Like the James who came before him, the Dean of '70s Soft Rock turned emotional chaos into a new kind of cool. But hits like "Fire and Rain" only hinted at the torment behind Sweet Baby James' tragic chic.

By David Browne
Updated December 07, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

You find him where you would expect to find him. One moment you are motoring down a suburban block in the Massachusetts hamlet of Lenox; the next, you are turning onto private property. The driveway, a curving stretch of cracked pavement barely wide enough for one vehicle, has to be vigilantly navigated to avoid swerving into the maples that flank its sides. For five laborious minutes you climb, through unlocked wrought-iron gates and a wilderness that would spook a Blair witch, and it occurs to you that there is probably no better landscape for him to roam, brooding over the choices he has made in his life.

His house—split-level and half sided in redwood clapboards—is modest. The glass dome on the porch light is cracked; a battered pair of work boots lies beneath it. The home is as unassuming as its owner, who comes to the door with a grin somewhere between bemused and waggish. You expect the wire-rimmed glasses, the bald pate, the gray-flecked rim of remaining hair—the look of an absentminded physics professor. You don’t expect him to be so tall—6 foot 3—or to have a body that, even in loose gray slacks and denim shirt, seems as lean and rugged as a vintage oar.

In other words, James Taylor in repose is not much different from James Taylor on the road, from which the laconic troubadour is taking a respite. His furlough is brief; in another week, he will be back on a bus. To Taylor, touring is ”basically blue-collar work,” the music he plays on those stages ”a modest effort,” but something he says has ”served me well.” As he sang nearly 30 years ago on his album One Man Dog, ”Everybody knows that I’m just a Joe that likes to hang around/Talking about my problems….”

Such humble declarations befit Taylor’s demeanor, his surroundings, and his lingering self-doubts, and they are also the key to his ongoing appeal. For nearly 35 years, he has endured hits and flops, marriages and divorces, newborns and burials, binges and recoveries and more binges, and he has documented it all in song for an audience that sees its own perseverance in his. Not only has this ”professional autobiographer” (his words) survived, but he has done so with his plaintive, unadorned voice and droll humor intact. His recorded body of work, from James Taylor in 1968 to Hourglass in 1997, is of a piece in both mood and lyrics; as soon as you hear that crisp fingerpicking guitar and resonant timbre, you know it’s him. At 53, Taylor has become part of the national landscape—never more apparent than on Oct. 20, when he sang ”Fire and Rain” at the Concert for New York City and transfixed an audience of firefighters and police, for whom the line ”I always thought that I’d see you again” couldn’t have cut deeper. ”The songs have this richness,” says Taylor’s friend and former guitarist Danny Kortchmar. ”They’re like Christmas carols. It sounds like they were written a hundred years ago.”

”He’s becoming a classic part of America,” says Peter Asher, his longtime and now former manager and producer. ”Comparing him to Frank Sinatra is not silly. He’s an icon of a certain era of American music.” And no one is more surprised than James Taylor that he has arrived at such a place.