James Taylor: Sliding in Mud

25th October 2019

Title: Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon

Label: Rhino

The thing about James Taylor, the perception of the man, is that he was the original singer-songwriter.

Maybe that tag needs some modification. A singer-songwriter in the modern sense.

One that adds a measure of sensitivity to his presentation and performance. One that infused his work with emotion and a sense of delicacy.

Of course, Taylor himself is having none of that, “If I look at people that I think were the sort of pioneers of that style I think of people like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. But I did my version of it. People like Eric Andersen or Tim Hardin… there were a lot of people that influenced me. I’m sort of surprised that people would credit me with inventing that. Joni Mitchell was already doing it when I came out of the box, so was Randy Newman. So I can’t really take credit for it.”

Which is true. Yet the tag often arises and you can see why. Taylor’s star really began to rise in the early 70s when he moved to the Warner Bros label.

While Sweet Baby James was a seminal LP release, I would argue that the album that helped to properly define him and arguably an entire musical genre, was Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.

Partly because the music industry and the public were ready for him and responded to the release.

This album is where many observers saw James Taylor almost as a sort of rallying point to gather around after the trauma of the 60s political upheavals, the assassinations, Vietnam and so on. His work seemed to be a balm, “There are a number of different angles that a song comes from,” he admitted to the Internet website Stereogum, “and sometimes they’re soothing or comforting, sometimes they’re celebratory with a party or festival sensibility. But I definitely do have this thing in my writing that looks to comfort, looks to soothe or to heal.”

Now this important album from the man’s early portion of Taylor’s career can be heard for yourself because Rhino has released all six albums. Mastered by Bernie Grundman (so you’re in good hands here), the sound offers a low noise, detailed, zero compressed, slightly warm and cuddly presentation. 

This collection brings several albums back into print on vinyl for the first time in many years. Each album in the set has been remastered, a process overseen by Peter Asher, who signed Taylor to the Beatles’ Apple Records label in 1968, worked as his manager for 25 years and originally produced several of these albums. Presented in a sleeve out case, the set features Sweet Baby James (1970), Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971), One Man Dog (1972), Walking Man (1974), Gorilla (1975), and In the Pocket (1976).

This collection includes well implemented cover versions but also plenty of guest appearances and guest appearances. Rock ’n’ Roll Music Is Now from Walking Man, for example, features backing vocals by Paul and Linda McCartney and Don’t Be Sad ’Cause Your Sun Is Down from In the Pocket is a song Taylor wrote and recorded with Stevie Wonder.

James Taylor also has a bit of a reputation for his female collaborations. On Mud Slide Slim… he worked with Carol King on his interpretation of her song, You’ve Got a Friend but asked Joni Mitchell to sing backing vocals, “…it’s true, I suppose,” he said. “Joni (Mitchell) and Carly (Simon) and Carole (King) — I would say that Carole had the most effect on me. All three of those remarkable talents had a profound impact. I had a deep musical conversation with all of them. We shared a musical language. It’s a lovely thing to do. To share music like that is an extremely deep connection. It has meant a lot. But I think that Carole and I, we played in each other’s bands and on each other’s albums. 

That’s true of Joni and Carly too but Carole was there in my band with me. We were never a romantic couple, we were never intimately involved but musically we were really close. That’s something that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It was pretty wonderful working with Carole.”

Taylor’s six albums for Warner Bros. were distinctive and illustrative of a time and a place. That he could play a part in the gradual healing of the people in his audience was a special thing. I know his fans were and continue to be forever grateful.

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