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Double or nothing

Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez gamble and win

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They're an unlikely pair. He's a silver-haired, middle-aged Yankee known for writing some of the greatest pop songs of the '60s. She's a classically trained twentysomething from Austin, Texas, who performed on stage at Carnegie Hall at age 10.

But the outward differences disappear when Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez pick up their instruments and begin to play. The release of their duet album, 2002's Let's Leave This Town was an unexpected pleasure -- a rich collection of acoustic folk songs featuring Taylor's raspy vocals accompanied by Rodriguez's angelic high harmonies and fiddle work.

Taylor is best known for writing such classics as "Wild Thing," "Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)," and "Angel of the Morning." Though artists who have performed his material include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Troggs and Frank Sinatra, Taylor had marginal success as a recording artist and performer through the first 20 years of his career. He left the music business in the early '80s for a much more lucrative stint as a professional gambler: Not only was he an expert thoroughbred horse race handicapper, but his blackjack skills got him banned from every casino in Atlantic City.

He might never have returned to music, had it not been for his mother's illness. "Up until 1995," Taylor explains, "I was just gambling all the time. My mom got sick, so one day I went to play my guitar for her instead of going to the track. Spending time with her, I got the urge to start writing and playing music again."

Invigorated, Taylor hit the road for the first time in years. "I toured Europe, and was surprised to find out there were so many fans of the old records still around." A chance meeting with Austin native Carrie Rodriguez at the city's annual SXSW festival in 2001 opened yet another door for Taylor.

Rodriguez's father David is a notable singer/songwriter, who instilled a love of music in his daughter at an early age, starting her violin training when she was just 5. She later won a scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, and graduated magna cum laude from Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music.

In the late '90s, Rodriguez shifted her focus from classical violin to the more rhythmic fiddle playing. But it wasn't until joining Taylor on a European tour that Rodriguez sang in public for the first time, prompted by Taylor and encouraged by the enthusiastic crowd response. "I was surprised when people said such good things about my voice," she recalls. "I was sure everyone would immediately know I was not a singer."

Rodriguez admits to being awed by Taylor's reputation as a songwriting legend: "I was a little intimidated at first, and if I had known things would turn out like this, I would have really been nervous." She sees Taylor as part mentor, part father figure. "I have learned so much from him, about both music and the business. He listens to everything I say, and we make joint decisions. It's great that he is so open."

While Let's Leave This Town is basically a collection of Chip Taylor songs featuring Rodriguez on vocals and fiddle, Rodriguez is contributing some original material for the next record, currently in production. "While we were touring to support the album, we started co-writing some songs and performing them live," Taylor recalls. "By the time we got back to the studio, we were definitely ready to record them. It's a bit darker this time, focusing more on the gritty side of life."

"It's a challenge, but a great challenge," Rodriguez says of the new material. "The songs have taken form over time." Taylor is very complimentary when evaluating his work with Rodriguez. "It's great to be on stage with her," he says, "and we're on a roll. We both love what we're doing and are having a great time."

james.kelly@creativeloafing.com

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