait when your love’s not waiting? How long do you stay when your heart keeps racing?“
“Today we have so many options,” Tayloe says. “If you don’t like something you literally get on your phone and shop for another date. You can do that. How long do you wait if your love’s not waiting? Today people don’t do that. They feel like they don’t have to.”
Like Norris, Tayloe didn’t play music or sing growing up although he too came from a musical family.
“I took guitar lessons in 6th grade and I was like ‘No, I’m gonna kick a soccer ball or something, or play video games.’”
It wasn’t until he got to college that he started playing guitar and writing songs. The same thing that drove him to start writing songs then is what drives him now.
“It was definitely cathartic for me at the time. It still is very cathartic for me. I feel that I can better get rid of things if I write them down. And maybe someone else might listen to it and feel the same. That’s one of the coolest things about music for me.”
And why “Wildest Dreams?”
It’s pretty simple.
“Wildest Dreams for a band is to continue to make music, to continue to make a living off of playing music.”