BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Couples who are both romantically and musically involved tend to produce — besides babies — music that often expresses the discord of being so close.
What Kate Taylor and Taylor Hollingsworth of Dead Fingers have in contrast to Richard and Linda Thompson, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks is a more democratic relationship. On “Big Black Dog” (Pipe and Gun/Communicating Vessels), the couple’s excellent second and most recent album, the songs are split evenly, but like any good union, the music sounds like a unified front. Their songs are idiosyncratic in the best way possible: Southern country jangle, rockabilly minimalism, gentle love ballads, and lead vocal harmonies that make their contrasting vocal style — Taylor’s is honeyed while Hollingsworth’s is froggy — the band’s most alluring asset.
Taylor and Hollingsworth are both from Birmingham, Ala., but they met, more or less, on the road. He had already played in bands, most notably with Birmingham pop band Verbena and Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band, but he joined singer-songwriter Maria Taylor on the road where he met Taylor’s sister, Kate, who played many different instruments in that band, including providing vocal harmonies. That was around 2005. Three years later Taylor and Hollingsworth started performing together, about the same time they were a couple.
“We realized we got along really well on the road,” Hollingsworth, 34, says. “I was attracted to that.”
They had different musical interests, but soon wove them together onstage, much like a married couple learns how to live with someone under one roof: They were encouraging but careful not to intrude. “We write our songs separately and meet in the studio and do them together. I hear her writing on my own and I hear her writing her song. We give feedback some, but it’s not like we’re changing anything,” he says.
Marriage happened in 2011. Soon, they were writing in the same house, but separately. Dead Fingers — the name of a children’s playground trick — came together mainly as a lark. They started performing around Birmingham, performing country music cover songs. Then Hollingsworth got an opportunity to record a solo 7-inch record with Fat Possum, the Oxford, Miss. label that birthed the careers of Andrew Bird, The Black Keys, as well as revived interest in north Mississippi bluesmen like R.L. Burnside. During the session, label producer Bruce Watson heard the couple harmonizing and, on the spot, announced he wanted to do a full record. The couple agreed; in fact, they already had a band name.
“He was part of creating the [cover] band into a serious band,” Hollingsworth says.
The self-titled debut that came out in February 2012 was a weird, but very appealing hybrid of country, folk-blues, and rock without owing allegiance to any genre. The album was also strongly regional. One song, “Lost in Mississippi” is a simple, but wordy, travelogue along the state’s back roads until it lands at a real-life event: The Otha Turner Family Picnic, an annual jam session and barbecue festival hosted by the late fife player that takes place in Mississippi’s hill country. “A friend of mine took me,” Hollingsworth says. “And that was almost like a religious experience. It opened my eyes to super rural backwoods Mississippi.”
The experience opened for Hollingsworth, a connection to his late father, Wesley Hollingsworth, who died in 1994. His father worked as a bank accountant in town, but on weekends photographed the rural South. Through his photographs, and his love of traveling, Taylor says not only did his father become more alive, but also he provided an artistic sensibility he now filters into the songs he writes today. “He had a unique vision that he taught me to view from … I have held onto it,” he says.
Hollingsworth’s mother wrote short fiction, but mostly worked different jobs to keep the household afloat after her husband died. Eight years later, she died herself. “A lot of sadness there,” he says.
Between the deaths of both his parents, Hollingsworth picked up a guitar and, by age 16, was relatively proficient. He tired college for a year at his mother’s request, but dropped out because it felt it was pushing against what he ultimately wanted. “My mom, she saw me develop into a musicians. It definitely worried her,” he says. “But she couldn’t hold me back.”
He has translated that career into a growing body of work that now involves a daughter, Ava, who was born in November 2012. Most of “Big Black Dog” was recorded before her arrival, and held for release until this summer when she was old enough to go on tour with her parents. Last year, Ava joined Dead Fingers on a three-week tour of Europe and this summer, during a circling of the U.S. — which includes a show at the Hideout Thursday — she will be cared for by Kate’s mother at area hotels while her parents get to work at the local club.
Remaining in Birmingham while juggling a baby, a band, and other creative endeavors like visual art, is possible due to the city’s resurgence over the last few years. Apartment developments, an 8,500-seat minor league baseball stadium, and multi-million dollar hotel, convention, and theater projects have all revived the city’s sagging downtown, which have created a boon for young entrepreneurs and artists who have grown up there and, in the past, would have been convinced to move elsewhere to commit to their artistic pursuits. According to REV Birmingham, a local economic development organization, the downtown population increased 36 percent between 2000 and early 2011, despite a recession that hobbled job growth elsewhere. After years of population decline, the city has finally stabilized out-migration, with its population steadying at about 212,000 for the last four years, according to US Census data.
Hollingsworth says a reason why Dead Fingers is able to thrive, even on a meager budget and inconsistent touring schedule, is because of the artistic community that has bloomed in his hometown that is geared to help raise the stature of creative endeavors incubated in town.
“Yesterday we were on the local radio station that is two doors down from our record label in a part of town that, years ago, was a ghetto,” he says. “And now, it’s this fruitful, cool, happening neighborhood. There’s tons of art everywhere now.”