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James Taylor At 50

James Taylor is 50 years old now, and time on the water restores his spirit. As he puts it, "On a boat that's moving through the water, everything falls into place in terms of what's important and what's not."

He is the ultimate baby boomer: a survivor of addiction, divorce, and success. It's all there in his songs.

Osgood: "Do you sit down to write a song, or does it happen while you're taking a walk or taking a shower?

Taylor: "You have to be ready to catch those things when they come down, you know, because they'll fall right through and you'll forget them...There'll come a writing phase where there's more method to it, where you have to defend the time, clear out the time, unplug the phone, and put in the hours to get it done."

Taylor describes what happens when he and bassist Edgar Meyer collaborate, playing a new song through for the first time:

"It's a process of discovery. It's being quiet enough and undisturbed enough for a period of time so that the songs can begin to sort of peek out. And you begin to have emotional experiences in a musical way."

He was born in Massachusetts, where his mother, Trudy, was a lyric soprano at the New England Conservatory of Music. His father, Ike, finished Harvard Medical School and moved the family to rural North Carolina. Taylor was the second of five children.

Taylor recalls the relationships of his childhood as an important part of his youth:

"I think they're really important. I had a friend who grew up in Levittown, Long Island, and he said at the drop of a hat you could get two baseball teams together of kids within years of each other in age, just on the same block... But for us in North Carolina, we were pretty isolated, and we kept each other's company pretty much."

College, says Taylor, wasn't in the cards: "We sort of ran away as soon as we could. Nobody went to college, and not all of us graduated high school."

But all the Taylor kids were musical. In fact, Taylor and his brother Alex were in a group back in North Carolina.

Taylor: "The name of the group was The Fabulous Corsairs."

Osgood:"Your brother was a singer?

Taylor:"Yep. Alex was a blues singer and taught me a lot of what I know for sure."

In his early 20s, he made a record for Apple, the Beatles' label. It didn't sell and although he continued to write songs, he entered a dark period that included an addiction to heroin.
In reflection Taylor says, "The thing about it is, if you're an addict it controls your life and your life becomes uncontrollable. And then it's just boring, you know, boring and painful -- filling your system with something that makes you stare at your shoes for six hours, you know, or for 20 years. It's a waste of time. A tragic waste of time."

He recovered, married and divorced twice, and has two children, Ben and Sally, with singer Carly Simon. Both children have musical careers.

Osgood: b>"When you think about your kids being in the same business now that you are, are there some things about it, some things that you would like to protect them from?

Taylor: "I have sometimes said to people that they should avoid three things. Avoid a major addiction. Don't get so deeply into debt that it controls your life. And don't start a family until you're ready to settle down. You know, just sort of basically keep things simple. But you know, you can't just say these things. You have to show them by example and let it go."

Last December, when Boston Symphony Orchestra maestro Seiji Ozwa conducted a Gershwin tribute with the French Orchestre Nacional, Taylor was the American in Paris, singing the old standards.

Whenever possible, he travels with his steady, Kim Smedvig. She was at his side last fall when he received North Carolina's Fine Arts Medal.

His family sold the house in the woods years ago, but he wanted to take Kim back and show her where he grew up. He last saw the place 40 years ago. He and his brother Hugh found the place on the porch rail where they carved their initials, and the old clubhouse. He was eight when he put his hands in the wet cement. Going back was a way of allowing the little boy in him to catch up with the grown man.

Taylor wonders, "I often question whether it's very evolved at the age of 50 to be really interested in how people are reacting to me. You know, should I still be doing this?"

But the answer is there in his music.

As Taylor puts it, "It is the most delightful thing that ever happens to me by far when I hear something coming out of my guitar and out of my mouth that wasn't there before... It's wonderful to live a life in music."

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