I got my first guitar for Christmas way back in our nation’s bicentennial year. By the following May, I was performing on stage and had won my first talent show. In addition to starting to write my own songs, I was learning as many songs as possible by the singer-songwriters of the day: Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, CSNY, Cat Stevens, Simon (& Garfunkel), John Denver… but my main influence on playing acoustic guitar was James Taylor. He played guitar with a style all his own, in a fingerpicking style complete with moving bass lines, interesting chord progressions, and his signature hammer-ons and pull-offs. (I learned so much about music theory and guitar technique from teaching myself how to play JT songs.) He wrote inspiring, personal songs that became standards of the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s. Needless to say, I had every James Taylor album (for the younger readers, albums were round platters of black vinyl that were played on a turntable where a needle or stylus would track the vibrations embedded in the groove on each side of the record and electronically transmit them to amplifiers and speakers, producing music).

The first two times I saw James Taylor in concert, it was so long ago that he still had hair. It was around the 1979-81 timeframe, and he and his band gave a great show both times. I then managed to miss his tours for over a quarter-century, catching him again at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on his One Man Band tour. That was an intimate show with just James and his keyboardist Larry Goldings… and a large industrial motor- and belt-driven drum machine that made an amusing appearance on two songs. James performed stripped-down versions of his numerous classics complete with multimedia imagery and extended explanations of the inspirations and meanings behind the songs. Needless to say, it was another great show.

Fast-forward to 2014. James Taylor announced his summer tour with his All-Star Band… and it wasn’t coming anywhere near Florida. Damn. I would have to wait until the next time…

What I hadn’t imagined was the amazing gift that was coming my way.

I’ve known my friends Ruthanne and Bob since 1984. I did not know that they were patrons at Bethel Woods Center of the Arts … and that my summer would include a trip to New York, a visit to the field where Woodstock happened back in 1969, and a front row ticket to see James Taylor at Bethel Woods. There are a lot of great experiences that happened on that long weekend trip, and stories I’ll remember the rest of my life. But seeing James Taylor perform from the front row was an amazing experience. As it turned out, I hadn’t seen anything yet.

The show came to the intermission… but instead of walking off stage, James Taylor came to the edge of the stage and started signing autographs! And he was right there in front of me! I have to admit that this really didn’t catch me by surprise; I had heard JT was doing this at all his shows. I was ready with a couple of things for him to sign… and one thing I could give him. When it was my turn to get an autograph, I shook his hand and thanked him for all he did that inspired me to pursue my own more-than-30-year professional music career, and handed him a copy of one of my Keys Disease CDs. He was as gracious as he could have possibly been, genuinely interested in my brief little story, and thanked me for the CD. He put it in his pocket, where it remained for the second half of the concert. It was still in his back pocket when he left the stage.

Not every musician gets a chance to meet one of his idols, much less having a chance to thank him for all his inspiration. And I got an amazing selfie with James Taylor in the picture! It was an experience like no other, and another of those I’ll cherish for the remainder of my days. Thank you again, Ruthanne and Bob, for a summer concert experience I’ll never forget!

John Bartus is a singer-songwriter, Marathon City Council member and former Mayor, Chamber board member, and President of the Rotary Club of Marathon. John performs Friday at Hawks Cay Resort, Thursdays at Sparky’s Landing, and most Saturdays at the Key Colony Inn. Join John each Monday at Sparky’s for Monday Nite Madness. www.johnbartus.com 

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