John Mayer performed on the Grammy Awards back in 2003. After his simple performance of “Your Body Is A Wonderland” on the acoustic guitar, he asked the audience to give a warm welcome to an artist he described as “the blueprint”. There was applause, and then the camera panned over to James Taylor, sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar, performing…
…”Sweet Baby James”.
But you wouldn’t have been surprised if I told you he sang “Fire And Rain”, right? You might have even been expecting it. After all, that song is not only JT’s main calling card but it’s one of the definitive songs of the “sensitive singer-songwriter” movement of the ’70s. “Fire And Rain” is iconic. If you’re a certain age (baby boomer through early Gen Y), you probably recognize it within the first fifteen seconds.
Beyond the iconography though, “Fire And Rain” is a beautiful, powerful song. In three and a half minutes, Taylor’s voice touches on a friend’s suicide, his own emotional troubles and some professional missteps. He does so with warmth, an economy of words and enough ambiguity that the song is relatable to just about anyone who has gone through hard times. Unless you are a JT fan, you’re probably not aware that the line about “flying machines” in the third verse refers to a pre-stardom band he was in called The Flying Machine.
The ability to extract personal experiences and make them universal is probably the main reason James Taylor is beloved by so many. It’s certainly the biggest reason I’m a fan.