Since the early Seventies, James Taylor’s insightful folk-pop tunes have demonstrated a deep country-music influence and have, in turn, influenced contemporary country artists of at least the past two decades. When Taylor was honored at the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors earlier this month in Washington, D.C. (along with fellow pop-rock icons the Eagles and Mavis Staples, and actor Al Pacino and pianist Martha Argerich), two of his musical tributes came from Garth Brooks and Darius Rucker.
Brooks, whose 2013 boxed set, Blame It All on My Roots, included Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” chose instead to focus on the more universally themed “Shower the People,” as President Obama and the First Lady looked on. The singer, backed by a gospel choir, became visibly choked up mid-performance. (Watch the video below.)
Rucker chose a medley of two songs as his tribute to Taylor. First up was the 1970 cowboy lullaby “Sweet Baby James,” which has since become one of Taylor’s most beloved tunes and has been performed at the vast majority of his live concerts, in spite of having failed as a single when it was first released. The second selection reflected not only Taylor’s upbringing but Rucker’s as well. “Carolina in My Mind,” written by Taylor while in England in the late Sixties missing his home in North Carolina, resonated with touring musician Rucker, who was born and raised in South Carolina. The picturesque tune, originally recorded by Taylor in 1968 for the Beatles’ Apple Records, was reworked in 1976 for Taylor’s Greatest Hits LP. The song did appear on the country chart in 1969, in a version by George Hamilton IV, and had also been covered by John Denver, the Everly Brothers, and as a duet by Glen Campbell and Linda Ronstadt on Campbell’s CBS variety series. (Watch Rucker’s medley above.)
Also on hand to pay tribute to Taylor during the Kennedy Center Honors were Sheryl Crow, who performed “Fire and Rain,” and President Bill Clinton, who spoke of Taylor’s influence on and friendship with the Clinton family. Vince Gill, Ringo Starr and Kings of Leon, among others, paid tributes to the Eagles.