Songwriting legend James Taylor, who was born in Boston, on March 12th, 1948, turns 72 today with a half-century of music that has encompassed and transcended folk, pop, and country under his belt.
In October 2002, CMT teamed him with the red-hot Dixie Chicks for a memorable episode of the genre-hopping CMT Crossroads franchise. Swapping lead vocals on their respective songs, the Chicks delivered reverential, harmony-soaked versions of Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and “Carolina in My Mind,” while he returned the favor on their “Wide Open Spaces” and “Ready to Run.”
Opening the episode was a tune from the country trio’s Fly album that, in light of world events, provides a much-needed reminder to loosen up and let go from time to time. With Taylor leading the charge in the above clip, “Some Days You Gotta Dance” struck a celebratory tone that lasted throughout the entire episode. The only thing missing from the performance was the guitarist who played on the Dixie Chicks’ Fly version — Keith Urban. Taylor and the Chicks would revisit the song in 2004 during joint performances on the Vote for Change Tour, and included the track on his 2008 Covers album, which also featured his version of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind.”
Taylor’s greatest brush with country music, however, would take place in late 1977, thanks in part to the efforts of Tanya Tucker. When Taylor released the single “Handy Man,” from the JT album, its flipside was his wistful honky-tonk tune “Bartender’s Blues.” Tucker, convinced that beleaguered country icon George Jones could nail the song’s longing sentiment, told him about it when she ran into him at a marina on a local lake. Not long after, she was shocked to find Jones at her front door, ready to listen to the song she’d been raving about. Jones not only recorded it for his next album, but it became the title track and a Top Ten single early the following year.
While Taylor’s version had Linda Ronstadt singing harmony, Jones’ backup singer was Taylor himself. In the above video, an intimate acoustic performance from 2016, Taylor swaps verses on the song with another Hall of Fame-enshrined singer, Vince Gill, their version putting even more of an emphasis on the “blues” in the song’s title. Other country artists, including Garth Brooks, have cited Taylor as an influence, it’s worth noting that even Gill’s wife, pop-Christian singer Amy Grant, has covered “Bartender’s Blues.”
With a touring band that includes Nashville fiddler and recording artist Andrea Zonn, Taylor has continued to collaborate with and pay homage to country acts. In 1993, Taylor would include his version of Jones’ early hit “She Thinks I Still Care” on a live LP. In November 2011, Taylor Swift featured the Rock & Roll and Songwriters Hall of Fame member during the final date of her Speak Now World Tour in November 2011. And earlier that same year, he shared the ACM Awards stage with Zac Brown Band for a medley of their “Colder Weather” and his “Sweet Baby James.” Last month, Taylor released his 20th album, American Standard.