Though Marianne Taylor devotes her life to the music she loves, the music hasn't always loved her back, at least not financially.
After turning Hideaway BBQ, the big timber building alongside Raleigh's Capital Boulevard, into the Triangle's premier Americana joint as its chief booking agent, Taylor was sent scrambling when the club went out of business after only 15 months. She landed at the nearby Berkeley Cafe, where she's booked songwriters and country bands since January 2008. That move was, of course, followed by an enduring recession that's led to a sharp decrease in attendance. Taylor resorted to hauling her prized CDs into the Berkeley last summer and selling them at the door, just to try to keep both the shows and herself afloat.
Taylor has emerged on the other side of that storm, though: Fast-forward to January, and the scene inside of the Berkeley looks an awful lot like Thanksgiving. As members of Jason & the Scorchers idle before a soundcheck, Taylor lays out a sumptuous spread of Southern-style home cooking for the band—spiral ham; broccoli casserole; cranberry, spinach and feta salad; cornbread; applesauce; chocolate cake and, of course, sweet tea. "Come and get it," Taylor calls out to the performers.
They rush like impatient children to line up at the buffet.
Taylor is the promoter of the show, meaning she pays for the band to come to town and works to tell her audience about the show. Reducing her role to such a simple, business-minded description does her a great disservice. "Marianne is special because she's more house mom than promoter," says Justin Townes Earle. He met Taylor in Nashville and became close with her during his recovery from a serious drug addiction. They spoke on the phone nearly every day for a year. Taylor gave Earle his first out-of-town gig after he sobered up and later helped him find a booking agent. "I've never met anyone who's had a bad time doing a show for her."
"She's an oasis for us traveling musicians," echoes Stacie Collins, a special guest on the Scorchers tour.
Taylor's been preparing meals for the bands she books since she began this job in February 2004. She's a seasoned veteran by now, and a flood of compliments on her ham and salad dressing spills from the musicians scattered about the room. "You have the best applesauce," says Jason Ringenberg, who's played shows promoted by Taylor in Raleigh since 2004.
Taylor reasons it like so: "I just want bands, out of all their nights on the road, to be comfortable for at least one."
It works, too. Ringenberg's one of a slew of traveling artists who are fiercely loyal to Taylor, making Raleigh a destination on their itineraries. "This Scorchers tour is a special thing because we haven't toured for 14 years, so it was important to do it in the right places with the right people," Ringenberg says. "Working with Marianne here in Raleigh was definitely tops on the list. She knows the market really well and she has a really good instinct for how to do shows, where to put them and how to promote them."
That knowledge has been hard-won. Growing up in Virginia, Taylor's first loves were equestrian. She grew up in her family's horse and pony business, doing everything from raising and riding to showing and selling. She sold to musicians like John Mellencamp along the way, but music really began making an impact on Taylor when she moved to Southern Pines, N.C., in February 1996 to escape an alcoholic boyfriend.
"I spent a summer down there, just regrouping, and listened to a lot of great music like Leonard Cohen. It pretty much saved my life," she remembers. After moving to Raleigh the following year, Taylor happened upon Wilmington singer-songwriter Mike O'Donnell playing in a restaurant and offered to manage him.
"I didn't have a clue what I was doing," she remembers. "But it's not that hard to figure out. I got on the Internet and read; I asked questions."
Taylor soon began booking local shows for nearly a dozen artists, mostly cover acts. "I saw bands needing help from someone like me. They were getting bad deals," she says, recounting a horror story from Chapel Hill bluesman Demitri Resnik, whom she later managed. "He played up in Williamsburg, Va., and when it came time to settle, he went into the office and the owner was sitting there with a gun on his desk. So he got shorted on the money." Taylor started working clubs, too, booking the music at four bars around Raleigh. In November 2002, though, they all cut their winter music budgets. She had to cancel three months of booked shows.
Upset by that loss, Taylor moved to Nashville without a plan, snagging a job selling concessions at an arena. Though she was no longer active in booking—"promoters are a dime a dozen there," she says—Taylor went to see live music nearly every night. She recalls Nashville-only moments, like watching a marathon John Prine performance in a tiny barroom and working backstage at a star-studded Woody Guthrie tribute at the Grand Ole Opry.
"I'm sitting on the couch and Arlo Guthrie is beside me, Ramblin' Jack Elliott's across from me and Guy Clark's in the doorway. They're all playing guitars and singing," she remembers. "I thought to myself, 'If I died right now, I'll be OK.'"
That story fits with how Taylor works. She's the seemingly rare music industry worker who's fueled by genuine affection for the music she books, the intensity of which rivals that of fans who may attend her shows. She relishes her preshow routine—eating with the band and watching them perform their soundcheck—although she can hardly sit still to listen. Instead, she's tending to the various needs of the performers—adjusting the placement of a bothersome subwoofer, hugging each member of late-arriving acts or setting leftover cake and tea on a table near the stage. "This is the time I love," Taylor says.
For all her care, it's hard to find someone to speak a harsh word about Taylor. But the biggest knock on her—repeated by many, herself included—is that she books too often with her heart and not her head.
"When Marianne sees a band she loves ... well, that's her flaw, if you can call it that," says Berkeley Cafe owner Jim Shires. "I've been doing this so long that I've got to look at it as a business. But in all the years that Marianne's been doing shows with me, there's never been a bad band. They didn't all draw, but there's never been a bad band."
After she moved to Raleigh upon returning from Nashville in September 2003, The Pour House offered Taylor the opportunity to book her own shows after she worked as an assistant to owner Eric Mullen. She initially balked—"I didn't know anything about being a promoter"—but later noticed an open date between Greenville, S.C., and Charlottesville, Va., in the itinerary of country legend Jerry Jeff Walker.
"All of a sudden, I had a show," Taylor remembers. "It sold out. Peter Rowan and Tony Rice sold out two days earlier. I made $600 on each of them." The initial success won Taylor over on promoting roots shows in the Raleigh area. "I thought, 'Boy, promoting is easy. I'll just bring whoever I want to see to town and I'll make money too.'"
Of course, she soon learned that it wasn't always going to be that easy. Booking Percy Sledge for a gig at The Pour House just weeks after his 2005 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seemed like a slam dunk, even with a $6,000 guarantee. "We had 50 people," Taylor remembers. "I lost $4,850." But Taylor's undying enthusiasm allowed her to see a bit of silver lining despite the huge blow. "That was a $4,850 concert ticket, but it was really cool to see Percy Sledge from 10 feet away."
What's more, if someone comes to one of Taylor's shows and doesn't like the band after 15 minutes, she gives them a full refund. Bad for business, good for listening. "I've only had to give money back once," she brags.
She now tries to avoid hefty guarantees, relying on savvy to recognize both rising stars and legends who are affordable, though she still puts herself at risk with each show she books. "It's not like I'm in it to make a killing financially," Taylor says, "just cover my expenses and have enough to live on—and I live very simply." Rather than dollars and cents, Taylor focuses on bands and fans—ensuring the former has a receptive audience and the latter can find a reliably great performance every night she puts on a show.
"We play a lot of cities and a lot of the same venues as the acts she books, and we know how hard she works at bringing in quality stuff," says Chatham County Line frontman Dave Wilson of Taylor. "Marianne is definitely an underappreciated gift to the local music community. I hope she makes a decent living at what she does, and if not, she should have an arts grant from the state."
Touring bands recognize Marianne's effect on their shows, too. "Raleigh grew quick for us, and I give a lot of that credit to Marianne," says Blake Christiana of Brooklyn band Yarn. "She believed in us and took a gamble on us, and she does that every day. If the country had a million more Mariannes, that would be all right with me. Hell, I'd probably be rich and famous by now."
That's all Taylor's hoping for the bands that she loves, too.