Not too many people can get away with a line like "There ain't no doubt in no ones mind that love's the finest thing around/Whisper something soft and kind." But James Taylor has, though some would dispute even that. Yet there has always been an assured (and reassuring) quality to Taylor's soft approach; an undeniable command and confidence; an understanding that this music is a manifestation of the man himself; and a sense of security even able to withstand Taylor's own self-deprecation. He's an old softy, but he's really good at it -- love him or hate him for it -- and underlying the wistful melancholy, there is usually some combination of wit, cynicism, disappointment, and sometimes outright despair.
In "Carolina in My Mind," Taylor retreats from present dark days to Technicolor nostalgia, the days of his youth in North Carolina: "Dark and silent late last night I think I might have heard the highway calling/Geese in flight and dogs that bite/Signs that might be omens say I going, going/I'm going to Carolina in my mind/With a holy host of others standing around me/Still I'm on the dark side of the moon/And it seems like it goes on like this forever/You must forgive me/If I'm up and gone to Carolina in my mind." Surely Taylor's songwriting would have been colored at this point by his immediate circumstances; after being committed to a psychiatric hospital in his late teens by his concerned parents, Taylor hooked up with old friend and soon-to-be-well-known session musician Danny Kortchmar in New York, formed the band Flying Machine, only to see it fall apart due in no small part to Taylor's increasing struggles with drugs. The band broke up and Kortchmar made his way to London, meeting up with famed producer, manager Peter Asher (of the famed pop duo Peter & Gordon). Taylor soon followed his friend to London, where he hooked up with Asher, who became his manager and helped Taylor ink a deal with the Beatles' new label, Apple. This resulted in the 1968 self-titled debut album that spawned the homesick "Carolina in My Mind."
The song reflects on the support of friends and family, as well as the anchor of a sense of place, perhaps sepia toned by idealized nostalgia. Back in New York, Taylor's personal struggles continued; the album did not sell particularly well and received scant attention. Soon he was back in New York and subsequently back in rehab. "It was a rough passage for me," recalled Taylor about the period in general during a December 2000 Charlie Rose interview. "My family was kind enough and smart enough to sort of put me in...a nut house, for a while. It allowed me to think of myself as different and to realize that I had to find my own way. And this basically sort of gave me time out and protection -- real protection."
Though not as well-received as subsequent albums, James Taylor already shows a relatively well-formed sense of artistic vision for the young (19) singer, who would go on to become the poster boy for the catch-all singer/songwriter genre of the early/mid-'70s. Though the original recording of the song is not the best-known, with its rich, bittersweet melody, striking imagery, and assured voice, "Carolina in My Mind" served as a template for the next LP, Sweet Baby James (1970), which truly set the foundation for the singer/songwriter's sound. Featuring Paul McCartney on bass, George Harrison on harmony, Freddie Redd on piano, Bishop O'Brien on drums, simple string lines, and bluegrass harmonies, the track sounds like Taylor feeling his way for the style that would eventually take hold for his first four or so albums. This version sounds clipped and staccato compared to the better-known re-recording of his Greatest Hits LP in 1976. For the latter recording, Taylor slowed the tempo and added Dan Dugmore on pedal steel, Lee Sklar on bass, Kortchmar on guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums, Craig Doerge on piano, and Byron Berline on fiddle. He also brought more sonic focus to the bluegrass harmonies -- all accenting the languid, plaintive, and wistful country melancholy of the song.
It did not take long after the London sessions for Taylor to find and settle into his own laid-back style. Part of the reason for this is that he was a traditionalist who was not beholden to any current trends, even though he had a large hand in starting one. His country-folk/soft rock style was the approach from the beginning of his career, and he has rarely veered far off the track in over 30 years. "I've taken no more risk than I absolutely had to. I'm not changing the world. I don't have anything to prove," he says in the Rose interview. "Sometimes I worry about repeating myself and doing the same thing over and over and over again." But it was precisely this dependably steady adherence to a sound and winning formula -- always based around Taylor's distinctive acoustic guitar -- that has been so comforting to Taylor's fans.