David Wilcox doesn't really think he sounds much like James Taylor.
Other people certainly think so. In fact, quite a few listeners feel that his voice has a Taylor-esque twang and that his sound boasts a similar low-key feel. But Wilcox just shrugs at such comparisons.
Start with the voice. "Well, I sing about three frets lower than James," says Wilcox, over the phone from his Asheville, N.C., home. "So I'm kind of a baritone. And I don't have the Carolina accent, because I grew up in Ohio."
Still, he understands why people home in on the Taylor comparison. "If somebody really knows acoustic music," he says, "they might say, 'Well, he writes more like Bob Franke, he sings more like Michael Johnson and plays guitar more like Joni Mitchell.' But if you just have to pick one person, then you want to pick somebody who everyone has heard of. So it's just an easier comparison.
"But the best answer I've gotten was somebody who said: 'Whenever I hear a new song that James is singing on -- whether he's singing harmony on somebody else's record or whatever -- the voice comes out just a lot more honest. His voice is kind of searching through all that technical stuff and coming out as just a compelling, kind of honest, human voice. It's like, 'Wait a second -- that voice doesn't belong on the radio. He's speaking right to me.'
"So when somebody said that was the common denominator between our voices, I thought, wow. That's saying something."
Taylor, though, is essentially a confessional songwriter, and Wilcox isn't much interested in that sort of extremely personal songwriting. "There are some of his songs where he doesn't tell the whole story, so I don't really know why he wants us to know, for example, about his pig," Wilcox says. "I'm being a little sarcastic, but some of his songs are definitely like journal writing. Like, that was an important thing for him, but why is it an important thing to us? He doesn't say.
"With my songs, if there's something that I really think is worth offering to other people, then it can become a song. Otherwise, I can write a song that's just to me, but I don't tend to sing it. I write it and learn from it, but let it go."
Maybe that's why Wilcox's audience is markedly different from Taylor's, being almost a generation younger. Why does Wilcox appeal to the college crowd? "I feel that the college age, and even before, is a time of setting the foundations," he says. "And I love playing to that kind of energy and confusion."
Some of that has to do with the message in his songs, which is quite different from the casual nihilism of some college rock. "It's easy to say that there's no hope, and say that this is bull and that is bull," he says. "But then the next step is, 'Well, what isn't? And what are you going to do about it?' If you're not going to change the whole world, you're left with changing yourself. So what are you going to do? You can't just live negatively and say, 'That's bad.'
"There are a lot of college-age people that come to me as if this is the most radical thing," he adds. "Like I made it up. I try to tell them, 'Well, listen to some Joni Mitchell,' or listen to this or that. And they don't." He laughs. "But they say, 'God, I want to play an acoustic guitar.'
"So I think it's interesting that, yes, college music gets labeled as the alternative rock kind of thing. But if everybody's listening to that, then what's the alternative?
"The alternative is this."
Hear the 'Horizon'
To hear excerpts of David Wilcox's latest album, "Big Horizon," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6231 after you hear the greeting.
When: Tonight at 8
Where: Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University
Tickets: $13.50 students; $16.50 general public
Call: (410) 517-8197