During a Nashville taping for CMT Crossroads Wednesday (July 31), the Dixie Chicks frequently mentioned how much they loved James Taylor’s folk-inspired music as children. But watching his eyes twinkle throughout the 11-song set, Taylor proved that he’s still as vital and endearing as ever.
In an understated black wardrobe, the Dixie Chicks rarely have appeared so subdued — and that goes for their stage presence, too. They wrapped their distinctive harmonies around Taylor’s elegant classic “Shower the People,” prompting Natalie Maines to remark quietly, “That’s the first time I’ve ever shook on stage.”
Taylor took lead vocals on the Chicks’ hit “Some Days You Gotta Dance” and busted a few moves himself. With everyone in the studio loosening up a bit, he offered a new song, “October Road,” the title track from an album due Aug. 13. Maines took a verse herself as Emily Robison beamed while playing the banjo and Martie Maguire smiled as she fiddled.
“I told him I dreamed when I was young that I’d get a chance to audition to be one of his backup singers, and I have to say, I surpassed that dream,” Maines said with amazement, adding with a chuckle, “He’s singing backup for me!”
No strangers to the musician’s rough-and-tumble lifestyle, Taylor and Maines then offered a touching version of “Heartbreak Town,” a melancholy ode to Nashville from the Chicks’ album Fly.
Robison chimed in to announce that her whole seventh grade softball team used to listen to “You Are My Only One” on the school bus; she thanked Taylor for allowing the Chicks to share the stage with him. As Maines sang the lyric, “Two good friends on my left and my right,” she grinned shyly in Taylor’s direction, visibly in awe.
Then there was the issue of hair, or lack of it. A woman came out to powder Taylor’s forehead and bald head, which prompted Maguire to crack, “Notice the hair guy didn’t come out.” A few minutes later, though, Maguire left the stage to have her bangs fixed, and an audience member took advantage of the break to shout out a question about Robison’s due date. (It’s Nov. 14, by the way.) Someone else inquired about Taylor’s young twins and his older son Ben’s forthcoming album. When Maguire finally returned to the stage, Taylor joked, “That’s why I work solo.”
Still, this taping — the sixth in the Crossroads series — remained a team effort. Taylor mentioned that “Wide Open Spaces” topped the list of Chicks’ songs he wanted to perform on the special, which will air in October. Their rehearsals the previous day paid off, as the four musicians delivered a winning rendition of the Chicks’ signature hit, but with slightly different phrasing.
Host Greg Martin then officially took questions from the audience. Taylor cited his country influences, and the Chicks talked about their home state of Texas. Maguire announced that she used to kiss Taylor’s Mudslide Slim album as a child, to which Taylor dryly responded, “Used to.” One audience member then requested “Carolina in My Mind,” and Taylor obliged, with the Chicks providing distant but effective harmonies.
As a sneak peak of their forthcoming album Home, due Aug. 27, the Chicks offered a stunning new song, “A Home,” a beautiful breakup ballad similar to “You Were Mine.” Like all of Home, there were no drums on the live performance.
A highlight of the taping came from Maines’ dazzling rendition of Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” a lovely example of how pop songs and a country voice can intersect gracefully. After introducing the backing band (including Natalie’s father, Lloyd Maines), the Chicks and Taylor gleefully ripped through “Ready to Run,” with Taylor getting down as only a 54-year-old man can do.
Rather than tear it up on the encore, the four musicians ended the evening with a somber take of “You Can Close Your Eyes,” with the lyric, “And you can sing this song when I’m gone.” Due to the night’s high caliber of stick-in-your-head music, it’s likely the audience did exactly that.