Taylor McCall studied wildlife management at university: Now he writes deeply personal songs inspired by the Vietnam War and tours with Robert Plant

Taylor McCall studio portrait
(Image credit: Black Powder Soul/Thirty Tigers)

Had things gone to plan, Taylor McCall wouldn’t be a musician at all. The South Carolinian was intent on a career in the great outdoors, studying fisheries and wildlife management at Montana State University. But then he hit a crisis point. 

“I was in a state of depression, a very dark spot,” he explains. “And there wasn’t much to do in the middle of a Montana winter. So I picked up my guitar and just started letting some emotions out. I’d gotten to such a place in my life where I had nothing to lose.” 

He began writing songs in earnest, self-financing his 2017 debut Southern Heat, and tried his luck in Nashville. By September the following year, McCall was gigging steadily and had a major publishing deal. “I feel like something higher has been pushing me along this journey, because of the way I’ve changed my life around,” he says. 

The most recent stage in that journey is his latest album Mellow War, a masterful exploration of folk-blues Americana whose rich intensity is mirrored in the deep grain of McCall’s voice. You’ll find existential acoustic hymns, weird gospel, string arrangements and, as McCall puts it, “some real ripping guitar”. 

It’s also a deeply personal record. Rest On Easy is a moving tribute to one of his best friends, Fritz, who died suddenly in 2022. The sleeve depicts McCall’s late grandfather on army duty in Vietnam, and opening gospel track Sinking Sand samples his voice. Indeed, the entire album serves as a homage.

“Both my dad and my grandfather were good, hard-working country men who also played this beautiful music that wasn’t for anybody else besides themselves or their church, because they were missionaries,” says McCall. “The album could be conceived as Vietnam love letters to home that I imagined my grandfather might’ve sent.” 

Prior to immersing himself in songwriting, McCall saw music as just a hobby. He got his first guitar aged seven, on the same day, tragically, that his family home burnt down. Southern country and folk music was everywhere, although initially he gravitated towards hard rock. “I mainly listened to Ozzy Osbourne, because my dad was a big Randy Rhoads guy. There was some country too, but I was more of a blues-spirited kid. I’d say I’m a mixture of Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix.” 

Nashville seems to be the 26-year-old’s spiritual home. “My early gigs were a hot mess,” says McCall, who opened for Robert Plant in the UK last month. “It was a lot to process for a shy young country kid coming to town. But eventually I found my tribe and met some beautiful people who helped me grow as a songwriter. Nashville’s got all the glitz, but a little outside of town is where the real cats live. That’s where everybody sharpens their iron. And I feel like things are shifting in a great direction right now.” 

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.