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
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.