Taylor Hunnicutt’s voice is soul and steel, warm as Gulf waters, never breaking but slicing the silence with precision and intent. Hailing from the Cotton State where the Tombigbee meets the Black Warrior River, Hunnicutt began sitting in with blues bands while turning tables at Champy’s Chicken before ultimately giving up the University of Montevallo for the stages and bars in Birmingham. In 2018, she released Flower in a Drought, an EP hallmarked by Muscle Shoals swagger and native twang but righteously barbed with confrontation and a 21st Century angst that rattled the rib cage. Making occasional forays with classic rock outfit Black Jacket Symphony and regularly performing and recording with cosmic country guru B.B. Palmer, Taylor navigated the pandemic from her front porch in Demopolis, AL, anxiously awaiting a full-time return to touring while also preparing for a new album alongside her husband and guitarist Josh McKenzie. This past fall, Taylor and Josh opened the show for Joshua Ray Walker at Grant’s Lounge, and I don’t mind telling you, as excited as I was to see the big man from Dallas and his Texas Strangers, I could’ve listened to the duo all night. That was my first show since the pandemic, and it was everything I wanted it to be– a welcome homecoming of sunburst alt-country and Telecaster finesse.
On Friday, March 18th, Taylor Hunnicutt and Josh McKenzie return to Grant’s Lounge to share the night with B.B. Palmer, and I compel you to buy the ticket and take the ride.
AI- Tell me how a girl from Demopolis, Alabama that went to school to study opera ends up with a J-45 wrapped around her and singin’ alt-country.
TH- I started working and waitressing at this blues juke joint in Alabaster, Alabama, while I was in college. Well, I say I was in college, but I was attending college and not getting a whole lot done! And then I kinda fell in love with the scene doin’ that! I ended up droppin’ outta school and sittin’ in with bands at that restaurant, and then it just slowly progressed into being in bands and having my own thing and then writing my own songs. And now I’m here (laughs)!
And you did– and I don’t know, maybe you still do sing with the Black Jacket Symphony?
I do. I still do that.
How did that come about?
One of my friends was in the symphony already and he hit me up and was like, “I think they’re lookin’ for a Stevie Nicks,” and I was like, “Well, I would love to do an audition!” So I just sent him a video and then he immediately got right back to me, and they’re like, “When can you start?” So I went over and met the guys and started doin’ that, and then that led to other shows like Tom Petty, and I did The Eagles and Talking Heads and just have been a part of that family for a long time now. I love doin’ that, man!
That was what– 2017 or thereabouts?
I think so. Either ’17 or ’18. It’s been a while!
Had you in earnest begun writing and trying to perform your own songs?
I’d tried, but I’d not really found my sound like what I wanted to do yet. At that point, I didn’t have any material released or anything and was trying to get to that point, but I thought Black Jacket for a second was the top for me. Once I started, I would go out and do these cover shows with Black Jacket and then I would come home and would feel so… Not like depleted, more like inspired to write my own thing. So then I would just work harder on my own stuff. Not that there’s anything against Black Jacket or doin’ somebody else’s songs, but I wanted to do my own. That kinda kicked me into high gear!
That was kinda where I was going with that question. I was just talkin’ with a buddy of mine the other day, he was talkin’ to The Dead South and they’re about to put out two EPs of covers. He asked Nate [Hiltz] that recording an album of cover stuff that he didn’t write, did he feel like he was giving up any control over what he was doing. I wondered that about you doin’ the songs, as you say, bein’ “Stevie Nicks” for Black Jacket Symphony, if there was a loss of control there that made you want to write your own music even more.
Absolutely! That’s absolutely what it was! I love her and I was very inspired, but it was also just the need to get out what I needed to say and what was goin’ on in my life at that time. It definitely pushed me to wanna solely focus on doing original shows from here on out and puttin’ out my own content. It gave me the confidence too. Performing in front of 3000 people in this big theater, doing somebody else’s songs and going back to the dressing room and taking a shower where Bob Dylan showered two nights before and Chris Stapleton played the night before, you’re like, “This is cool and all, but I’m pretending to be somebody else, and I wanna be Taylor.” That’s what I’m focused on. I’ve slacked off on some of the Black Jacket gigs. I still do it ’cause I love it. It’s a great experience and I love those guys, but I, hopefully, will be in those same venues doin’ my stuff one day. That’s the goal!
Tell me about the EP, Flower In A Drought— when did that begin?
I think that was… Oh my God, I don’t even know! 2019 I think is when we released that. At that point, still, I’d only written a couple of songs that I actually played out, was very new to it. A good buddy of mine, Ryan Sobb, who’s in Nashville now, and Early James— James Mullis– they both pushed me with Lester Nuby from Ol Elegante Studios to put out something original and try to bridge the gap and be an original artist. Ryan and I wrote some songs and he wrote some songs, and we put ’em all on that EP and recorded it and released it, and I still go back and listen to it. It sounds completely different than what we do now, but it’s nostalgic and I still love it for what it was at the time.
I saw you in front of Joshua Ray Walker— you and your husband, Josh– back in October and you played some of the songs off that EP, including “Flower In A Drought”, the title track– a wonderful song, confrontational song. “In a state where they still fly that goddamned flag…” And then that notion of trying to write “hits not songs” and the perception that commercial success is in fact hitting bottom. I relate to and love all of that! Tell me how you have gotten from that point in time in 2018, surviving a pandemic, and now here you are, I believe hitting the road as much as possible.
Yeah, and we’re doin’ it on our own too, which is the hard part! I feel like that’s where we’ve been since the beginning of that EP being released. It was just us! we didn’t have any financial backing, didn’t have any investors, nothing like that. It was just what we wanted to do, and then it’s been the same throughout. We still don’t have an agency, we still don’t have management, we don’t have any of that. We do everything by ourselves! That song, I feel embodies everything that I wanna be. My sound is Southern. I’m proud to be from Alabama. I’m proud of what we are, but I’m working at my tea shop, which is like a coffee shop right now, and if I played that song for half the people here in small rural town Alabama, it’d piss ’em off, you know? (Laughs)
That’s a hard part about bein’ in the South and bein’ an artist when you have to look around… I’m from the South as well. I grew up around it, I saw it, and it’s something I’ve hated. I was comin’ home the other day and I don’t know why I never noticed it before– on the street, turnin’ onto where I live, there’s a house right across the street from a church and right around the corner from a school with the American flag and a giant rebel flag right there in the front yard! I knew we were comin’ up on this interview, and so I immediately started thinking about that song. They’re still flyin’ that goddamn flag— in front of the church! In front of a school! And as you say, if you were to take the challenge of singin’ that in front of the people that you’re walking around in your hometown, yeah, you would start some shit, I guess!
Oh yeah, it definitely does if I play it anywhere around here! The place that I live right now, in Demopolis, Alabama… I moved back home during the beginning of the pandemic ’cause we were plannin’ on being gone so much. I moved into my childhood home next to my mom and we have a bunch of animals, so we thought she could take care of ’em– and then we got stuck here! We couldn’t really leave and were quarantined and life completely shut down for a little bit. So I started playin’ gigs around here and when I’d play that song, it would visibly make people get up and leave and piss ’em off! And people that I’ve known my whole life! People I’ve went to church with, people that are established members of the community here, and business owners and things like that! It just drove me, even more, to try to lean into that side of things because it is for me completely fucked up, excuse my, French! Just don’t do things that hurt people– and that [flag] hurts people! That’s just the simplest way I can put it!
During that downtime at home during the pandemic, was that an opportunity for you to write?
I definitely did write– a lot of it was really depressing (laughs), so I haven’t played a bunch of it out! I have written some sad songs, but I think it was more of a time where Josh and I were engaged and about to get married, so we were just stuck in the house together and working on the sound more than anything. Like, “What do I wanna portray vocally? How can I get better at guitar?” I’ve been in a rotating cast and had a rotating cast of members forever, so the sound had always varied. I’d always had to have fill-in players and that kind of thing, and it was dependent upon the musicians I was playing with for it to be what I wanted it to be. During that time, I worked on listenin’ to a bunch of records and takin’ a bunch of stuff in and being like, “Okay, I’m this, and this is what I’m gonna be, regardless of who’s playing with me.” So not as much songs, but more of the sound, I think.
How instrumental was Josh in that? You’re married now, so that dynamic as husband and wife and singer, guitar player, collaborator– how much influence has the relationship had on your sound?
Well, I’d always kinda suppressed my country roots. I always tried to put that aside and be more rock or more whatever and having him come in, I mean, he’s just like straight-up chicken pickin’ tele player! He can do the rest of it, but that’s what he feels, and it got me back to that. So it was a huge part of what I’m tryin’ to do now, his sound, and him showin’ me records and us figurin’ out what we want and what I actually liked. He was a huge part of it! He does that in any band. In the other band that I’m in, B.B. Palmer, he does the same thing. He’s an integral part of that sound too.
I’m glad you brought up B.B. Palmer. I also ran across The Lowdown Drifters’ “Fire In Her Eyes” that you were a part of– great duet there! What else have you been up to in between the downtime of the pandemic and then getting back out on the road?
We’re just trying to play as much as we can, but with B.B. we’ve been recording– I guess for the past almost two years– an EP called the Krishna Country EP. It’s the east meets the west and sitars and guitars…
(Laughs) Oh, God…
(Laughs) It’s a super cool concept! Just hang in there (laughs)! Hang in there and just listen to it! The first time he brought it to me and he’s talkin’ about Krishna and all this shit (laughs), I was like, “What the… Did you finally crack?” I looked at Josh, I was like, “He’s finally done it! We’re watching him break down in front of our eyes!” And now that I’ve got the final mixes back, I’m like, “Oh man… Wow!” It’s like some Beach Boys shit! I was like, “Okay, I get it! I just said to trust the process!”
That sounds like something where your training in opera would’ve come in handy, vocally.
With him, it definitely does. When you hear it, you’ll be like, “Yeah, for sure!”
When you and I spoke at Grant’s, you said that you and Josh were at that point in time, tryin’ to decide where you were going to go and record. You had a couple of studios that you were interested in, but you hadn’t made a plan just yet. There was some discussion of hockin’ your weddin’ ring as well– which I hope it didn’t come to– in order to finance that adventure…
Not yet (laughs)!
Tell me what the status is for another Taylor Hunicutt project– because on social media, scrollin’ through, you’ve been performing new or new-ish songs when you’ve been out live.
We’re doin’ a live record at Mercury Lounge in April. That’ll be a bunch of unreleased material and we’ll probably put an EP out of some newer songs and maybe a cover or two on that, but we just booked some studio time for the end of this month at Clearwave Studios in Decatur [AL], and I’m very excited about that! Josh ran across a YouTube video of the producer there, the studio there, and we’ve never worked with him, don’t have any affiliation… I know some people that have recorded there, but it’s a fresh start. We booked studio time and plan on doin’ a couple of singles there, and if it goes well, maybe a full-length record depending on how fast we work. We’re definitely gonna have to sell somethin’– but it’s gonna be worth it (laughs)!
I saw the announcement about recording the live show over in Tulsa. How did that come together with the Mercury Lounge? ‘Cause you’ve been out there to play several times, and I know lotsa folks have gone out there and recorded big live shows. Is it just well-equipped for that?
We did a residency there– I’ve played there a bunch– but they’ve just become some of our best friends. They support us well, we have a great fan base there, and it’s more of just we’ve met a bunch of friends there and they come out. So we figured what a better place? It’s a historic place and everybody gets into it and the sound guy there is incredible! It just kind of fell together! I know Jeremy Pinnel has done a record there, so we just asked the manager, she’s one of my best friends, and I was like, “Do you think this could be something we would do?” And she’s like, “Abso-fuckin-lutely! Yeah, we’ll figure it out!” We’ll have video content comin’ from that too, and I’m super pumped about that! Ah man, it’ll just be the best time ’cause all my friends’ll be there! Even if we don’t get anything worth releasing or a song or two, I’ll just have the best time o’ my life (laughs)!
Oh, I find it hard to believe that won’t give you somethin’ good to put out there in the world!
We’ll have somethin’, I hope!
Tell me about the show coming to Grant’s on March 18th. Is that gonna be full band? Are you gonna be with B.B.? Is it just gonna be you and Josh? Who else is on the bill?
It’ll be full band, both bands. The way we do things now is B.B., I play rhythm guitar in his band, he plays bass in my band, and my secondary guitar player plays bass in his band. We all just rotate the same cast throughout the whole thing, so it’ll be both full band, two separate shows, but in one, if that makes sense.
That sounds good! And I didn’t exactly plan it this way, but it is March 1st and today kicks off Women’s History Month, so give me a woman, some women in your life that have had a profound influence on you, whether as an artist or family member or just an individual!
My mother and my stepmother, both have completely molded me into who I am. Musically, there’s so many! Obviously, I look up to the Margo’s and the Nikki Lanes and the stuff like that, but goin’ back to my roots, the people that have molded me and made me want to do this for a living are Aretha Franklin, Susan Tedeschi, those kind of people. Lilly Hiatt gave me a chance and let me open for her twice, and that’s what started my career in pushing forward and doing original music. She gave me that confidence to do it. And now… It’s so weird, I have a bunch of friends, but I don’t have a lot of girlfriends that do what I’m doing. But I’ve found a girl in Oklahoma City, her name’s Mallory Eagle, and she’s just been like my sister through all this. She’s puttin’ out great music, original music, killin’ it right now– and you should check her out if you have a chance! She’s amazing! But there’s so many girls right now that are just killin’ it, and I’m proud of that because for so long, it’s been so fuckin’ hard! I mean, I’ve been turned down for so many gigs because I was a “chick”, and I think it’s finally comin’ around that people are seein’ we’re badass too (laughs)!