Sweet Baby James: Benjamin Wagner’s “Forever Young” Track-By Track
Jeff Jacobson and Patrick Riley have never met, and are separated by a thousand miles of Heartland. Still, they helped me create one of the most-beautiful recordings of my life.
For nearly twenty years, I’ve described my brand of singer/songwriter fare as “Less James Taylor, More James Hetfield.” It’s a stretch for those who know my music, but a necessary recalibration for those who don’t and expect softly-strumming guitars and a gentle tenor.
That is, until lately. More and more over the last few years, I’ve let the distortion slip away from my songs. My guitar playing has evolved from brief, sustain-free chords (circa “Out Of Your Head”) to open strumming (circa “Almost Home”) to finger-picking. Likewise, my lyrics have evolved from dense clusters of seemingly disconnected symbols, to cogent thoughts. I am, perhaps, owning my inner James Taylor. And never more so than with “Forever Young.”
And so it seemed only natural to trot out the only JT song in my repertoire. Better still, “Sweet Baby James” is editorially salient; JT wrote the song for his older brother Alex’s brand-new son as he was driving through Carolina to meet his infant nephew for the first time. The song was the released in 1970, the title track to Taylor’s debut LP. Trouble is, I hadn’t played it in years. And I never played it well.
Cue the best guitar player I know and soon-to-be UES neighbor, Jeff Jacobson. Jeff came with his absolutely beautiful arrangement fully considered, his gently descending arpeggiation delicate, nuanced, and sure to soothe. He tracked in my Hell’s Kitchen studio, bagging a keeper in just three passes, then doubled it.
It wasn’t until a Sunday afternoon — Father’s Day, if I remember correctly — just a few days after Maggie’s birth that I began tracking the vocal. It was impossible for me to make through a verse without choking up, especially this section:
There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway
A song that they sing when they take to the sea
A song that they sing to their home in the sky
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep
Singing works just fine for me.
Everything’s more emotional these days. Maggie’s brand-new life casts terrific perspective on everything. Every song is sweeter. Every sunrise more sublime. And even more so with cello.
As if Jeff’s beautiful version wasn’t moving enough, Des Moines cellist Patrick Riley composed, produced and recorded a stunning string arrangement from a thousand miles away on zero guidance. Maggie was suffering a restless, nap-starved afternoon when Patrick’s file arrived one September Saturday afternoon. I pushed play, then danced slowly around the room, swaying to Jeff and Patrick’s beautiful recording. I sang softly to Maggie as streamed down my face. Her head fell gently to my shoulder, she sighed, and slipped off into dreams.
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“Forever Young” is a collection of all-star cover songs for the young and young at heart. Proceeds will be donated to The Fred Rogers Center and The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood. Though neither is affiliated with the project in any way, we believe strongly in supporting their efforts towards advancing early learning and children’s media. The complete “Forever Young” track list:
1 – Rainbow Connection (featuring Amber Rubarth)
2 – Forever Young (featuring Emily Easterly)
3 – The Only Living Boy In New York (featuring Chris Abad)
4 – Mr. Tambourine Man (featuring Bryan Dunn)
5 – You Are My Sunshine (featuring Jason Walsmith & Becca Smith)
6 – Sweet Baby James (featuring Jeff Jacobson)
7 – You’ve Got A Friend (featuring Mai Bloomfield)
8 – Golden Slumbers (featuring Casey Shea)
9 – Amazing Grace (featuring Jamie Leonhart)
10 – Moon River