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50 years after ‘Sister Kate,’ Taylor comes full circle

Kate Taylor is releasing "Why Wait!" 50 years after her debut, "Sister Kate," with several of the same collaborators.
Kate Taylor is releasing "Why Wait!" 50 years after her debut, "Sister Kate," with several of the same collaborators.Heidi Wild

Kate Taylor is a peaceful symbol of year-round life on Martha’s Vineyard. She lives down a dirt road in an antique bungalow that sits magically at the end of a marsh, far from the arenas where her brother James might entertain 20,000 people a night.

Off-island, folks may know of Kate as the lone sister among four brothers — James, Livingston, Hugh, and the late Alex Taylor. But she is also a gifted singer whose debut album 50 years ago, “Sister Kate,” featured an impressive lineup that included Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, and brother James. She’s recorded a few albums since, including 2002′s “Beautiful Road” with guests Mavis Staples and Levon Helm. Mostly, though, she’s stayed on the Vineyard, where she raised her two daughters (she also has a stepdaughter).

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She did not quit the music business entirely, as some may have thought.

“I don’t feel I’ve been too far from the business,” says Taylor. “Whenever we could, we’d go and do a show. Something was always simmering on the back burner.” That included occasional dates through the years at Johnny D’s in Somerville and the WUMB Folk Festival in Dorchester.

Now, at age 71, Taylor is back with a new album, “Why Wait!,” out Aug. 6. It reflects her optimistic, earth mother nature and reunites her with “Sister Kate” producer Peter Asher (formerly of ’60s duo Peter and Gordon and a three-time Grammy winner who has produced hit albums for Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and James Taylor) and some of the same musicians who played on those first sessions. Taylor is backing the album release with three shows at the sparkling new Music Room in West Yarmouth Friday and Saturday, and the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs on Tuesday.

She’ll perform with Peter Asher & Company, a band featuring some of the all-star players on her new album, including bassist Leland Sklar (who normally tours with James Taylor and Phil Collins), guitarist Albert Lee (who has backed Eric Clapton and Emmylou Harris), and Steve Holley (who has toured with Paul McCartney’s Wings).

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“We’ll make sure everybody does their respective songs,” says Asher. “Albert Lee will do some amazing, blistering guitar that only he can do, and Kate will sing songs off her new album, and I will sing Peter and Gordon songs. It’s kind of a variety show,” he adds. “And I get to be the host, like Ed Sullivan or Murray the K.”

“I’m thrilled to death that we have a big old band with big old electric guitars — the full Monty,” says the tour’s producer, Keith Putney. “We’re not going out there with just a couple of people playing acoustically.”

The idea of Taylor making a 50th-anniversary record during a pandemic seemed far-fetched, but she was not to be denied. “The band members were at home in LA because of the pandemic,” says Taylor, who decided to fly to the West Coast and quarantine for two weeks before starting the sessions. And she was raring to go.

“Kate has this infectious energy,” says Putney. “When she gets excited, she jumps up and down and claps her hands — and there was a lot of that going on. But we took temperature checks every day and took all of this seriously.”

The music on “Why Wait!” is remarkably varied, from two Taylor originals to covers of tunes by Taj Mahal, Etta James, Little Feat, Tommy James, Nancy Wilson, Ed Sheeran, the Staples Singers, and the Beatles. “Good Day Sunshine” leads off the record with Taylor shouting “Good morning, world!” as if this were Woodstock. The album bubbles with her enthusiasm, but it’s also buoyed by some powerful R&B singing, Taylor’s forte compared with brothers James and Livingston.

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“James and Livingston are more folk-oriented,” Asher says. “What makes James so remarkable is that he sings sort of like a folk singer, but he’s singing Ray Charles licks and Sam Cooke licks rather than Woody Guthrie licks. And Kate is a more high-energy version of that. James is restrained and precise in many respects and [he] phrases so brilliantly, but Kate is a little more abandoned. And Kate onstage is like a whirling dervish.”

The cover of Kate Taylor's 1971 debut album, "Sister Kate."
The cover of Kate Taylor's 1971 debut album, "Sister Kate."Handout

Yet, the bottom line is that Kate is still a Taylor, says Asher. ”They’re all different, but they all have a certain intensity in common. Obviously the ones I know best are James and Kate. There’s a certain sense that they’re all a little mad underneath the charming surface. And it’s that mixture that makes the Taylors.”

The album’s title track suggests Taylor’s current mood. The song was written after she thought, “Why wait for heaven? People talk about heaven being ‘up there,’ but compared to what? We’re in it. So I thought, ‘Why wait?’”

It’s a rock tune with a gospel feel and a hot guitar solo by Lee. And its hopeful message reflects what Taylor has sought on the Vineyard throughout her adult life. She raised her daughters, lived in a teepee for a while with her now-deceased husband and manager Charlie Witham, made and sold wampum jewelry on the island, and now lives in her quaint bungalow, not far from James’s more modern and elaborate vacation home.

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“I’ve had this beautiful life that is filled with wonderful things — art and nature, friends and family,” she says. “I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have the life I’ve had. I wouldn’t say I turned my back on the music business, but I backed away from it. I was young and excitable and unprepared for a lot of it.”

The new album shows her Vineyard roots with the song “Beams of the Queen,” complete with a ukulele intro from the Ukeladies (of which she’s a member). It was written by her nephew, Isaac Taylor.

“It’s about the Gay Head Lighthouse,” she says. “It sits right outside his front door and shines in his doorway. [Isaac] calls it the Queen, so the beams of the Queen are the beams of the lighthouse. It’s a beautiful song about Gay Head.”

She also does a little-known tune by her brother James called “I Will Follow.” Asked to describe him, she says, “I feel like what everybody else feels about him. He’s just a masterful, gifted musician and poet. And his gifts just keep getting deeper, though I think he was fully formed when he first started playing. He brings such comfort to so many people, including myself. And I’d say that about all my brothers. Livingston also has a special knack for making people feel cared-for and heard.”

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Now it’s Kate’s time again to capture the zeitgeist and leave a mark 50 years after she started her recording career. “There was an energy swirling around to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to make this record,” she says. “And we figured this was as good a time as any. Why wait?!”

Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

KATE TAYLOR WITH PETER ASHER & COMPANY

At the Music Room, West Yarmouth, July 30-31, and the Tabernacle, Oak Bluffs, Aug. 3. Tickets: katetaylor.com, musicroomcapecod.com