I was going to Carolina in more than my mind. I was on a plane for Raleigh Durham. Destination — Chapel Hill: home to the University of North Carolina Tar Heels and the boyhood stomping grounds of James Taylor.
“Who?” my daughter asks.
“You know, the guy who wrote and sang “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain,” and of course, “Going to Carolina,” I tell her.
“No,” she replies.
“Well, you should,” I say.
Too bad she wasn’t able to come along and tour the Chapel Hill Museum. I made the effort specifically to view the new exhibition: The James Taylor Story.
Chapel Hill shouts college town: collegiate shops bulging with logo paraphernalia, pizza, pita and burrito restaurants catering to big appetites and small wallets, and The Library, a place you can tell Mom you went last night, omitting the fact that it’s a bar.
The museum resides in an old house, a few blocks down Franklin Street, from its intersection with Columbia. That area, known as “top of the hill” is a spot that burns brightly in the hearts of UNC fans. Students congregate there, lighting bonfires whenever the Tarheels beat arch rival, Duke.
Nestled in this manicured garden community is the little museum featuring the Taylor display. While it only encompasses one corner, for baby boomers, it’s well worth an hour’s time.
The collection includes family photos, old report cards, childhood artwork like James’ self-portrait as a football player and a slew of album covers. Behind glass sits Taylor’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trophy, a Grammy award and a copy of a March, 1971 Time magazine with his face on the cover. Taylor says in a documentary, “being chosen for that cover was like winning the lottery.”
The best part is the Taylor theater; if you can call a few movie seats in front of a flat screen TV a theater. Here, one can choose from a vast collection of JT documentaries and taped concerts. I watched his interview on 60 minutes, 20/20 and Inside North Carolina.
Depression hit Taylor in his teens and drew him to heroin. He claims he should be dead, but was rescued. In one of the videos he said he has “an easier time singing about life, then living it.” Despite those early troubles, Taylor appears happy, a blessed fellow.
To me, he seems like a bottle of fine wine created with superior ingredients: a strong and clear voice, skilled fingers to master the acoustic guitar and the ability to search his soul and pour lyrics from his heart. He was crushed, but his juicy pulp fermented and gave rise to a winning blend. He mellowed on the shelf, twisted and turned until aged to perfection.
His voice remains easy, his ballads ring true. Little has changed over the decades, except his hairline. With James Taylor, you’ve got a friend.
523 Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC