Dixie Chicks and James Taylor Reach Crossroads

He wrote one of George Jones ’ biggest hits of the ‘70s, but that’s probably not why the Dixie Chicks chose James Taylor to join them on CMT Crossroads. Perhaps they were attracted to Taylor’s other songs and recordings, some of which have become American pop classics. Or maybe it’s an admiration of a 30-plus year career built on well-crafted music, rather than trends and hype.

In seeing them interact, though, you get the impression that the invitation was extended for a much simpler reason: The Dixie Chicks obviously think James Taylor is cool.

The point is hard to argue after watching the CMT Crossroads episode debuting Friday (Oct. 18) at 8 p.m ET/PT. In his understated way, Taylor is cool. He’s a master of the stage, studio and whatever solitary place he visits when he writes his songs. On Crossroads, he’s also a team player who’s willing to do whatever it takes to make the music a little bit better.

Crossroads demonstrates, too, that country artists could learn a lot by watching Taylor in action. Aside from his music, Taylor’s greatest gift may be his ability to understand exactly what’s going through an audience’s collective mind. Of course, that’s not news to Garth Brooks , who cites Taylor as one of his major influences.

On Crossroads, Taylor turns a perceived negative into a positive by acknowledging that fans mainly want to hear an artist’s biggest hits. In introducing the title track of his recently-released album, October Road, Taylor jokes, “I know you hate new material. And I don’t blame you. I hate it, too. But this song sounds just like all the old ones.”

“October Road” is one of two new songs Taylor and the Chicks performed on Crossroads during an August taping in Nashville. The other — “A Home” — inspires the title of the Chicks’ latest album, Home, which has already reached triple-platinum status. The remainder of the 11-song show is devoted to familiar material from the two acts’ catalogs. Just as Taylor’s songs have withstood the test of time, that the same quality seems to run through the material the Dixie Chicks have chosen to record.

It’s one thing for two solo artists to perform together, but it’s a more complicated process when a solo artist is teaming up with a trio known for their strong vocal harmonies. Taylor and the Chicks obviously went to great lengths to tweak and even revamp arrangements for Crossroads.

The program kicks off with Taylor in the lead role on “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” a song from the Chicks’ Fly album, but the magic really begins with the next song — Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.” With Natalie Maines singing lead on one of his musical signatures, Taylor seems mesmerized by the Chicks’ harmonies, Martie Maguire’s fills on the fiddle and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines’ steel guitar work.

Although Taylor asked to sing “Wide Open Spaces,” his vocal phrasing sounds slightly more tentative as the Chicks roar through the song they’ve played many nights since it became the title track of their major label debut album. The Chicks’ harmonies are in full bloom on an abbreviated arrangement of “Shower the People.” Other highlights of the show include Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” and the Chicks’ “Ready to Run.”

They didn’t sing “Bartender’s Blues,” the aforementioned song Taylor wrote as a tribute to George Jones and country music in general. When Jones recorded it as a 1978 single, Taylor provided background vocals. Taylor’s own recording of the song includes harmonies from Linda Ronstadt, so it’s clearly prime material for collaborations.

Is it asking too much for the Chicks and Taylor to meet in Nashville again to sing a few of the songs they didn’t get around to performing this time around?

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.