Performance Wednesday, April 20, 2011 | 8 PM

James Taylor: Roots

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
This concert, in which James Taylor is joined by special guests, spotlights the variety of influences that have shaped Taylor’s music, from bluegrass and blues to church hymns.
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The Program

Roots promises to be a unique untangling of the James Taylor genome—a look at the musical DNA that combined to produce one of the singular musical voices of the last 40 years.

Taylor grew up the second of five children of Dr. Isaac Taylor and Trudy Woodard. They were a musical family; every child played an instrument and sang, James starting on cello before gravitating to the guitar. They lived in a large house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Dr. Taylor was dean of the university medical school, and spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard in Mrs. Taylor’s native Massachusetts. It was on Martha’s Vineyard that a 14-year-old James fell in with another boy who played guitar: Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar. The two formed a duo and began performing around the resort island. As young men, they lived in Greenwich Village, where their rock band The Flying Machine had a residency at the Night Owl Cafe. When that group broke up, James headed to London to try his luck solo. He carried with him the name and phone number of one of Kootch’s friends, Peter Asher, who had just taken a job as talent scout for The Beatles’ new company, Apple Corps. Taylor became The Beatles’ first signing, and Asher became his producer and manager.

The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history. Songs such as “Carolina in My Mind,” “Fire and Rain” and “Country Road” put Taylor on the cover of Time magazine when he was 23 years old. Although pop music was rife with folkies and singer-songwriters, Taylor was something fresh—an acoustic guitar player who had clearly absorbed the musical vocabulary of The Beatles and Motown. Far from a folk purist, he was an amalgamator, gifted at distilling a number of musical styles into something both fresh and familiar. His friend and contemporary Joni Mitchell pointed out that Taylor had figured out how to blend what was best about Marvin Gaye with that of George Jones.

We all know the music James Taylor made from that early ’70s flashpoint forward. Roots is a one-time-only chance to journey with Taylor back to the sources of his style.

“I asked my old friend Danny Kortchmar to help me organize the evening,” Taylor recently said, “and I have asked some of my favorite players to join me—Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and Robert Cray. We will basically go through the Taylor family record collection—the R&B songs my brother Alex introduced me to, the songs that Danny showed me, as well as folk music, soul, and some country tunes we heard on the radio in North Carolina in the ’50s. All sorts of stuff.”

Taylor said that of the four different evenings he was organizing at Carnegie Hall, this was the one he looked forward to the most.

Amy Grant, whose career began in Christian music, represents the influence of church music on Taylor. “That’s bedrock stuff,” Taylor said of the Protestant hymnal, “in terms of harmonies in Western music. That’s where it lived. It’s our common musical culture. It leads to a lot of southern gospel—white gospel, black gospel. ‘Once to Every Man and Nation,’ ‘Jerusalem,’ ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’ Those hymns were a musical education to me. I learned them on the guitar and they taught me all I know.”

But as the old saying goes, the devil has all the best tunes. Bluesman Robert Cray is on the bill to represent the blues and R&B side of Taylor’s taste—an aspect first brought home by his older brother Alex. “We lived in sort of a bubble in North Carolina,” Taylor said. “We heard the records my father and mother played, and what we could get on the radio, which was Grand Ole Opry stuff. And then Alex came home with Ray Charles and Don Covay, the Coasters and Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Then I met Danny Kortchmar and he was completely swept away by the blues. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Mississippi John Hurt. Blues had a huge influence on me. It really transported me. I was amazed by it.

“There was Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke. Sam & Dave. The Drifters. The Impressions. Wonderful stuff. Then I had a period of absorbing Antonio Carlos Jobim and Gilberto Gil—Brazilian bossa nova. That was a big deal with me, too,” Taylor acknowledged.

“When I came to New York, I spent all my time at our drummer Joel O’Brien’s place, where he exposed me to Latin music. He was deep in to Eddie Palmieri and the Fania All-Stars and a guy named Arsenio Rodríguez. Joel was a real musicologist. He showed me jazz, a lot of Irish music, but primarily Afro-Cuban and salsa and Latin stuff. That had a huge effect on me as well.”

American folk music, in all its diversity, is perhaps the form closest to Taylor’s heart and his musical home base. Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, and Vince Gill are all superb musicians who blur the lines between folk, country, and bluegrass. “Jerry Douglas and I did a couple of shows in his Transatlantic Sessions series for the BBC,” Taylor explained. “We may do something to show the Celtic influence on American folk music. And Vince Gill can play music! He really can. Alison is unbelievably musical and much more flexible than people think. It’s clear she’s one of the best in our context now. This is a great group we have playing.

“I listened to Pete Seeger growing up. I listened to the Weavers and the Kingston Trio. But of all of them, Tom Rush was the main person that I emulated. He was a very transitional guy. He did a lot of country blues. Tom really synthesized a range of styles. He had sophisticated taste.”

Perhaps the Tom Rush album that had the biggest impact was his 1968 The Circle Game, which introduced pop fans to the work of three new songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor. Rush passed the torch to Taylor’s generation. For one night at Carnegie Hall, Taylor intends to take his audience back down that trail he followed, and shed a little light on the music that lit his way.

—Bill Flanagan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

James Taylor's Perspectives series is made possible, in part, by The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation.
This performance is part of Around the Globe.

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