Pop legend James Taylor scored his very first Number One album this year with Before This World, 38 years after his best-selling album of all time, JT, was released. The 1977 disc would go on to sell nearly four million copies. A singer-songwriter who built his early career on confessional, folk-influenced tunes, Taylor also covered R&B songs, including the Grammy-winning single “Handy Man,” from JT and Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You).”
Another of the tracks from JT was Taylor’s first attempt to pen a straight-ahead country song, and he had George Jones in mind while writing it. The result was “Bartender’s Blues,” a first-person account of a guy who hates his job pouring drinks and remains in search of an ever-elusive “honky-tonk angel.” Taylor’s performance is supplemented by the beautiful harmony of erstwhile honky-tonk angel Linda Ronstadt and features the crying steel guitar of Dan Dugmore. While the track managed to climb to Number 88 on the country chart in 1977, it returned six months later, thanks to Jones. . . and Tanya Tucker.
After hearing Taylor’s version of the song, Tucker approached Jones and told him she had a record she wanted to play for him. Jones later showed up unexpectedly at Tucker’s door and she played the song on a record player she had owned since childhood. (That record player was later on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.) Jones was convinced and recorded the pop tune with Taylor on harmony vocals, and it reached the Top 10 just six months after the original was released. Another version of the song by Jones with Tucker appeared on the late country icon’s 1979 LP, My Very Special Guests.
The worlds of Taylor and Jones collided once more in 2008, when the pop star appeared as a guest on Elvis Costello’s music series, Spectacle, and performed a slowed-down version of Jones’ 1955 honky-tonk hit, “Why Baby Why.” Introducing the tune, Taylor explained that he first performed it at a state fair during “a sort of agricultural phase we went through,” adding that “this song seemed like a good idea.” Although pretty far removed from Jones’ version, Taylor’s performance is beautifully enhanced by the fiddle-playing of his longtime band member, Andrea Zonn, who will soon release her solo album, Rise, featuring Taylor, Trace Adkins, Vince Gill and other special guests.
Taylor and Jones, who had recorded their vocals on the 1978 version of “Bartender’s Blues” separately, did finally get a chance to meet. On July 31st, 2005, Taylor played a concert at Nashville’s Starwood Amphitheater and spent some time backstage with the country legend before the show. Taylor, who also covered Jones’ classic, “She Thinks I Still Care,” would continue to receive emails and Christmas cards from the singer until his death in April 2013.