"It's sort of an amazing turn of events that he would cover a song that had been so much informed by him in the first place," Taylor says of their late-70s hit
Sweet Baby James and The Possum -- it sounds like a children's book title. But when James Taylor and George Jones encountered each other musically during the late 70s, for Jones' hit version of Taylor's "Bartender Blues," it became one of the earliest and most successful rock-country collisions.
Taylor tells Billboard he wrote "Bartender's Blues" for his 1977 "JT" album explicitly with Jones in mind. "He had a huge influence on me," Taylor recalls. "He's a real innovator and one of the most remarkable American singers anywhere. So I had written this song, 'Bartender's Blues,' as a tribute to him and with him in mind. It's got a predictable set of changes and a very simple song, but it was definitely 100 percent George Jones that I was trying to do -- like so many other people."
PHOTOS: Remembering The Possum
Taylor's version of was the B-side of his hit cover of the Otis Blackwell/JImmy Jones song "Handy Man." Jones, meanwhile, decided to record it and ultimately use "Bartender's Blues" as the title track for his 1978 album. The song hit No. 6 on the Country Singles chart, and Jones' producer Billy Sherrill subsequently invited Taylor to add his vocals to the track for yet another version that appeared on Jones' 1979 duets album "My Very Special Guests."
"It was like life imitates art," Taylor says now. "It's sort of an amazing turn of events that he would cover a song that had been so much informed by him in the first place. It was just perfect for me. And singing with his voice, singing with him on that track...Oh, man, it was great."
Taylor and Jones didn't meet, however, until "a number of years later," when Jones attended one of Taylor's concerts in Nashville. "We met backstage and then kept in touch basically a couple of times a year," Taylor says. "I'd get a letter or an e-mail, a Christmas card. His reaching out those few times really meant a lot to me."
Like so many others, Taylor -- who's also covered Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care" and "Why Baby Why" -- was sorrowed to hear the news of Jones' death on Friday but says he'll remember The Possum in only the most glowing of terms.
"His singing style is so amazingly controlled, so tight and so controlled that it makes the emotional content of whatever the song is so strong," Taylor explains. "It's hard to describe but it's so tight and so sculpted. It was just remarkable to hear someone make that sound with a human voice. And it sounded like someone singing who had listened to a lot of steel guitar, the way he bends notes and phrases. To me it sounds like a steel guitar in a human voice.
"I'm really going to miss George Jones. I'm gonna miss him a lot. But he recorded so much material that he's still with us, you know?"