A Conversation with Taylor W. Rushing

If you’ve gone to a country music concert in the last couple years, you’ve likely seen the work of Taylor W. Rushing. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Taylor’s youth was steeped in the unique Pacific Northwest music culture that mixes cowboys with hippies and rockers among the tall trees on the western slope of the Cascades. Like the rain caught in the shadow of the mountains, this hinterland offers its own special blend of sun and pain that shines through its art. And so it went for Taylor, soaking in the scenes from Tacoma to Seattle to Portland to Olympia, where he attended Evergreen College, before bouncing around Texas and the South. He landed back in school, earning a Master of Fine Art from the University of Wisconsin. Four years ago, he opened Not Bad Illustration and has since drawn poster and album art for a myriad of artists. At the still young age of 32, we sat down with him to talk art, commerce, and magic that can happen at the intersection of art and music.

Saddle Mountain Post: Lets jump right in. You did the album artwork for Emily Nenni’s latest record, out now on New West. We just published a feature on her, so been staring at that album cover for months. And since its release, I’m seeing it pop off my computer screen everywhere with its powerful pink art direction. Emily gives you a lot of credit landing that cover. How does something like that come together? Because it’s a pretty different album cover, not just for her, but for, like, anything out right now.

Taylor W. Rushing: I got the photography and just though this is great. We can work with this. She was a little apprehensive, but I was like, we’ll make this awesome.

SMP: I saw it play out like marketing science, beyond, it as art, as a perfect foil poster presentation, which it is, but I mean it pops like crazy out of all the noise.

TWR: I know, dude, and you’re talking to the guy who hates foil, so that’s funny. For me that project was a boil-it-down kind of thing. Make it clean and simple. Make it loud. Make it beautiful. It was the best thing for it. You just wanna walk into the record store and get your brain blown up. I think that historically, the best album covers knew what they were doing. Like, no matter how far out an intergalactic Sergeant Pepper is, before you even hear it, that album art makes you want to consume it. From the gig, you know, or from the store shelf.

SMP: Or Instagram feed.

TWR: You get it. And I think that historically, especially in Americana, everyone’s attitude has been go with full-bleed photo with some text. It just feels so dated in it. Even if you look at Motown singles. It was never full bleed, there was always some cool little design bits that made it interesting. They’re so cool because there’s such a relationship with the graphic. I think in the moment, labels and artists are just like, well, we don’t have any budgets for this shit. Like, let’s just do whatever we can with a photo. But I don’t know, I’m a grumpy guy on this front.

SMP: Let’s talk about you being a grumpy guy then. Let’s talk about your journey from the shores of Washington to this career you’ve built for yourself by yourself, and to also kind of put a little light on the Northwest. There’s so much going on here that I still feel like people don’t know. So I think people may be surprised where you’re from.

TWR: That happens to me all the time. Everyone thinks I’m from fucking Austin. Have I told you about my grandma? She used to live down the street from Don Rich, from Buck Owens’ band.

SMP: No, let’s start right there, though. That’s a great opening quote.

TWR: Right!? Yeah, so my grandma knew Don. There was a lot of back and forth from Tacoma to Bakersfield and back. Buck drew on a lot of folks from that area. Grandma and grandpa used to get free tickets from Don to go see The Buckaroos. Early sixties, you know, my grandpa just back from Korea War. And yeah, whenever Don would come back to Olympia or come back to Washington for any shows, my grandma knew him well enough that that he would hook ‘em up with tickets. So I think, sort of by proxy, I’ve always had country western in my world and part of my life. And then it’s funny too, because as you know, the Northwest also has this fascinating hippie connection too. My mom obviously grew up in Olympia in the sixties, and she came of age in the early seventies, as part of the Northwest hippie culture. She ended up going to Pilchuck glass school at one point. When I was a kid she made bird houses as her business. My dad worked at a bank but also loved and supported the art world.

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SMP: What are some of your first memories of that mix – country and counterculture if you will?

TWR: Here’s one. Bob’s Java Jive – the teapot shaped building in Tacoma. An example when art and visuals and architecture all worked together. Before boxes with digital signs. Bob’s is a national treasure. Bands like The Ventures used to play there. You know, Tacoma also has this amazing rock and roll history with the Sonics and Ventures and others. My childhood was sort of tracing this alternative history of rock and roll and honky tonk through the lens of Tacoma and places like that. I felt this super deep connection to this world around me.

It all started probably with the Judds playing every day since I was in the womb and then the Puyallup Fair, before it became a Washington State Fair. We went every year. I saw Willie Nelson when I was ten, and multiple times after that. The state fair was totally life altering. ZZ Top was one, I remember. Partly for just being super analog. It wasn’t the MTV vibe we got on TV. They had just this big, free hanging sparkly red curtain. A taxidermy armadillo on the stage. And yes, behind the drums, something shot flames, but for only, like, two songs. Instead of all the flash, it was all built on Billy’s real life cool factor instead. I remember watching that and thinking like, man, like, you can do a visual component to rock and roll but in a very subdued, like, cool guy way. I was hooked.

SMP: State fairs are such wild visual experiences in general. I can now see so much of that in your work.

TWR: It was amazing visual experience. We were walking through the fair one year when I was young, and then Honeysuckle Rose drove through, Willie’s bus.

SMP: Like, drove through the crowd?

TWR: Yes! I remember seeing the highly airbrushed rendered Western scenes painted all over the bus. I think there was even like longhorns around a skull, on the front, very tricked out. And I just started thinking like, this is like the equivalent of seeing the circus in 1890 or something—sitting in your fold up chair and on your Main Street, and like a zebra walks by. So foreign but so magical; you’re instantly just enchanted by it.

SMP: I love that image, and I love how strong your memory is of that at that age.

TWR: As a ten-year-old, I mean, probably one of the more pivotal experiences of my young life. My mom was so cool. And my dad would feed me documentaries and stuff; he was fascinated by the history of it all. That put me down a rabbit hole of really looking hard at things and really thinking sort of hard about the presentation of things, and probably ultimately, what led me to looking at concert posters, because we would go to Seattle and go to the University Street Fair, which, at the time, around the University of Washington, there’s probably 30 head shops, and all of them had amazing stickers, dead shirts, ya know.

SMP: Ok what did you pick out? Or what did your parents let you get?

TWR: I have this one sticker I got. It’s like a Jerry Garcia hand, you know, with the missing finger. But it’s really well-rendered, super cool. You could only buy at a head shop in the nineties, like, I’m sure now on eBay, that’s a $35 sticker or something.

And, you know, obviously visiting, like, Fremont in Seattle as a kid; I grew up about an hour from Seattle. All the record shops. Crazy, good, life changing stuff. My folks would sell antiques on the weekends. We’d go to estate sales on the weekend. I definitely learned everything I know about visual culture from going to estate sales every weekend.

SMP: That tracks. It makes sense, but I wouldn’t have ever necessarily guessed estate sales.

TWR: No, but I can comfortably say that, I’ve learned everything I’ve ever learned about art from just looking at good objects, you know, and looking at old stuff and really appreciating old stuff. I mean, that was a big thing in my house. It wasn’t because we were poor or anything. We just dug the funky stuff. Everything was found from secondhand sources. It taught me a lot. It was really fascinating, because you meet old guys who were excited about records or old folk art. The Northwest is a great place to grow weirdos. I feel like if you ever want to be on the fringe from hippie culture, country and western culture, rock culture like, beyond the California thing, you went up to Oregon and Washington.

SMP: Is that why you stayed around to go to Evergreen State college?

TWR: I mean, luckily, Evergreen existed. The output of that place is culturally important and really amazing. When I got there it was tons of hippie kids interested in really good, cool, smart stuff. And the house show culture in Olympia was unreal. I’ve never been to a city that has so many great little house shows.

SMP: Portland pops on that front as well. Pandemic helped kick it back. It’s pretty special.

TWR: Another example of us weirdos out west. I think that it’s got that sort of pioneer spirit, where it’s just like, we’re gonna set up a really simple house show. We owe it to the punks making that culture happen. Back in the day I saw the Holy Modal Rounders play a house show in Olympia. Bonkers.

SMP: And for local acts who aren’t gonna play a club every week, they can play house shows or even the smallest venues and make a few bucks.

TWR: Totally man. Real show culture where artists and communities are doing what they want, making it happen. I mean, that’s essentially what the acid tests were originally, too. It was just a means for a bunch of like-minded people to do something without anybody interfering. So yeah, at Evergreen. I was baptized in all that hippie culture. I was interested in music history, and so I took some ethicology classes, and I took some serious historical writing classes. And then in my final two years, I was like, you know, I’m gonna take, like, a self taught art class. We had studio spaces, and we just made our own work. And I remember I did this, like, gigantic Leon Russell portrait, and everyone in my class during a critique, just like, didn’t even know what to do with it, but it was sort of a clear indicator of what I was interested in making art about, you know.

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SMP: And from there you started doing posters for local bands?

TWR: I lived in a converted school bus for a while, and it was sort of on a hippie property where Magic Mushrooms grew wild, and all my friends that live there were really in the Basement Tapes. That stoned folk music; that was a major, major, major turn on. I was there for a few years, then moved back to Tacoma. I worked at a glass blowing shop and did illustrations on the side.

SMP: How long till you moved south?

My partner and I lived in England for a bit then we moved to Austin, Texas. I was just like, holy shit, there’s this culture that lives there and has been living there and has been doing fine for, you know, a hundred years or something. Amazing music. There’s deep poster culture, and it just had, it had everything for me.

SMP: What year are we talking?

TWR: This is like 2014. It felt like San Francisco in 1968 or something, everybody was funky. Everybody had their own business. Everybody played in a band. Everybody loved George Jones. No matter what you did.

SMP: And you went Armadillo crazy I am guessing.

TWR: For sure. I fell in love with Doug Sahm. He was the man. You know they are here and so dude, I wasn’t trying to leave. But I was sort of like a pinball bouncing around the machine for most of my early twenties, just trying to figure out, like, I wanna do something creative. I know I can make something with my hands, and I know I’ve got a decent eye, and I know I love rock and roll, and, you know, I know that I love country music. So it was really just trying things. I worked at cabinet shops. I worked at a glass shops. Then dude, I got really lucky. Without thinking much about it, I applied to go to grad school and I ended up getting a fellowship to go University of Wisconsin for woodworking. I was thinking I would be a chair maker or some shit.

SMP: Which you did not.

TWR: (laughing) No. Getting up there, all of a sudden this whole world just opened up to me. It’s like I realized for the first time that hand-drawn illustration is still a thing and still a job people have. I figured that was all gone to photoshop or whatever, so I didn’t have a lot of interest. Or, like, New Yorker cartoons. I was like, there’s only so many people doing that type of shit. Surely I can’t make a living draw concert posters or something.

SMP: Here we are.

TWR: I took this illustration class and just learned about these great illustrators. Some I knew of, of course, but I had no idea that some of them are still alive and working. All these cats are still around. And once you get kind of radicalized, once you learn about Rick Griffin, there’s just no turning back. There’s just no one better than him. Once I saw all his stuff, I was just like, well, dang, I gotta do this shit.

SMP: How soon until Not Bad became a thing?

TWR: We moved to Atlanta and split time with Austin. Towards the end of 2019 I felt like I was ready to open a shop. And then, you know, by some grace of god, the pandemic happened. And, you know, I was just, like, essentially laid off from my day job, and I was just like, well, I guess I’m just gonna drop pictures. And I started doing posters for my favorite bands. And then New West Records got a hold of me, and I started working with New West on, like, all their posters.

Through them, I sort of got a couple of other gigs, and then some, some old friends from Austin started reaching out. About the same time that the first Pink Stones record came out. I did all their art work. It was great because I think, at the time, I was inexpensive, and I just wanted to make posters. I’m still there but now I’m just trying to get better, you know.

SMP: That’s a quick turn. Four years if I’m tracking. From unknown to all over album covers and posters from Sierra Ferrel to Nenni and Teddy and the Rough Riders. I mean I could just keep listing bands…

TWR: Craziest one was like May of 2021, I got called to do Willie Nelson’s poster for his coming back from COVID party at his Luck Ranch. I remember just being like, I can die happy after this day, you know. A couple years later I did this big Where’s Waldo poster for the Luck Reunion. Or like, I got this giant freaking Rolling Stones banner covered in big, funky plastic stones all over it that it’s in my studio. That was an unbelievable gig. I look at every day, it’s like, man, holy shit. Obviously I love Oxford Pennant, the company who made it. They facilitated that dream for me. And now we have this unbelievably well made, beautiful piece of merchandise that, like, ten years ago, you just would have never been able to source from anywhere because everything looks crappy.

SMP: Where is quality control in the age of AI and merch explosions?

TWR: Like my art going onto shirts probably printed on shitty, low quality blanks and sold for $50 a pop? It’s super disheartening, because people have to make money. I try to stay in the heirloom business, you know.

SMP: What’s your dream state amid the risk of making art for your life?

TWR: I just always think I love to lay in bed and think about, like, on main street, in the city in 1920 where like every sign was hand painted, every window display was handmade, every neon sign was handmade. The whole visual culture of the city. Every person that built a building was a craftsman with a purpose. Cities were just so beautiful and every city had its own visual culture. That is long gone, baby. And I think trying to give people even a sliver of what that world could be or could look like is kind of my ultimate quest. I’m so obsessed with handmade things and in an era where millennials can’t afford to buy houses, I’m also obsessed with smaller more accessible forms of art and print making that you can still get a really high quality print at an affordable price. I don’t want to end up an artist selling work to just a bunch of rich people. To me, the sweet spot is if you can buy a really good concert poster for less than $25, that’s signed by the artist.

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