Mike Taylor and Rocky Mountain High: From the High Country to the Lowcountry

Mike Taylor as pictured on the Rocky Mountain High album.

I was away with the family last week and tried to stay away from the blog. But I brought my Martin Backpacker guitar with me and gave a lot of thought to John Denver, the subject of my Dec 31 post for this birthday.

As I mentioned previously, I really love the guitar lick at the beginning of ‘Rocky Mountain High’ (and each verse). When I was trying to learn more about the song, I realized the Denver wrote it together with a guitarist named Mike Taylor. Here’s what I found about about Mike Taylor’s role (in bold below) – but this is the whole story as posted on SongFacts:

In Denver’s autobiography, he wrote: “I remember, almost to the moment, when that song started to take shape in my head. We were working on the next album and it was to be called Mother Nature’s Son, after the the Beatles song, which I’d included. It was set for release in September. In mid August, Annie and I and some friends went up to Williams Lake to watch the first Perseid meteor showers. Imagine a moonless night in the Rockies in the dead of summer and you have it. I had insisted to everybody that it was going to be a glorious display. Spectacular, in fact.

The air was kind of hazy when we started out, but by ten p.m. it had grown clear. I had my guitar with me and a fishing rod. At some point, I went off in a raft to the middle of the lake, singing my heart out. It wasn’t so much that I was singing to entertain anyone back on shore, but rather I was singing for the mountains and for the sky. Either my voice gave out or I got cold, but at any rate, I came in and found that everybody had kind of drifted off to their individual campsites to catnap. We were right below the tree line, just about ten thousand feet, and we hadn’t seen too much activity in the sky yet. There was a stand of trees over by the lake, and about a dozen aspens scattered around. Around midnight, I had to get up to pee and stepped out into this open spot. It was dark over by those trees, darker than in the clearing. I looked over there and could see the shadow from the starlight. There was so much light from the stars in the sky that there was a noticeable difference between the clearing and everywhere else. The shadow of the starlight blew me away. Maybe it was the state I was in. I went back and lay down next to Annie in front of our tent, thinking everybody had gone to sleep, and thinking about how in nature all things, large and small, were interwoven, when swoosh, a meteor went smoking by. And from all over the campground came the awed responses “Do you see that?” It got bigger and bigger until the tail stretched out all the way across the sky and burned itself out. Everybody was awake, and it was raining fire in the sky.

I worked on the song – and the song worked on me – for a good couple of weeks. I was working one day with Mike Taylor, an acoustic guitarist who had performed with me at the Cellar Door and had moved out to Aspen. Mike sat down and showed me this guitar lick and suddenly the whole thing came together. It was just what the piece needed. When I realized what I had – another anthem, maybe; a true expression of one’s self, maybe – we changed the sequencing of the album we’d just completed, and then we changed the album title.”

As I hadn’t heard much afterward about Mike Taylor the guitarist, I did a little sniffing around the intertubes and learned that he had moved to the Hilton Head Island area of South Carolina – he was a native of Fayetteville, North Carolina – and had become an avid historian, preservationist, and archaeologist of the area.

Unfortunately, much of what I learned about Taylor came from his obituary – he died only a few months ago on September 5, 2010, aged only 62. The next part of his life sounded tremendously enriching – people outside the South may not know that Hilton Head Island and the surrounding area is not just known for golf. It played a central role in Native American and African-American culture for centuries. It sounds as though Mr. Taylor was remarkably dedicated to the preservation of this history and his passing sounds like a great loss for the South Carolina lowcountry community.

This article from April mentions how well Taylor could appreciate the historical significance of pottery shards found on the island.

Here is the full text of his obituary as it appears on Legacy.com and The Island Funeral Home itself. The guest books at both sites are worth reading because they reflect a man who was loved for his many diverse talents.

Michael C. Taylor

Legendary guitarist and passionate historian, archaeologist and preservationist, Michael Curtis Taylor, 62, of Hilton Head passed away on Sunday, September 5 at Hilton Head Regional Medical Center.

Taylor was born on July 21, 1948, to Katie Steed and George F. Taylor in Fayetteville, N.C. While a teenager, he taught himself to play the acoustic guitar. His mastery of the instrument put him in demand in the 1960s as a lead guitarist for a variety of folk singers in both Fayetteville and New York City, playing for such legends as Joni Mitchell. In 1969, he joined an up-and-coming singer named John Denver and with Denver wrote such hits as Sunshine on My Shoulders and Rocky Mountain High. His guitar technique in songs such as The Season Suite and The Eagle and The Hawk often led to his being considered the best guitarist in the country. While playing with Denver, he married Mary Kay Kolacz of Washington, N.C., on July 25, 1970.

Taylor, seeking to escape winter in Aspen, Colorado, came to Hilton Head in January of 1973 at the suggestion of a friend to spend the season. As a boy he had always loved collecting arrowheads and other artifacts with his father, and found the relatively undeveloped Hilton Head and Daufuskie Islands fertile fields for exploring and piecing together the history of the islands. His passion for educating others about the complex relationship between man and his environment, and assuring that historical sites were secured soon surpassed his love of the stage, and Taylor put down roots on Hilton Head and began studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia in archaeology and anthropology. As with the guitar, Taylor completely immersed himself in the subjects and became a Research Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at USC. In 1985, Taylor and a group of islanders began an effort to create The Museum of Hilton Head Island (now Coastal Discovery) and Taylor became the first director in 1988. Under his leadership, beach, nature and history walks and lectures began, archaeological projects were undertaken at Fish Haul Creek & Mitchelville (site of the first freedman’s village), the museum took over management of the pre-historic Green’s Shell enclosure, and a bird hospital and Project Turtle Watch operated under the museum’s umbrella. Taylor later was the co-founder of the Southeastern Ecological Institute and was that organization’s Executive Director. He wrote and narrated Mike Taylor’s History of Hilton Head Island, an audio-cassette feature in Southern Living Magazine as well as a video series Hilton Head Island – A Television History which aired on the History Channel. In addition, he collaborated and contributed in 1993 on a limited edition book The Forgotten History: A Photographic Essay on Civil War Hilton Head Island.

In 2002, Taylor was named Executive Director of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust. Among the many accomplishments during his tenure was the preservation of Battery White, a Civil War Confederate fortification near Georgetown; the confirmation and preservation of Fort Pemberton, a Confederate site on James Island; and he was currently involved in preservation and interpretive signs at Battery Brayton, a Union Fort near Beaufort.

Over the past several years, Taylor consulted with filmmaker Mike Kirk on several documentaries including The Trumpet at the Walls of Jericho about a slave who obtained freedom and became the chaplain of the African-American 54th regiment during the Civil War. He just completed work as co-writer and associate producer for America’s Iliad: The Siege of Charleston, a 2-hour film about Charleston during the Civil War which is set to air nationally on PBS stations in April of 2011.

In addition to his wife, Mary Kay, Taylor is survived by his sister Janet Taylor Knight (David), of Washington, N.C., and a brother, George Taylor, of Chapel Hill, N.C.

A Celebration of Life will be held at the The Island Funeral Home and Crematory, 4 Cardinal Road, on Friday, September 10 at 6:00 p.m.

In honor of the many ways Mike sought to help others, memorial contributions may be made to The Deep Well Project, P.O. Box 5543, Hilton Head, SC 29938 or to the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, P.O. Box 21781, Hilton Head, SC 29925

I’m very sorry not to have known him.

More discussion on Mike Taylor can be found at this thread on the Acoustic Guitar Forum.

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One Response to Mike Taylor and Rocky Mountain High: From the High Country to the Lowcountry

  1. Henry Smiley says:

    Thanks for this, David. I have always thought that Mike Taylor was John’s most valuable musical colleague–his guitar playing seemed to challenge and inspire John’s own playing in ways that no other musician before and after did. I always wondered what became of Mike, and it’s a shame to have lost him so soon. Makes the songs they wrote together–”Rocky Mountain High,” “Sunshine,” “Seasons Suite,” and “The Eagle and the Hawk,” among others–seem a little melancholy. Still, I’m glad we have those songs to immortalize both John and Mike.