Taj Mahal – Taj Mahal (1968)
by Mark Augustine
1968 is one of those strange years in music history whose own significance is overshadowed by being straddled between years that are even more significant. ‘68 was a year removed from the Summer of Love, and a year away from Woodstock – those two indelible cultural behemoths of the 1960’s. Poor 1968, the neglected middle child of the Psychedelic Era. And by this time, psychedelia was in such high demand from listeners that even Ted Nugent was encouraging everyone to take a journey to the center of their mind. Blues artists were being equally pressured by their record labels (especially Chess) to cater to the avant garde climate of the time (see Howlin’ Wolf’s The Howlin’ Wolf Album and Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud). This is the unlikely pocket of time into which Taj Mahal dropped his eponymous debut album.
The most striking thing about Taj Mahal is that, on the surface, a lot of it sounds as if it could have been released in the ‘30’s or ‘40’s.
The most striking thing about Taj Mahal is that, on the surface, a lot of it sounds as if it could have been released in the ‘30’s or ‘40’s. This at a time when even Wolf’s records were soaked with reverb and wah-pedal. The influence of early and mid-century blues and roots music is clearly evident in the record’s song selection, which includes covers of four songs by Sleepy John Estes, as well as others by Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. But this displacement can also be felt in the earthy, stripped down arrangement of the music. Here, Taj established the folksy, throwback style that would become one of his hallmarks. The record’s feel and instrumentation are of a style that are markedly (and purposefully) out of fashion for its time, and banjo and mandolin inflected tracks shimmer brightly and discordantly against the era’s acid-trip backdrop.
One of the great surprises of Taj Mahal, however, is its lush and sophisticated production. The music itself may be channeling an earlier time, but Taj also takes advantage of modern stereo recording to great effect. The success of the cleaned-up folksy-ness that permeates this record can probably also be attributed to the personnel, which includes guitar work from Ry Cooder, Jessie Ed Davis, and Bill Boatman. Boatman would go on to form a musical partnership with J.J. Cale that consisted of over three decades of recordings, compositions, and performances. If you want to hear the roots of Cale’s porch-music sound, listen to Taj Mahal.
But perhaps the record’s greatest strength is that of Taj’s slide-guitar playing – melodious yet raw, gritty yet sophisticated. In this sense, this may be where the album has left its greatest impact, especially in regards to the impact it left on one particular musician. As Gregg Allman tells the story, his big brother Duane was at home recuperating from the flu when he brought him a bottle of Coricidin cold medicine and a copy of Taj Mahal. When Gregg returned later to check on him, he found the pills spilled out across the floor and Duane using the glass bottle to play slide guitar along with the album.