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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Mack Wilberg acknowledges James Taylor during the 30th Anniversary O.C. Tanner Gift of Music Concert at the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.
I can’t tell you what it's like to have my songs performed by this choir. You can guess. —James Taylor

In a match that was years in the making, on a stage in the Salt Lake LDS Conference Center, two American icons formed an unlikely union, and the result was a remarkable night of music, with an encore still to come.

Who knew James Taylor and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would ever even appear in the same sentence, yet alone on the same stage, but there they were Friday night. Tonight they will do it all over again.

Taylor alternately teamed with the choir and the Utah Symphony to sing several of his classic songs — “Lonesome Road,” “Shower the People,” “My Traveling Star,” “And Shed a Little Light,” among others. He also delivered solo renditions of “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina in My Mind” and “Secret of Life,” as well as covers of two traditional songs, “Water is Wide” and “Getting to Know You.” He drew a standing ovation with his performance of "Shower the People."

The choir, striking an Americana theme, performed “Saints Bound for Heaven,” “Down to the River to Pray,” “When the Saints Go Marchin' In,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “It’s a Great Night for Singing.”

As he usually does, Taylor encored with a solo performance of “Sweet Baby James," the cowboy lullaby he wrote after the birth of his namesake nephew.

"I can’t tell you what it's like to have my songs performed by this choir," he told the audience. "You can guess."

For Taylor, the pairing with the choir was a long time coming. His friend John Williams, the legendary movie composer who worked with the choir during the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, urged him to perform with the choir. Says Taylor, “He told me, ‘Don’t hesitate; you must go and make this happen.’ He was so thrilled to work here.”

Choir officials have sought a partnership with Taylor “multiple times,” beginning as early as 2006. “It just took us a long time to find the date, and this was worth the wait,” said Taylor. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a national treasure and a great gift to the world.”

The pitch the choir uses to lure Taylor and other top (and expensive) artists to their stage is the same: The choir can’t pay the artists their normal fee, but singing with the choir is a bucket list item. As opera diva Frederica von Stade once told choir officials, “There are a few brass rings in life for a performer, and one of them is to perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”

The performance of Taylor, the symphony and the choir was a remarkable undertaking, especially considering the speed with which they had to coordinate and rehearse a small army of about 500 musicians. Arriving in town Wednesday afternoon, Taylor went right to work, practicing with his own band from 7 to 11 p.m. that evening in the Conference Center and then again the next morning with the symphony from 9 to 11:30, followed by another 7 to 9 session that night with the choir.

Before Taylor arrived, the choir managed five rehearsals of Taylor’s songs following their regular Sunday morning “Music and the Spoken Word” radio/TV broadcast. It was not a tough sell. Said one choir member, “We were singing ‘Shower the People,’ and I’m looking around to see if anyone else realizes how great this is. I’m living a dream. We were singing ‘Shed a Little Light’ — 360 voices doing these little licks perfectly together — and it gave me goose bumps. I hope I live through this. I swear I’m going to have a heart attack.”

Even director Mack Wilberg, the reserved, humble, 58-year-old classically trained musical whiz, was seen bobbing and weaving with the music while they practiced “Shed a Little Light.”

“He was almost dancing!” said one choir member.

“This has taken the choir a little out of the box but in a wonderful way,” says Wilberg. “The choir has really enjoyed it. In fact, I made them memorize (Taylor’s songs).”

Ron Jarrett, president of the choir, says he told choir members that it would “probably be OK” if they got into the spirit of Taylor’s music and nodded their heads and moved to the beat of the music. “What a mistake that was,” he joked. “They were practically dancing. Now I’m trying to calm them down.”

If the choir was moved by the collaboration, so was Taylor and his band. During Thursday night’s rehearsals of “That Lonesome Road,” the band was moved to tears, and afterward Taylor turned to Wilberg and said, “That song has died and gone to heaven.” At one point, Taylor turned and looked at the choir, mouth agape, and gave them a fist pump, and when practice was finished he gave them a bow.

The concert marked another milestone in the history of both the choir and Taylor. Both have evolved and done so gracefully. In the last decade or so, the choir has reached out to team with performers from outside the LDS Church — artists from opera, stage, pop, TV, movies, home and abroad, from Sissel to Audra McDonald to Sting (during the Olympics) and Rene Fleming — to take its reach worldwide and appeal to a broader demographic.

The Tanner Gift Foundation, the 30-year-old brainchild of O.C. Tanner and former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, provides another forum for such aspirations. It was designed to put the choir, the Utah Symphony and a guest artist on stage together and make it accessible, which means bringing in the occasional pop artist and providing tickets free to the public. Not surprisingly, free tickets to a James Taylor concert were swept up fast in an online lottery.

When someone has expressed surprise over the teaming of the choir with certain guests, Wilberg has a ready answer: “Our mandate is to sing for everyone. We don’t just sing for one group or sing one genre. … This is everybody’s choir.”

To many, Taylor seemed an odd fit for the button-down choir, but only for those who haven’t kept up with the troubadour. This is not your father’s James Taylor. From a troubled, shy, reticent youth whose struggles with drugs were well chronicled, he has evolved into a warm, thoughtful and beloved figure in America and abroad. He is everywhere, singing at presidential inaugurations, the NHL Winter Classic, political conventions, the World Series, the Academy Awards, the U.S. (tennis) Open, political fundraisers, the 9-11 Memorial, the Boston Marathon bombing memorial.

One day he is on stage with Taylor Swift (who was named after Taylor), and then the Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, Carole King, Yo Yo Ma, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, Zac Brown, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boys Choir of Harlem. He has become America’s singer-songwriter laureate.

Taylor’s music has stood the test of time, which accounts for his staying power and his appeal to a wide demographic — teens and retirees and everyone in between. How long has Taylor been around? He was actually discovered — with a “suitcase of songs and a guitar” — by the Beatles, who made him the first to sign with their new Apple record label.

“It’s been an incredible run,” said Taylor. “I never could have anticipated it. I never thought of myself surviving beyond a week. I never had any idea about a future, and to be 65 and do this, I marvel at it. I don’t understand it. It’s the nature of things that we are trapped in ourselves, and we try to get out of it and reconnect with what is all around us from this narrow place from which we experience our lives. … It’s amazing to live in here (he says this pointing to himself).”

Thirty years ago, Taylor kicked his drug habit by replacing it with exercise. Today he is a grandfather and 16 years into his marriage to Kim Smedvig (she performs with him occasionally); they have twin sons. The man who so often laments his wanderlust in his songs is a family man. On Friday he spoke of the need to get home to help with his children. When choir officials picked him up at the airport, he was talking on the phone with one of his sons.

Like the man himself, Taylor’s music has aged and matured nicely, but there was a maturity to it even in the early years. From the start he employed chamber orchestras and choirs or background singers, which made him a good fit for a collaboration with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

“My music has followed a number of different directions, and to a certain extent I’m chorale-focused in my music,” he says. “I’ve always worked with four and sometimes five other singers, and there’s a chorale aspect to my music that has been with me all along and has been growing. Some songs really want to be performed by a choir.” Referring to the choir’s rendition of “That Lonesome Road,” he said, “This is the iteration that was waiting to happen.”

With family duties calling and perhaps a sense of age and contentment, Taylor says he struggles to focus on writing new songs (he hasn’t recorded an album of original material since 2002). He says he is trying to finish a batch of songs, but is easily distracted — “Rearranging my sock drawer takes precedence,” he says. “I have to go into solitary, I have to sequester myself or get so bored I’ll actually write.”

Asked about his method of writing songs, he said, “It’s mysterious. I don’t have a method really. But I’ve got to clear out my head and my calendar enough to let it happen. I have to sit down and play an instrument. That’s the way it starts to come out. I don’t feel like I write songs; I’m just the first person to hear them. Initially, there’s a lightning strike, something that comes to you driving or walking or playing the guitar — it’s very unconscious. I collect those things by writing down the lyrics or making a small recording on a pocket recorder that is constantly with me, and then later I pursue them. It’s always a surprise. It’s the best thing there is for me, the most fulfilling.”

In the meantime, while waiting on his muse, Taylor is enjoying the latter stages of his remarkable career with a victory lap through many of America’s top artists, including the choir this weekend. “It’s fulfilling to be able to come to Salt Lake City and meet these wonderful people and be part of this community for a week or so,” he says. “It’s something I’ve looked forward to. It’s a delight and an honor.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: [email protected]