The downtown Raleigh renaissance wasn't engineered with Eddie Taylor's anomalous demographic in mind. Taylor is 46, with thick black-rimmed glasses and short, straight, gray hair. He's sitting in his dining room in Raleigh this afternoon, wearing khaki shorts, a collared shirt and a red pair of Crocs. His 2-year-old daughter is upstairs, taking her afternoon nap. She's got a neighborhood play date later today, and Taylor is excited. He's going to be able to get out of the house for a bit.
Taylor bought this house three minutes from downtown Raleigh eight years ago from the city. They were rebuilding poor East Raleigh neighborhoods and offering aggressive loans to first-time homeowners like he and his wife, Shonna Greenwell, who owns a small art gallery called Rebus Works across town. Taylor is a visual artist who works with found objects and outsider art tendencies, and he's a rock musician fronting of one of Raleigh's greatest treasures, the howling two-piece The Loners. The band's official birthplace, Kings, is scheduled to be torn down by the city. Taylor's convinced that's the tip of the iceberg:
Downtown, it's all great that they're redeveloping it and opening it up, and they have all this talk of art projects and stuff like that. The big, important thing is the convention center. I feel like a lot of things that go with the convention center are dictating what is to be in the arts scene around here, though. Downtown, the more development they do, the more a lot of it is—I don't want to say—"corporate" architecture. I hate to see it get to the point where I wouldn't be able to tell if I was in North Hills Mall or downtown Raleigh.
There's talk of local business and small business down there, and I don't see how a small business can afford to be down there. Here, now, you almost have to look for the grit. "If it doesn't look good over the couch, it can't be art." It's that kind of mentality. That's what I see.
Taylor's art, he knows, doesn't fit over the couch. But he's not used to fitting in, anyway. Taylor had a tough childhood growing up in Murray, Ky., a town of several thousand in the western portion of the state. He dropped out of high school, and he says he was a "bad kid from a broken home" who spent several years in youth detention centers and a delinquent boys camp for drug charges and petty theft. He got his high school diploma in the boys camp, as well as an intense distrust of clumsy government programs. At the camp, he saw mentally handicapped children treated like dirt and other wayward teenagers suffering under an outdated system.
Taylor kicked around Texas for a while when he got out, seeing The Clash in Dallas and The Big Boys in Austin. Those were bands that changed his life. Taylor landed back in Murray, then north a bit in Paducah, playing punk rock and crossover metal. He moved to Nashville and then to Tucson, Ariz., starting an alt.country band named Big Joe before that wobbly genre existed. Big Joe landed in Nashville in 1991. They didn't make it there or back in Murray, where they returned after Music City lent an unfriendly ear to a band more rock than country. Taylor remembers those Murray shows well:
They warmed up to it after seeing us a couple of times and just accepted the fact that we weren't a cover band. It's really hard to get across to people out in remote areas—or the sticks, basically—that if you're going to try and make a go at doing music, you're probably going to make more money in the short term doing a cover band. But if you don't develop yourself writing songs, you don't have a shot at going anywhere with it. Some people just make that choice. Some people don't even think about writing songs: "We're going to be in a band and play Soundgarden, or whatever." But I was never oriented in that direction.
Big Joe left Kentucky and moved to North Carolina in 1996. The year before, they'd been invited to play the long-running Spittlefest at The Brewery. It was near the peak of the Whiskeytown era, and they saw a chance to join a scene that liked their type of music. Big Joe broke up two years later. Taylor laid low for a while, getting treatment for a hepatitis infection and buying the house in east Raleigh. He met Chris Jones, a drummer who had played organ in one incarnation of The Cherry Valence, in Nice Price Books, and they started The Loners. They became a downtown favorite until they broke up in 2004. They reunited to play the last night at Kings.
When I first moved here, it was all about developing outside the Beltline. It was this big push, and downtown was just a ghost town. You had people living down there that were doing art, and now it's all hip and trendy to those who can afford it. All of the sudden, a lot of people seem to be scratching their heads. The quality of life downtown isn't going to be for me or you. Thank god for a place like Slim's, it being just this little thing that's down there in the middle of all that. Hopefully it will be able to maintain. Kings went down in the name of development and furthering things. But did anybody really see the culture involved there? No. Hopefully, Kings can find another niche downtown. That's local culture, and that's local color. That's what it's all about. But if the city decides it has to live all over the place, who knows?
The Loners sound like downtown grit. Punchy, fast and magnetic, Taylor and Jones sound like the center of something happening. But, just as Taylor is worried that the city's approach to development will stymie art galleries available to show unorthodox work, he also worries about space being available for the city to continue building a strong local, original scene.
I don't think, overall, our city fathers are in touch with local culture that much. I don't think they're going to bother to get out there and see what it's all about unless it does fit over the couch. I don't want my kid growing up in an area that's so monitored, you know, "Oh, I don't know. That's a little too edgy or questionable." It makes me want to do more art that is edgy or questionable just to keep that out there. But if the best thing we have going for us is an '80s-'90s has-been concert series in Moore Square every year [Bud Light Downtown Live], then we ain't got much going for us.
But Taylor's not going anywhere. This is where his family is. He works here. He plays here. His kid, still sleeping, will go to school here. Exactly 30 years ago, no one would have guessed Taylor—in Green River Boys Camp in Kentucky—would have come to represent the plight of an artistic set in a Southern capital surrounded by a city that just doesn't care to get it. But—sitting at his dining room table, a ticking clock he made of beer caps the only sound aside from his strained sincerity—that's exactly what he is.
If it had been happening four years ago, yeah, I probably would have left. I'm kind of tied to here now. I feel like I can't leave sometimes. I'm 46 years old. It's hard for me to keep picking up and moving around. Hell, I've lived in Louisville, Dallas, Tucson, Nashville, all those places and lived there long enough to experience the place and decide it was time to move on. I regret sometimes that I ever left Louisville because Louisville has turned into an arts place and there's a lot of support for arts there—and not just for people who can afford art. It's a community. Again, Raleigh has potential if they can read the writing on the wall, man. I just hope that it doesn't turn into an area that is devoid of any charm. They're not that far from it—if they keep pushing.
The Loners play RebusFest, which is not affiliated with Artsplosure, at Rebus Works (301-2 Kinsey St., Raleigh) Saturday, May 19, at 1 p.m. They will be joined by Goner, Mommie, The Heavy Pets, The Trousers and a dozen visual artists selling their works. For more, see www.rebusworks.us.