Taylor Malpass: A Modern-Day Country Gentleman Keeping Classic Country Alive
Taylor Malpass admits to having two goals in life: getting a Gretsch endorsement and one day playing the Grand Ole Opry. He still can’t believe he’s achieved both in recent years. Who says big dreams can’t come true?
Taylor is half of the Malpass Brothers duo. Along with older brother Chris, who he considers his best friend, the Malpass Brothers are recognized as today’s kings of classic, hardcore, traditional country music. Keeping the heart (and soul) of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, the Louvin Brothers, and other country legends of the past alive for a new generation to hear and appreciate.
In addition to being very talented musicians, singers, and songwriters, you can also describe Taylor and Chris as authentic. When it comes to stone-cold country, the Malpass Brothers are the real deal, folks. And they’ve been around this music for as long as they can remember. That’s because growing up, the brothers spent a lot of time at their granddad’s house listening to his vast collection of traditional country records. Fortunately for us, the boys soaked it up like a sponge.
Performing together since they were kids (Taylor and Chris started out singing Louvin Brothers gospel songs and touring the “church circuit” across their home state of North Carolina), their closely intertwined harmonies are reminiscent of Ira and Charlie Louvin and Don and Phil Everly, still the gold standard of two-part sibling harmony singing.
While brother Chris started out young on the acoustic guitar (after his granddaddy taught him three chords), Taylor was ten when he picked up the mandolin and started singing harmony. But he always wanted to play electric guitar like his heroes Chet Atkins and Jimmy Capps. A few years later he did, and today, Taylor is usually onstage or in the studio playing one of his Gretsch reissue ’59 Country Gentleman guitars.
The Malpass Brothers also look the part of country performers from the 60s. As their website claims, “These guys don’t just sound retro…they are retro.” But the combed-back hair and throwback stage suits aren’t a gimmick; it’s a respectful tip-of-the-hat to older country artists and how they approached their craft and performed onstage back in the day.
Fortunately, the brothers got to know and work with several of their classic country heroes. In fact they opened for Merle Haggard for seven years. They were impressed by their heroes’ sincerity, their love of what they were doing, and how these artists always made it about the music, not about themselves. That’s the music compass the Malpass Brothers choose to follow today.
Check the Tour Tab on their website and you’ll see that the Malpass Brothers keep a busy touring schedule. They’ve played virtually all fifty states plus European hotbeds for classic country that includes Scotland, Ireland, and Switzerland. And like their country heroes from the 60s, they have fun onstage just being themselves with a goal of trying to please everyone in the audience. They also don’t make a set list for their shows. The brothers prefer keeping it real from beginning to end based on how they’re feeling and how they sense the audience is feeling.
We recently caught up with Taylor by phone at his Roxboro, N.C. home to chat about musical influences, his style of playing, why he loves ’59 Country Gentleman reissues and, of course, Gretsch guitars.
How would you describe your style of playing?
It’s very much based on the playing style of Jimmy Capps, who is a close friend of mine. I love his style. It’s so smooth and is the heart of 60s traditional country music to me. He uses a flat pick and his bottom fingers to kind of sound like thumbpicking, but he doesn’t use a thumb pick. That’s kind of how I taught myself and based my style on.
What guitarists influenced you growing up?
In addition to Jimmy, I’d say Chet Atkins. I’ve never considered myself a fancy guitar player; I think simplicity is the key. Like, Billy Byrd, he was a fantastic guitar player, and Luther Perkins, guys that people will say, ‘Oh, man, he’s simple,’ but they played with so much soul.
What was your first Gretsch guitar?
I had a Telecaster but I called Jimmy one day and told him I had seen a Gretsch and I was thinking about getting it. He said if you get a Gretsch, you’ll never regret it, and he was right. I had my first Gretsch, an orange 5120, when we went out on the road opening for Merle Haggard. I was around fifteen or sixteen years old.
You seem to prefer the ’59 Country Gentleman reissues. How come?
A lot of it spurs from the Louvin Brothers. I’m a huge, huge Louvin Brothers fan. And like I said, I love Jimmy Capps who played with the Louvin Brothers in the early 60s. Jimmy played a ’59 Country Gentleman that had a Bigsby neck pickup, which was cool. I always said if I ever had the chance, that’s the guitar I wanted, a single-cutaway ’59 Gretsch Country Gentleman.
If someone asked you to describe Gretsch guitars, what would you say?
Every one I’ve ever had plays great right out of the box. They are great guitars. It’s almost like they play themselves. Every time I put my hands on one, whether it’s an old one or a new one, each one just has their own personality and I love that about them. I always feel like I can learn something from it, you know what I mean?
How did it feel seeing your photo in the Gretsch Guitar Catalog?
Man, I was blown away. And to see Chet Atkins, one of my heroes, right under me on the page, it was just unbelievable.
You seem to have a deep love for Gretsch Guitars.
Yes, I’ve been a big fan since I was a kid. I remember getting a hold of a bunch of videos from the Grand Ole Opry TV Show of the 50s. Chet Atkins was always playing one of his Gretsch guitars and I just thought they were the most amazing guitars I’d ever seen. They’re so beautiful and classic. I just had a G-Arrow ring made and had the G-Brand and Gretsch steer head added to a pair of custom cowboy boots. And my wife and I have our first baby due in October. He’s a boy and I’m trying to figure out a way to put Gretsch in his name.
What’s your preferred gear when you perform live?
I’ve been playing my ’59 Country Gentleman reissue for years onstage. I just got a ’55 Chet Atkins 6120 reissue several weeks ago and I’ve carried it to Montana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. And it did great, man. I play them through a Fender Deluxe amp but I have no idea how old it is. My amp had quit on me in Georgia and I found this amp on Craigslist. I called the lady and she said it was her late husband’s and it was in the garage if I wanted to come look at it. I said I would and it sounded great. It had a little bit of dust in it and stuff, but I bought it, carried it home, put new tubes in it, and it’s been a great amp. Between it and my Gretsch, it’s a great combination.
What guitars do you like recording with?
I use my Country Gentleman a lot. It’s great in the studio. It’s the most versatile guitar I’ve ever seen. You can play straight up Bakersfield-sounding, Tele-sounding stuff on that back pickup, and use both pickups and it’ll have that classic country sound. I mean, it does everything I need it to do.
Do you use any pedals or effects?
No, I don’t use any pedals. I just use straight amp and guitar like the old guys did.
How would you describe the Malpass Brothers’ music?
We really don’t do anything past the mid-70s. Everything we do is classic country. Even our original songs have a classic country feel to them. At our shows, we do a few songs people have heard like Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” and some of Merle Haggard’s hits, but we love doing obscure stuff people have forgotten about or never heard, like Stonewall Jackson’s stuff, Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins, and we do a lot of Louvin Brothers stuff. Anything stone-cold country. That’s what we love.
Why is it important to keep classic country music alive?
I feel like that music, and every song, had a great story behind it. There’s nothing cheesy about any of those songs. All of them are from the heart and that’s what we love about it. I feel like people are hungry for this type of music, traditional country music. The kind of music that’s real and from the heart.