Beautiful Road Returns Star to Home on Stage

By ALEXIS TONTI

Friday night at the Hot Tin Roof, Kate Taylor came home. She took to the stage with confidence and launched the set with a clear voice, her petite frame radiating enormous energy and vitality. And, as with any proper homecoming, she was greeted by friends and family, all who had come to celebrate the release of her new album, Beautiful Road.

Home, of course, has also been the Aquinnah cottage where she's lived for the past 30 years, and where she sat with the Gazette Tuesday afternoon to talk about her life and career. That home has been her priority for a long time, and is where she set aside music to raise her daughters with husband Charlie Witham and run a business crafting wampum jewelry.

But through a weekend of sold-out shows at the Roof, Kate was reminded that music, too, feels like home.

"It feels so good," she says. "Every time I perform in front of people, that's really kind of the ultimate. I learn something new, get something new from the experience and from the audience."

Though it's been more than 20 years since she last released an album, Kate says that "music was always a part of the landscape, always simmering." She collaborated on a few projects (including the Grammy-nominated rock/gospel album Strong Hand of Love) and did an occasional show, but five years ago music returned to the forefront.

Kate recalls: "Charlie sat bolt upright one morning and said, ‘We've got to make a record,' kind of like out of a dream: ‘We have to make a record.' And right away we rented some recording equipment, called the band in and started this."

The album, she says, was a real labor of love. Her husband coproduced it with Tony Garnier, musical director for Bob Dylan, who was often on the road, making it difficult to find time to work on the album. "But somehow or other we chipped away at it," she says. "And along the way our friend Arlen lost his wife and one of his daughters in a car accident, and other band members had children and there was a lot of life stuff that went on. And then Charlie became seriously ill, and as the record progressed his illness was more and more intense and affected him more and more. But he was determined to finish the project. And he did."

Charlie Witham died last September.

"I've had a lot of support and help," she says. "I know this is what Charlie would have wanted me to do. I do miss him very much, and I think he would have enjoyed all of this. But in some sense, I really feel as if he's still around, helping to move things forward."

She considers Beautiful Road to be her most personal album yet. There's a mix of musical styles at work, from country and rockabilly to folk, gospel and R&B. Many of the songs were written by her husband, and the Island's influence is clear.

"Charlie's writing style," she begins, then stops, looking out across Menemsha Pond, which appears gray under the darkening sky. "He's a very visual person," she says finally, slowly. "It's like painting a picture with the songs he wrote. He loved this place, and I love the way he describes the natural aspects of it, the birds and the trees and water."

Kate herself penned one of the songs, He's Waiting. "It's an interesting process for me," she says of songwriting. "I don't know how it is for other people, but I find they kind of reveal themselves when you least expect it, like in a dream. Or some kind of image will strike, or one line will come to me, and then the rest just sort of follows, just fine tuning it. I feel I don't have any kind of method to it." She pauses, then adds: "But I'm pleased when they show up."

Kate has lived year-round in Aquinnah since 1970, but her Island ties go back to the mid 1950s, when her family first summered here. Of the five Taylor children, Alec, who passed away in 1993, was the oldest, followed by James, Kate, Livingston and Hugh ("quite a cast of characters," Kate says with a smile). Though they grew up in North Carolina, all lived on-Island at one time or another - and her mother eventually moved here full-time as well.

"I always knew music would be a part of my life," Kate says. "There was a lot of it in our house, in our environment, in the general time that my brothers and I were growing up. Music was a way that our generation communicated with each other, and there was a lot to talk about.

"We always had opportunities to learn an instrument or to listen to music, and were always encouraged, and when we started to perform through various opportunities when we were kids, it really just felt like home."

She recalls having her first band when she was 15, and another at 17 called Sister Kate's Soul Stew and Submarine Sandwich Shop. "We just played around and had a good time," she says. "It just always looked like fun. It was fun to be in the audience watching live music, but it also looked like fun to be on stage. And it is."

Her professional singing career unexpectedly began more than 30 years ago, when her brother James invited her to come to London, where he was working with music producer Peter Asher at Apple Records. "One day we went to Peter and Betsy's summer house in the country and their pool wasn't filled yet, and James and I sat in the bottom and sang songs. It was very echoey," she says, putting a bit of gravel in her voice. "But it was great acoustics. And then I came back home, and a little while later Peter called me and asked if I wanted to make a record."

That's when she went to Los Angeles to make the first of three albums produced in the 1970s: Sister Kate, followed by the releases Kate Taylor and It's In There. . . and It's Got to Come Out. But she knew a career in music would be too all-consuming. Family was what she wanted to put first.

And in the end, for all that she's done musically and otherwise, Kate remains proudest of her daughters, Elizabeth, Aretha and Aquinnah. She admits to no regrets ("I try not to spend too much time on that; you could fall into the hole and never come out") and would much rather look ahead.

To that end, though Beautiful Road was produced on their own label, Front Door Records, she says she might look to other resources for help with more widespread distribution. And though she has no expectations and no idea where it will take her, she feels the pull to travel and focus on singing.

"It's a new stage in my life, and I feel excited about it," she says. "My relationship with Charlie, we were together for 27 years. And what he gave me in my life, it's this really solid foundation for what's yet to come. He gave me so many things, and I feel that to honor him, to honor the faith that he had in me - and to honor the faith that he helped me to feel in myself - I really want to, well, put this show on the road."