Once local folk artist Matt Bauer’s tales of murder in the South
A woman dies in 1968, and for nearly three decades no one knows anything about her—who she is, how she died. A musician grows up hearing tall tales of her murder, and eventually writes an entire album about the unidentified female—a stranger with an unknown past.
It’s a dark, furtive approach to songwriting, but musician and former Nevada City resident Matt Bauer does it elegantly. Folk lovers definitely have heard his songs on Michael Leahy’s Cool as Folk KDVS radio show; in fact, he’s probably been on that program more times than any other artist. His gravelly vocals and meticulous banjo-plucking is inimitable.
And now it’s his unique storytelling that’s got everyone’s attention. With his latest album, The Island Moved In the Storm, he’s created something altogether different: an eerie, intoxicating mood piece that combines murder mystery and songwriting. Soft horns, lush strings and a slide guitar make up most of the album, and Bauer’s vocals—along with cameo vocals by Nathan Wanta, Mariee Sioux, Angel Deradoorian—create mournful odes to the unsolved murder of Barbara Taylor, who was killed in 1968 in Lexington, Ky., Bauer’s hometown.
What inspired the title of your album?
It’s actually from this creek that I used to go to when I was little. I used to fish there and hang out there when I was a kid. When it would rain, the island would change shape and move and, for whatever reason, I was trying to write something about that. I also kept coming back to this unsolved murder that happened a long time ago. Most of the songs on this album are based on the murder, so I combined the two ideas for the album’s concept.
An unsolved murder?
Yeah, there was an unsolved murder back in 1968 of a woman by the name of Barbara Taylor. She was found wrapped up in a plastic tarp. By the time she was found, her body was so decomposed that she could not be identified. The town gathered enough money to buy her a gravestone, but because there was no form of DNA testing back then, the town decided to call her “Tent Girl.” Her murder was the town’s biggest mystery.
Thirty years later, I think back in 1998, the son-in-law of the guy who found the woman’s body did some amateur research and found enough information for the police to perform DNA testing on the woman’s remains. Thirty years after her murder, the police were able to identify her.
Yes, and the strangest thing about this story is that yesterday, while we were in Knoxville [Tenn.], the son-in-law of the man who found her body e-mailed me and told me that he had found out about my album after Googling the woman’s name and wants to meet with me. So we are going to meet up in Lexington, which is my hometown and the place where Barbara Taylor was last seen, and sit down and talk about all this.
All of this is almost unbelievable.
I know, it is pretty crazy how things are so connected and how I became involved without really trying.
So, what did you find so compelling about her story?
I am terrible at having to write on one sole subject or having to focus on one single detail when it comes to songs. I started with the intention, or attempt, to write with her story in mind. I didn’t really want to write songs in the narrative format, in a factual manner. Most of the songs are written more in an abstract way that threads her story along with my childhood and my own stories. For example, the song “As She Came Out of the Water” is written more in the moment the person found her body. It’s not really written as a story. The song “[(He Asks the Figure)] Are You the One?” is about her ghost appearing as someone else.
So, the songs are mostly about her story and the moments of my life. They are attempts at trying to write with her life in mind as well as mine. Kentucky is the setting of the album, being that it’s the place where I grew up and the place where the woman was last seen alive.
That’s a beautiful tribute to this woman.
I just wanted to make an album that intertwined her story with mine. It’s almost as if I have made a character that is both her and I.