Terry Taylor

Rides a New Wave

By an anonymous 7-Ball writer

7-Ball Magazine July/August 1998



Get it straight: Terry Taylor is a legend. As chief leader behind the awesome ‘Surfonic Water Revival’ project, Taylor is one of the reasons alternative Christian music even exists. Over the course of 20 years and as many records, Taylor has, with inimitable wit and lyrical prowess, exposed the collective neuroses and hypocrisies of the American Church.

As a member of such bands as Daniel Amos, The Swirling Eddies and The Lost Dogs, he and his compatriots rewrote the Christian rock paradigm, giving a voice to frustrated young Christians.

As producer, Taylor has worked with many of the bright lights of progressive Christian music, including Mortal and Poor Old Lu. As a songwriter, he’s used his deeply philosophical Christian perspective and Old Testament sardonic wit to explore such topics as sexual harassment, unsuccessful missionary tactics and shallow pew warmers.

What’s even more amazing than Taylor’s past triumphs is the fact that after two decades he’s still at it. He’s producing, writing and performing on ‘Surfonic;’ he has a new solo album, ‘John Wayne;’ and as newly-appointed A&R director at KMG Records, he has his hand in the future of Christian modern rock.

At the John Wayne Airport in Taylor’s home Orange County, Calif., there is a life-size statue of The Duke greeting the huddled masses. It’s something of a landmark, a pre-millennial antithesis to the understated grace of Michelangelo’s David.

To Taylor, this statue of John Wayne became an archetype. “I started writing the song in the middle of the Orange County bankruptcy,” he says of the title track. “It was a real shock not only to the nation, but around the world, to hear that Orange County which was supposedly very stable, and then one day the headlines are ‘Orange County-Bankrupt!’ I thought, That’s a very interesting parallel to our lives and the discovery of our spiritual bankruptcy. We discover in certain circumstances we have nothing to draw on, no source of peace or tranquility in crisis. I just had this picture of people in Orange County running, driving, whatever, to get down to the John Wayne Airport, running toward the statue and saying, ‘John, we’re in big trouble-what are we gonna do?’

The concept of people looking for an icon to rescue them is not new for Taylor; what is different is the touch of genuine humanity and concern that marks it, as it has begun to mark much of Taylor’s later work. Consider “Mr. Flutter,” also from ‘John Wayne;’ “Mr. Flutter” is that tinge in your gut when you realize you can'’ pay this months rent, or you’ve got concerns of everyday life. Those feelings are at odds with our faith in God to see us through situations. It taps into the male fear of not being relevant, the need to be validated.”

While Taylor has been mislabeled a pessimist or cynic, deep in his gut the man believes it’s all going to work out all right. “A bad rap for me for a number of years was I was down on the Church,” Taylor admits, his voice pained. “I never felt that way at all. I have a song on ‘John Wayne,’ ‘Chicken Crosses The Road,’ Basically says It’s all going to be all right. I’m talking to the Church; it’s like, ‘we’re all in this together.’ I’ve always had the sense, ‘He who began a good work in you will be faithful.’ That’s always been part of the message.”

For an example, he points to the title track of the Daniel Amos classic ‘Bibleland:’ “That captures my mindset on what life is all about. You have thew picture of an amusement park that’s shabby and run-down. The person who built it was trying to convey something about the Gospel, but it’s obviously sort of cheesy and a failure. But then you have the bridge: ‘Something beautiful, something clean/behind the shabby Bible scenes/something real that built a dream called Bibleland.’ I think that’s’ what life is, a dichotomy between two things: our trying to convey who God is, and who He really is. It’s about how even through our brokenness God can come through and make a difference in someone’s life.”

Taylor’s influence on alternative Christian music has garnered the admiration of younger bands like Starflyer 59, Joy Electric and The Prayer Chain. Joy Electric’s Ronnie Martin offers, “For me, Terry Taylor defined what legitimate, cool Christian music should be all about-up-to-date musically and lyrically, trying things all other Christian bands aren’t at the moment.”

Ronnie’s brother Jason, of Bon Voyage and Starflyer 59, agrees: “Terry Taylor is probably my biggest influence. He’s one of my favorite songwriters of all time. The ‘Alarma Chronicles’ are probably my favorite records of all time.”

While artists are quick to cite Taylor as a major influence, and are eager to work with him, his record sales are not typically proportionate to his creativity. ‘Darn Floor-Big Bite’ (a brilliant treatise on the difficulty of finite humans trying to grasp an infinite God) still sounds relevant eleven years after it’s release-but sold a paltry 7,000 copies and is now out of print (as is much of the Daniel Amos back catalog, though KMG is taking steps to change that).

Much of today’s audience is too obsessed with finding Christian bands who copy secular bands to be bothered with a songwriter still decades ahead of his time. While secular bands like Rancid are powerful enough to promote a resurgence of interest in The Clash, it seems to take a major miracle to prod Christian music listeners to explore their own rich history, a history in which Terry Taylor plays a crucial part. “I don’t think people like Larry Norman or Randy Stonehill get near the recognition and respect they ought to get,” Taylor laments.

Though the domination in the market by the kinds of bands featured on ‘Surfonic’ signifies an unparalleled market acceptance of alternative rock, it also brings ample rejection of older, tenured artists like Taylor and his peers. “Until KMG came along, no label wanted to fund a Daniel Amos record. I have friends who really have something to say in Christian music, and are being passed over. If you ignore those people because you don’t think they can sell as many records as the flavor of the day, you’re making a grave mistake.”

Though obviously irked, Taylor’s voice never raises beyond conversational tone, a testament to the man’s civility and rationality. “There’s not a great sense of our own history. I think that’s also true of the Church in America, and it’s a shame.”

Fortunately, ‘Surfonic’ is the perfect vehicle to bring the pioneers and the newcomers together: the Supertones, The Insyderz, Plumb, Smalltown Poets, and All Star United are stacked side by side with the likes of Michael Roe, Lost Dogs and Daniel Amos.

‘Surfonic’ also seems ideal to take Taylor’s pointed wit to a broader audience, but he has more important-and-eternal concerns. “I hope people get a sense of themselves and who God is,” he says softly. “I think the joy for me right now is in finding those moments in life where God’s grace just shines. When I’m sitting in the house and I hear my wife’s footsteps coming up the stairs, that’s something I count as all the world to me.”

“As controversial as [Daniel Amos] has been, if I’ve failed in my songwriting to convey a message of God’s grace, I’ve failed as a songwriter. A supreme compliment is when someone says, ‘When I listen to a song of Terry Taylor’s, I get a sense of who God is.’ To be able to be in a place where God uses you as a vessel to say something, to give some light to the blind-that’s a supernatural thing.”